Adapted from Rearden Connor’s novel, a teacher of surgery leads Irish revolutionaries in battles against the English occupation, and an American medical student becomes involved.
At Dublin in 1921 Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray) places flowers on a grave while a funeral procession passes by. Armed men in black come running, shoot, and arrest Joe Collins. A woman with flowers runs to Kerry and kneels, asking for his help. A policeman demands his identification and notices he is American. Kerry says he is a medical student. He says the woman is a friend of the family. Another policeman shows clothes they found, and the policeman says it means O’Leary and goes off with him. The woman offers her flowers to Kerry who thanks her. She puts them on the grave of Cathleen O’Shea who died in 1920.
A £1000 reward is offered for Michael O’Leary who is wanted for murder. A man comments he would get a firing squad as Joe Collins did this morning. Paddy sees his roommate Kerry, and they walk together. Paddy says he was reported as the American hero helping the Irish rebels; but Kerry says he is not going to join the organization because he had enough fighting in France. He does not believe violence is a solution.
They go into a classroom where students have written on the blackboard “Doctor Ireland.” They hear Lenihan is coming and scramble for seats. Professor Sean Lenihan (James Cagney) comes in and sees the board has “Black & Tan” written on it. He asks the artist O’Connor to remove the drawing. As Lenihan lectures on anatomy, Kerry touches a dove on the window sill. Lenihan predicts that a student will find the answer by practicing bird watching. He tells O’Shea that if he was on the operating table, he would not feel easy about O’Shea.
Kerry and Paddy are drinking at a bar, and a black and tan comes in with a rifle and knocks the cap off a man. He says O’Leary was reported to be there. He leaves, and Paddy gets angry. Paddy notes that Kerry spends his time with women.
In the street at night Paddy and Kerry discuss what happened to his O’Shea relative. They see a car blown up and try to run away. Paddy tries to rescue Kerry who has gone to a damaged bicycle. As they run away, Paddy is shot and collapses. Kerry runs back to him. Paddy says he is done and urges Kerry to go. A policeman shoots at Kerry and misses, and Kerry takes the rifle from him and helps Paddy escape. A book was left there. Kerry picks up Paddy and carries him into a building. He kicks a door, and Mrs. Madigan opens it. Kerry says he is hurt, and she lets them in. Mary Madigan (Marianne Benet) comes out of her room and says the nice-looking ones get hit. Kerry tears Paddy’s clothes and sees the wound. He tells Paddy it will take a surgeon. Paddy asks for Lenihan, and the young woman says she will get him and goes out.
Later Clancy (Harry Corbett) comes in, followed soon after by Mary and Lenihan. Clancy tells Mary that he warned her to stay out of it. He threatens her with his fist and asks what if the black and tans come in. She says she knows what he wants. Lenihan treats Paddy, and Kerry assists him with the instruments during the operation. Paddy says he is sorry and dies. Lenihan straightens his body and closes his eyes, covering him. Lenihan says he was a poor student but a good soldier. Kerry says it does not matter. Lenihan says the tans will go to Kerry’s place to question him. Kerry says he left his textbook there with his name in it. Lenihan tells him to stay at headquarters for a while. Lenihan holds a pistol in Clancy’s face and orders him never to come back there or say a word. Lenihan rips off Mary’s necklace and says she will not keep her appointment that night nor any night. She asks what else she could have done. Lenihan says they are fighting to keep Ireland a good place to live.
Lenihan and Kerry walk in a dark street and go to a basement where machinery is running. Lenihan asks them if everything is ready. He gives instructions to make their move after the car turns on to a road. He says they have to get the plans, what they are doing at Dublin castle. Lenihan tells Jim to get started. Lenihan tells another man to go get Paddy and arrange for boys to find him. Kerry asks if that is how they bury their heroes. Lenihan asks Kerry what he did in the Great War when someone died next to him. He says they are underground and have to accept death as it comes. He asks Kerry to join them or they will help him leave and go back to America. Kerry says he will not do any more killing. Lenihan tells Michael O’Leary (Niall MacGinnis) to give Kerry a drink. Kerry drinks, and O’Leary asks how far have they come with all the dead.
