Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is a born fighter—but he doesn't want to fight. He'd rather play the bugle. (We don't blame him: bugles are way cooler than cauliflower ear.)
After accidentally blinding a friend in the ring, Prewitt gives up boxing and pursues his bugling skills instead. When his old troop passes him up and doesn't acknowledge his bugling ability (aww), he requests a transfer and gets shipped out to Hawaii, where he runs into his old friend Angelo Maggio at Schofield Barracks. Unfortunately, his reputation as a great boxer follows him.
The company's leader, Captain Holmes, wants Prewitt to fight in an army boxing tournament to raise the profile of his company. When Prewitt refuses and explains what happened with the whole blinding-thing, Holmes is unmoved. He sics his goons on Prewitt, urging other soldiers to give him "The Treatment"—punishing him for no reason, blaming him for things, and generally making his life hell.
But Prewitt won't budge. He says at one point,
"A man don't go his own way, he's nothing."
This isn't just stubbornness on Prewitt's part—though he totally has very set and definite ideas about who he is and what he'll do. Boxing has become repulsive to him after blinding his friend, and at this point, he'd rather be the victim of violence than someone dispensing it. He's also under no obligation whatsoever to join this boxing club, and Captain Holmes mainly just wants him to do it so that Holmes can get a feather in his cap… since one of his soldiers will probably win the tournament.
Maggio is Prewitt's only real ally, although some of the other soldiers seem sympathetic. Sergeant Warden doesn't necessarily want to give Prewitt "The Treatment," but he goes along with it anyway, not wishing to displease Captain Holmes. At one point, instead of court-martialing Prewitt, Warden recommends doubling his punishment instead—technically not as bad, but still not right.
Prewitt is pretty quiet and reserved—though that might partly be the effect of having everyone hate on him all the time. He can play the bugle soulfully, and we're meant to understand that he's really good.
It seems like music has become his alternative to boxing—instead of bashing people's faces, he'd prefer to play jazz. (He's very proud of having played "Taps" in front of the President at Arlington National Cemetery).
Eventually, Maggio drags him to a club called The New Congress Club in Honolulu—it seems like a brothel (and was one in the book), but in the movie they couldn't really say "brothel" because of the pesky Hollywood censors. There, Prewitt starts to fall in love with one of the "hostesses"—Lorene.
As their relationship deepens, Lorene eventually admits that she doesn't want to marry Prewitt because she wants to find a "proper" husband and live a "proper" life. Also, her name isn't really Lorene—it's Alma. Naturally, Prewitt's kind of disappointed, but they stick together for the present. Holmes seems disappointed by this, but he's grown used to sometimes brutal, practical financial realities. He doesn't have enough money to support Alma the way she wants to be supported—but his identity as a "dog soldier" is too deeply engrained, and too much of a badge of pride. He can't sacrifice that identity for her.
One of Holmes' henchmen bullies Prewitt, which provokes him to break his vow against fighting. He beats Galovitch in an impromptu fight on the field—and the incident is seen by the base commander, who ends up forcing Holmes to resign for bullying Prewitt. Things seem to be looking up…
Unfortunately, Prewitt's friend Maggio ends up getting sent to the stockade (before Prewitt's fight with Galovitch) and beaten up by Sgt. Judson. Maggio manages to escape… only to promptly die from the abuse. Prewitt decides to fight Judson in an alley—not kill him—but when Judson draws a knife, it morphs into a more deadly form of combat. Judson dies, and Prewitt is badly wounded. He goes AWOL and hides out with Alma and her roommate.
This demonstrates Prewitt's deep devotion to Maggio. Maggio was the only soldier who stuck up for Prewitt and shared his punishments with him—voluntarily. Prewitt owes him—he has to stick out his neck for Maggio and his memory. This sense of justice and honor is part of Prewitt's personal code as a soldier. His loyalty to Maggio runs as deep as his loyalty to the army itself.
While he's recovering, the attack on Pearl Harbor happens. He staggers out to join his comrades. As he leaves, Alma questions his continuing devotion to the army despite how badly it's treated him. He says,
"A man loves a thing, that don't mean it's gotta love him back."
