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In 1941, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), a bugler, is transferred from the Bugle Corps at Fort Shafter (giving up his corporal stripes) to a rifle outfit, Company "G," at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu. When Captain Dana "Dynamite" Holmes (Philip Ober) learns of his reputation as a talented boxer, he recommends that Prewitt join the regimental boxing club that he heads, and promises that Prewitt will be promoted to corporal or even sergeant, if he helps win the boxing trophy on December 15, but Prewitt refuses, though he keeps silent about his reasons. Holmes retaliates by making army life as miserable as possible for Prewitt, hoping he will give in. Unable to break Prewitt's spirit, Holmes orders First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) to prepare court martial papers. Warden, however, knowing of Holmes' treatment and realizing Prewitt is a career soldier, suggests that he try to entice Prewitt to change his mind by doubling up on company punishment. The other non-commissioned officers assist in the conspiracy. Prewitt is supported only by his friend, Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra).
Lancaster and Kerr in the iconic beach scene at Halona Cove, Oahu, Hawaii.Meanwhile, Warden begins an affair with Holmes' neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Sergeant Maylon Stark (George Reeves) has told Warden that Karen had many affairs at Fort Bliss, including with him. As their relationship develops, Warden asks Karen about her numerous affairs to test her sincerity with him. Karen relates that Holmes has been unfaithful to her most of their marriage. She miscarried one night when Holmes came back from one affair drunk, and unable to assist her to the hospital. She then affirms her genuine love for Warden.
Prewitt and Maggio spend their liberty time at the New Congress Club, a gentlemen's club where Prewitt meets and falls for Lorene (Donna Reed). Prewitt confides to Lorene the reason he refuses to box for the company is that he blinded Dixie Wells, a close friend while sparring. Maggio encounters Sergeant Judson (Ernest Borgnine) at the club. When Maggio complains that Judson's piano playing is interfering with his dancing, the two nearly come to blows. Maggio is told that Judson is the Sergeant of the Guard at the stockade.
Later, at a tavern called "Choy's," located near the base, Judson sees Maggio holding a photograph of his family. Judson makes an rude comment to Prewitt about Maggio's sister causing Maggio to smash a bar stool over Judson's head. Judson pulls a switchblade on Maggio, but Warden, sitting in a corner, intervenes to save Maggio by telling Judson that killing Maggio would "create two weeks of paperwork" for him. When Judson advances on Warden with the knife, Warden breaks a beer bottle in two and uses the jagged edge as a weapon. Judson retreats, throws down his knife and goes to the bar for a drink. However, he warns Maggio that sooner or later Maggio would end up in the stockade and he would be there waiting for him.
Karen tells Warden that if he became an officer, she could divorce Holmes and they could return to the States and marry. Warden is not keen on the idea because of his dislike of officers, but agrees to consider the matter. Prewitt manages a weekend pass, courtesy of Warden, and goes to meet Lorene who is too busy at the club to talk. However, she meets him later at a bar for a drink. He tells Lorene he loves the Army, and shows Lorene his prized possession, a bugle mouthpiece. Prew tells her the honor of his lifetime, being selected to play Taps at Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day with the President in attendence. Maggio then walks in drunk and in uniform, explaining that he was assigned to guard duty that night, but deserted his post. Lorene encourages Prewitt to take Maggio back to the base. While Prewitt is calling for a cab, Military Police arrive and arrest Maggio, and he is sentenced to six months in the stockade.
Matters come to a head for Prewitt when Sergeant Galovitch picks a fight with Prewitt while on yard detail, and the two come to blows. At first, Galovitch repeatedly pummels Prewitt, who initially refuses to fight back, and then resorts to using only body blows. But as Galovitch and others watching continue taunting him, Prewitt's fighting side re-emerges, and Prewitt comes close to knocking Galovitch out before Holmes (observing from outside the crowd) finally steps in and stops the fight. When Galovitch falsely accuses Prewitt of insubordination, Holmes is about to punish Prewitt again until the man in charge of the detail says that it was Galovitch, not Prewitt, who was spoiling for the fight. But instead of punishing Galovitch, Holmes abruptly lets him off the hook and disperses the crowd. The entire incident is witnessed by the base commander, who orders an investigation by the Inspector General. When Holmes' true intentions are revealed to the commander, he orders a court-martial. When Holmes begs for an alternative, the commander's aide suggests that Holmes resign his commission "for the good of the service" and leave the Army, which the general accepts with dispatch. Holmes' replacement, Captain Ross, verbally reprimands the others involved, and then orders Sergeant Galovitch's demotion to private and put in charge of the latrine.
Maggio manages to escape from the stockade and find Prewitt and dies in his arms after telling of the abuse he suffered from Judson in the stockade. The following night Prewitt plays taps as tears stream down his cheeks. Seeking revenge, Prewitt tracks down Judson in town and invites him into a back alley to talk, then attacks him using the very same switchblade Judson had pulled on Maggio earlier. Prewitt kills Judson, but not before sustaining a serious stomach wound. Prewitt runs from the alley and goes into hiding at Lorene's apartment. Despite Prewitt's AWOL status, his platoon sergeant carries him "present" for three days at Warden's direction. Lorene, whose real name is Alma, tends to Prewitt's wounds.
When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, Prewitt, still weak from his unhealed wound, finds out about the attack, and attempts to return to camp under cover of darkness, but is shot dead by a sentry. Warden identifies the body, laments Prewitt's stubbornness and states the irony that because of the attack, the boxing tournament is cancelled.
Holmes' resignation results in Karen having to return to the States with him. When she finds out that Warden failed to apply for officer status, she realizes they will never be together.
At the end, Lorene and Karen meet on a ship leaving for the mainland. Karen then tosses two leis into the water. She tells Alma, "There's a legend: if they float to shore, you'll return to Hawaii. If they float out to sea, you'll never return." Alma says she will never return, telling Karen that her fiancé was an Army Air Corps pilot killed in a B-17 during the attack, "he was awarded the Silver Star, they sent it to his mother. She wrote me. She wanted me to have it. They are very fine people, Southern people. He was named after a general. Robert E. Lee... Prewitt." Karen recognizes Prewitt's name from conversations with Warden. Lorene holds Prewitt's treasured bugle mouth piece.