Lenihan takes Kerry into a cave to meet with the general (Michael Redgrave) who says they fought side by side for something real. He says Kerry’s father got the bullet meant for him. McGrath is brought in, and he says he killed her after she opened the door. He is upset and was wandering. The general says a good man is dead because of her. McGrath admits he wants to resign, and the general asks where he wants them to send his body. He swore the oath and cannot get out. He asks if he wants to withdraw his resignation, and McGrath says yes and goes out. The general tells Kerry these things have to be done because they are outnumbered. The general says Kerry can stay there until the commandant can get him safely out of Ireland if that is what he wants. Kerry and Lenihan leave the cave.
An old man is driving Lenihan and Kerry, and they meet a car. The driver asks Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) if she is going to Dublin. She never misses the rose show and hopes to win the grand prize.
The truck pulls in to a village, and they see a man with a rifle. Chris Noonan (Cyril Cusack) welcomes them and says they made good time. He orders the truck unloaded, and men uncover a cache of rifles.
In a farmhouse Lenihan sees Terence O’Brien (Richard Harris) and orders Kitty Brady (Glynis Johns) to get out. Lenihan reminds Chris that they are all on-the-run and could be shot. Chris says they sometimes need a woman’s company. She comes out and asks Lenihan what kind of woman he wants. She says she can be trusted and took an oath. Lenihan warns her to keep away. She tells Kerry he can go to Donovan’s pub. Kerry says he has not taken the oath, and she says she could find personal reasons for him. Lenihan tells Kerry he is operating and is sorry Kerry will miss it. He says he will be a good doctor someday. Kerry thanks him for his father, and they shake hands before Lenihan leaves. Kerry tells Chris he cannot figure Lenihan out. O’Brien and two men come in, and Chris introduces them and shows Kerry a bed he can use. O’Brien talks contemptuously about Kerry who refuses to fight, but then suddenly he hits O’Brien twice, knocking him down. Kerry says when the boat comes, he will go.
Outside Kerry talks with Chris who advises him not to let O’Brien get him down. They admire the scenery. Chris says he writes poems in Gaelic and has become a farmer while on the run. A man calls Chris inside because they learned O’Sullivan has broken out of Dublin castle.
Inside they talk about the news. Chris says Lady Fitzhugh is bringing back the grand prize, O’Sullivan. Chris says they are to take no weapons. Chris asks Kerry to make a journey, and he agrees to go and help a wounded man.
At Donovan’s pub Kitty behind the bar talks to Kerry. Two trucks arrive and block the road, stopping Lady Fitzhugh. She objects to being stopped, and they make a quick search. She says she does not have the key to the trunk. She invites them to come home with her. A dog barks at the trunk, and they break into the trunk. Inside it Liam O’Sullivan (Noel Purcell) has a pistol and shoots a soldier and is shot by other soldiers. The officer has a soldier take over her car and orders him to drive her to Dublin castle. In the pub Chris, O’Brien, and Kerry are questioned by the soldiers. They begin to search, and O’Brien removes a pistol from his pants, and a bartender covers it. To distract them Kitty asks the captain if he is going to search her. O’Brien accidentally knocks the gun on the floor, and Kerry puts his foot on it. The captain picks it up and asks Kerry where he got it. They take Kerry to the barracks. O’Brien says, “Why not? Better him than me.” Kitty throws a drink in his face.
Kerry is being interrogated and beaten, but he says nothing.
Lenihan in an army uniform orders Cassidy and O’Brien to strip the place so that no sign of there being there remains. Chris and a young driver also wear uniforms.
At night the guards let Captain Lenihan in the truck through the gate. They knock on a door, and Lenihan says they came for the prisoner. Once inside, they aim guns and take control. Lenihan finds Kerry unconscious, and the black and tan says someone else did it. Lenihan asks who did it, and the soldier says it was Col. Smithson. Lenihan hits him with his pistol for watching it happen. They put soldiers in the black uniforms in the cell.
Outside another truck arrives, and they shoot at the larger truck that is leaving. The smaller truck is destroyed. They get away, and Lenihan asks Kerry if he told them anything. He shakes his head, and Lenihan says they will get the man who did it.
Messages are passed by code with lights to a small ship. They help Kerry into a building by a lighthouse. Lenihan tells O’Brien to bring his kit. Lenihan gives Kerry whiskey. Lenihan says the boat is waiting, and Kerry says he is not going. Lenihan asks if he knows what that means. Kerry says he will take the oath. Lenihan tells Chris there are no passengers.