As he tries to join his company's position, soldiers, mistaking him for an invading Japanese soldier, shoot and kill him.
Standing over his dead body, Sgt. Warden pays him a fitting tribute:
"Sir, this man was a good soldier. He loved the Army more than any soldier I ever knew. I would like to make a formal request that this body be buried in the Army's permanent cemetery at Schofield Barracks."
Let's hope they buried him with his bugle, and not his boxing gloves.
Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) is a complicated guy. On the one hand, he's tough—but he also doesn't want to step on his commanding officer's toes (despite despising him… and sleeping with his wife). In another movie, he'd be despicable. But in this one, he's just all too human.
His toughness becomes more visible at the end of the movie, when Warden takes charge of the men and helps them shoot down a Japanese plane. At the beginning his tough-guy attitude emanates more through the way he talks, and through the physical presence of Burt Lancaster.
At the beginning of the movie, Warden goes along with Captain Holmes' plan to force Robert E. Lee Prewitt to box by giving him "The Treatment" (i.e. consistently abusing him). At one point, Holmes wants to court-martial Prewitt, but Warden suggests doubling up punishment instead. This might be preferable to a court-martial since that's a criminal trial—but it's still not exactly fair, right, or compassionate.
And Warden clearly feels like the whole "Treatment" thing is wrong—which becomes more obvious as the movie progresses. Overall, his actions seem to emanate more from his philosophy: in the army, the individual doesn't count—you need to obey the wishes of your officer, even if they are ridiculous. But Warden comes to see that it's really the soldierly principles of honor and fairness that matter… not blind obedience to a corrupt superior.
Later on, Warden acts nicer to Prewitt, and after Prewitt beats one of Holmes' cronies in a fight, Warden and Prewitt get drunk together and act like friends. So there aren't really any hard feelings, it seems.
At the same time, Warden starts conducting an affair with Captain Holmes' wife, Karen. After paying a visit, and hitting on her at home, Warden meets up with Karen at the beach. She initially seems a little resistant—but gives in when they have the following exchange:
WARDEN: You think I'd be here if I thought it was a mistake? Taking a chance on twenty years in Leavenworth for making dates with the company commander's wife? And her acting like—like Lady Astor's horse, and all because I got here on time!
KAREN: Well, on the other hand, I've got a bathing suit under my dress…
WARDEN: Me too!
This conversation is basically the Oahu equivalent of "let me slip into something a little more comfortable."
They then share an iconic movie moment, making out on the beach as a wave crashes over them. But this ain't happily ever after in Hawaii—Warden starts to act all uneasy about Karen's romantic career. She's apparently had other affairs before, and Warden seems put off by this.
When she explains her open relationship with the adulterous Capt. Holmes, and how he was responsible for her stillborn child, Warden softens up. He gets that her affairs are the byproduct of loneliness and a search for something real—which is what Warden is looking for too. Aww, those crazy kids. They continue to sneak around, carrying out their affair on the sly.
Karen Holmes wants Warden to apply to become an officer, so she can marry a man who's a bit more well off—once she divorces Holmes. But Warden isn't crazy about becoming an officer. He knows what he's good at, and that's being a sergeant. When the Pearl Harbor invasion happens, Warden takes charge, demonstrating his flair for combat and his leadership skills.
Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) is basically the most desperate of all desperate housewives: she hates her hubby, is bored out of her skull at home, is depressed that she can't have children, and basically is looking for a better life than the one she has… which probably involves a lot of Hawaiian-print decorating schemes.
However, Karen Holmes isn't just bored and lonely—her life has been nearly ruined by her terrible marriage to Captain Holmes. Holmes is a serial adulterer, cheating on Karen over and over again. It's through his drunken inattention that she loses her baby… and is told that she'll never conceive again.