Chris and Kerry look at the ocean and talk. Kitty finds them and says Tony Connor told her where they were. She says they are offering a reward for Chris. He goes to alert Lenihan. She tells Kerry she thought about him. Kerry says when he was tortured, he thought of her beauty. He says he is grateful and kisses her.
A judge sentences Lady Fitzhugh for helping O’Sullivan escape. He notes that she has refused food and advises her against a hunger strike. She says her next meal will be in her home at Fitzhugh castle. She asks what an English judge is doing in an Irish court. He sentences her to two years in prison.
Lenihan tells others about her and says they are going to take her home. He says they will take a hostage and trade her. He suggests the daughter of Sir Arnold Fielding.
Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter) says goodbye to her father Arnold Fielding (Clive Morton) and goes in a car with Captain Fleming (Alan White). They pass road-workers who signal to others. The car is stopped by a worker, and Lenihan with a gun gets in. Kerry gets in and drives. They are stopped and questioned by a sergeant who lets them through. After they have passed, the sergeant learns they are suspicious and shoots. They drive off and stop where Chris, O’Brien, and another have them get out. Lenihan tells Fleming to go back to Dublin and says the man will get his daughter back. Fleming says she needs medical attention, and O’Brien says the best teacher in the college will take care of her. Lenihan says he cost the captain his life. Fleming tries to grab a rifle, and Kerry kills him.
Lenihan washes his hands and treats Jennifer’s wound on her back. She declines whiskey, and Kerry suggests she hold on to his hand. Lenihan takes the bullet out, and she reacts in pain. She says this makes them feel like doctors instead of murderers. Kerry tells others she will be fine.
Kerry and Lenihan talk outside while looking at the sea. Kerry did not like killing an unarmed man. Lenihan says they are fighting uniforms that are blocking Ireland’s freedom. Kerry doubts winning a war is worth it if you lose mercy. Lenihan says Kerry is like his father and asks him to stay in his place until they have won.
High officers are sitting around a table with Arnold Fielding discussing how to get his daughter back. Col. Smithson (Christopher Rhodes) says his black and tans came to Ireland to do a job, and he will do it his way. He says he will find her if he has to burn their houses. A sergeant comes in and tells Smithson he has a call; they found Captain Fleming.
In a hospital Smithson visits Fleming, and the doctor warns him Fleming is very weak. Smithson asks who shot him.
While performing surgery Lenihan lectures the doctors who are assisting and watching. Three soldiers come in, and Lenihan tells his nurse to warn them the patient may suffer fatal infection from any delay. The leader says there is no other exit, and they go outside the door. Lenihan says they must be prepared for the unexpected. The door opens and a doctor wheels out the patient. The officer asks for Lenihan and orders their masks removed.
In another room Lenihan gets up from being below the patient.
The general tells Lenihan he will have to stay there with the moles. The general says they hope to get Smithson. He says the British prime minister is negotiating a treaty. Lenihan asks what kind. The general says dominion status would be peace with honor. Lenihan asks if that is what they have been fighting for. The general says they would be ruling themselves for the first time in 700 years. Lenihan calls it surrender, but the general says it is a start. Lenihan warns him that half the IRA will reject such a treaty and that it will lead to an even worse civil war. Lenihan tells him not to settle for less than a republic. He says they have them on the run. The general says they must end it and will get general amnesty and their own parliament. What use is a republic if there is no one left? Lenihan says they would fight to the last man.
Kerry comes in and asks Jennifer if she is feeling pain. She says no and shows him her back. He says her bandage can come off tomorrow. He asks if Captain Fleming meant anything to her. He says he is alive, and he is glad. He says he does not enjoy killing people. She still considers him a savage; she lost her husband. He says he may care if she dies. She realizes that if Lady Fitzhugh dies, she would die. He disagrees and says she will not be harmed. She says he is a soldier and will do what he is told. He gives her his promise, and she asks why he does that. He says maybe he is not a good soldier and goes out.
Kerry talks with Chris who reflects on the crazy situation. Kerry asks what Lenihan would do if Lady Fitzhugh dies. Chris advises him not to think about that.
Kitty asks a driver if Jennifer is pretty, and he tells her not to think of her.
High on the lighthouse Jennifer asks Kerry why he came to Ireland. He says he came to study surgery where his father studied. He hopes to return to America and become a doctor. She says in another situation with him she could feel romantic. He kisses her, and she says it is hopeless and confused. She suggests they could get away, and she could join him in America. He realizes her scheme and asks how far she would have gone. He says there was something there to believe and kisses her again.
Chris thanks Kitty for bringing things. Kerry and Jennifer come down the stairs, and Chris says they brought clothes for her. Kitty says she will look like a woman in a pub. Jennifer thanks her. Lenihan comes in and says they are going after Smithson in the morning. He explains the plan.
In another room Kitty hears them and tells Jennifer the commandant is there. Kitty goes into the other room, and Lenihan demands to know how much she heard. He orders her to stay there until they get back. The men review what they each will do. Lenihan says Smithson’s saying goodbye and saluting is the signal.
An old man takes a pot of tea to Kitty and Jennifer. Kitty tells her that they are planning a raid with Kerry. Kitty knows she likes Kerry by how they avoided looking at each other.
Later Jennifer is asleep, and Kitty gets up and goes in the other room where the men are sleeping. She goes outside and is stopped by O’Brien. She says she is going to the beach for a swim. He asks for more than her word and lets her pass. On the beach Kitty puts her clothes back on. She sees Lenihan and asks how long he has been watching her. He says he wanted to see if she was leaving. She says he wants her and asks why he never tried. She says they would not know now. He grabs her by the throat and orders her to go away and never come back and never say anything, or he will find her.
Kitty goes to Donovan’s pub, and Donovan says they wrecked his place when he would not tell them where she was. He says they know she has something to do with it. She is terrified she might talk under torture. He tells her to leave on a boat and go to his sister, and he gives her money for the boat.
Chris is reading a book, and others wait silently. Kerry knocks and checks on Jennifer who is in bed. She asks if he is going, and he nods. She asks if there will be killing, and he says yes. She feels they will not see each other again. They hear something, and he says he will be back.
Chris asks Lenihan if this could be the last time because of a treaty. Lenihan says that is the talk of traitors who would sell out Ireland to the enemy. He says they will keep fighting and kill the traitors. Kerry tells Chris that Lenihan does not want it to end.
At a dock cargo is being loaded on a ship. Lenihan acts as the foreman, and others work. Kitty asks for steerage to Liverpool and pays for a ticket. She goes to board, and soldiers stop her. Lenihan and others see her. She says she has not done anything. An officer asks her about the others. O’Brien sees her and reacts. She tries to distract them, but the officer orders O’Brien arrested. Others assume she turned them in. A car arrives with Smithson, and a soldier tries to warn him to get back in the car. Lenihan shoots a soldier by the car, and a gun battle begins. O’Brien gets a gun, kills soldiers, and is shot dead. Kitty tries to run away and tells Lenihan not to shoot. He shoots her, and she says she didn’t tell them. She collapses, and Kerry goes to her. The shooting continues as Kerry escapes in the water. Lenihan rolls a hand grenade under a tank that blows it up.
At night Kerry goes to a building where others are hiding. He asks how many they lost and takes a drink. They lost O’Brien and Tommy Connor, and Kerry says Kitty. They say it is over now because of the truce. The general says he is going to London with a safe conduct. He says the fight will be over by dawn, and it has been a long time coming. A radio message arrives that Lady Fitzhugh is dead. Lenihan tells Jennifer, hands her a Bible and leaves the room. Lenihan comes down the stairs, and Chris says this cannot bring back Lady Fitzhugh. Lenihan says they have no choice.
Lenihan takes Jennifer outside. A man tells Kerry, and he runs with a gun to the hill. He sees Lenihan and shouts to him. He says there is a truce, and there will be a treaty. He accuses Lenihan of a private war and killing for the sake of killing. Lenihan asks Chris if he is with him. He and the others do not take his side. He calls them all traitors. He turns to Jennifer, and Kerry points his gun at Lenihan who asks if he will kill him. Lenihan turns around and points his gun at Kerry who shoots him, shouting, “I am not going to fight your war.” Kerry looks at the pistol and throws it in the ocean.
This drama depicts an Irish revolt against the occupation by imperial Britain. They use guerilla tactics to try to win their freedom, but they are outnumbered by a powerful nation. An American who wants to be a doctor gets pulled into the struggle and wishes they would nonviolent means to gain their independence.