After this tragedy, Karen starts to cheat on Holmes in return—which, you could argue, isn't really cheating, since Karen remains the one who's been totally and persistently betrayed. Sgt. Warden gets interested in Karen and stops by her place to hit on her—but he gets a bigger dose of "reality" than he probably bargained for. Warden tries out one of his (cheesy) pickup lines, and Karen hits back with a revealing speech:
WARDEN: No— it's just that I hate to see a beautiful woman goin' all to waste.
KAREN: Waste, did you say? Now that's a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You're probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance, what about the house without a child? There's one sort for you.
Yowch. This grimmer-than-grim speech gets us every time.
Warden and Karen continue to sneak around, at potential peril to them both—Warden could actually end up in prison for sleeping with an officer's wife.
Karen comes up with a plan: she's wants Warden to apply to become an officer, so she can divorce Captain Holmes and marry him (without losing any quality of life). But Warden is reluctant, as this doesn't really fit his self-image.
Karen's fate ends up being a tragic one. After Pearl Harbor, Warden definitively abandons any thought of becoming an officer, and Karen has to travel back to the mainland U.S. with her resigned, disgraced husband.
Yet she looks back on Hawaii wistfully from her ship. Maybe, when the war is over, she'll come back and do some more beachside smooching with Warden. Symbolically, it all depends on whether the flower garland she releases from the ship will float out to sea or back to the shore of Oahu.
Alma Burke (Donna Reed)—who goes by the assumed name "Lorene" for most of the movie—is a hooker with a heart of gold. Sort of. She isn't really a hooker, because the ratings systems of the 1950s weren't cool with that. And she doesn't really have a heart of gold… she's more of just a ruthless pragmatist.
Let's call her a hostess with a heart of sterling silver.
Alma works as a hostess at The New Congress Club. As soon as Robert E. Lee Prewitt sees her, he's all about it, turning down various other hostesses who want to hang out with him at this not-really-a-brothel.
Yet, when "Lorene" starts hanging out and flirting with other dudes, Prewitt throws a little hissy fit. But Lorene's genuinely interested in him, too, and they end up sharing a martini upstairs. The relationship is pleasant and easy—and starts to get more serious when Prewitt tells her about how the other guys are giving him "The Treatment." She empathizes.
Later, as they hang out more, things start to get complicated. Prewitt wants to marry Lorene, who reveals that she's really named Alma (Mrs. Kipfer, the club owner, picked the name Lorene for her from a French perfume ad). But she doesn't want to: Prewitt, being but a humble private, can't give her the financial security she so deeply desires. In the past, when she lived in her home state of Oregon, a boyfriend she thought was in love with her ditched Alma, leaving her for a richer girl with more status. This steeled Alma's resolve to live the good, or "proper" life. She tells Prewitt:
ALMA: In a year I'll have enough money saved. I'm going back to my hometown in Oregon. I'll build a house for mother and myself. Join the country club and take up golf. I'll meet the proper man with the proper position. I'll make a proper wife who can run a proper home, raise proper children. I'll be happy because when you're proper, you're safe.
But since Alma's lonely, she still wants Prewitt to be her boyfriend on a more temporary basis. He goes along with it. But when Prewitt gets badly injured in a knife fight, killing his opponent (Sgt. Judson), he goes AWOL and runs to Alma. She takes care of him as he tries to recover from his injuries, demonstrating that she really does like him, despite her greater social aspirations.
But this pleasant idyll is interrupted when the Japanese surprise attack Pearl Harbor. Despite Alma's protests, Prewitt leaves to rejoin his unit. At this point, having spent so much time with Prewitt and having seen his personal courage, she really is in love with him. She begs him not to go and says she'll marry him. The relationship has deepened to the point that she's willing to sacrifice the financial support she's always dreamed about for love. Unfortunately, he leaves, and his own comrades end up shooting him. He dies.
Alma catches a boat out of Hawaii and ends up chatting with Karen Holmes. She tells Karen a made-up story about how Prewitt died—saying that he was her fiancé and a bomber pilot. She's imagining that she already had the proper life she always dreamed about—a bittersweet illusion.
But when she tells Karen Prewitt's name, it sparks a look of recognition in her eyes. Warden's already told Karen all about Prewitt—and she knows the true story. But she keeps quiet, leaving Alma with her dreams—which is all she has in the end, although there's a chance she might somehow manage to find a "proper" life back on the mainland.
Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) is Prewitt's loudmouth best friend. He's a good guy—in fact, one of the only guys who overtly sticks up for Prewitt—but his vibrantly cocky attitude gets him into trouble again and again. And again.
But his benevolent attitude is demonstrated in this little exchange with another soldier, Corporal Buckley. The "good guy" in question is Prewitt:
MAGGIO: I just hate to see a good guy get it in the gut.
BUCKLEY: You better get used to it, kid.
Maggio drags Prewitt to the New Congress Club, a social club that seems a lot like a brothel (because it was one in the book), and ends up starting a dumb fight with Sgt. Judson for playing the piano too loudly and badly. This little tiff isn't the last interaction between them: after Judson checks out a photo of Maggio's sister at a bar the soldiers hang out in, and reacts inappropriately, they almost get into a knife fight.
It shows how Maggio is protective of his family and his loved ones—including his best friend, Prewitt. Despite Maggio's impulsiveness and his flaws, he really does care about other people—and is willing to take part in Prewitt's sufferings for no other reason than personal affection and maybe a sense of fairness. But after the failed knife-fight, there's worse to come.
One night Maggio is excited to have some time off—he's ready to go out on the town. But at the last second, he gets pulled into guard duty. He decides to abandon his post and go into town anyway, where he gets extremely drunk.
This is an idiotic move. It leads to a court-martial for going AWOL and lands him in the stockade under Judson's watch. Judson proceeds to beat him viciously over and over again. When Maggio finally escapes, he ends up dying from his injuries—leaving Prewitt to seek revenge.
That's Maggio, simultaneously kindly and too impulsive to preserve himself. He seems a little desperate, in a way—especially in the scene right before he's arrested. He runs away from guard duty in order to get way too drunk, openly challenging MPs to arrest him.
Even though he's one of the good guys, and is totally generous and kind in relation to Prewitt, there's something a little self-destructive about him. He picks fights with the exact wrong people—like Sgt. Judson—and goes AWOL in a way almost calculated to get him trouble. But in the end, his loyalty and propensity for friendship redeem him and make Prewitt willing to risk his own life for the sake of Maggio's memory.
Captain Dana "Dynamite" Holmes (Philip Ober) is thoroughly repulsive. There is nothing good about this dude. He's a creep who has no problem torturing a low-ranking soldier, Prewitt, for a trivial reason.
When Prewitt explains why he doesn't want to box anymore (he once blinded a friend in the ring), Holmes callously responds: "You might as well say stop war because one man got killed." Of course, a recreational sport is significantly different from a war… but not to an oafish gorilla like Holmes.
Holmes reacts to Prewitt's refusal by siccing his cronies on him. The other soldiers (with a few exceptions) all harass Prewitt for refusing to participate in the military boxing tournament. The abuse escalates, with Holmes forcing Prewitt to go on long marches up mountains and do extra chores.
Finally, Prewitt reaches breaking point when Sgt. Galovitch steps on his fingers and beats Galovitch to a pulp in a long fight. This dooms Holmes, since a high-ranking officer witnesses the fight and demands to know what caused it. When the truth comes out, Holmes is forced to resign his position.
And you know what? We didn't even cry.
But it's not just his subordinate soldiers whom Holmes mistreats—he acts horribly towards his wife, Karen, as well. He cheats on her constantly. At one point (before the action of the movie) he returns home drunk from an affair and passes out, leaving his wife to give birth to a stillborn baby without proper medical attention.
Seriously, this guy is so cartoonishly evil that we're surprised he's not stroking a white cat, twirling his moustache, and chuckling "Mwahaha."
When bullies grow up, we imagine they grow up to be a lot like Judson. Instead of pulling the wings off of flies, they're beating soldiers to death.
He doesn't start off seeming like such a bad guy, though. Sgt. Judson (Ernest Borgnine) likes to relax by loudly and badly playing the piano. What's wrong with that? Not necessarily anything—unless you're doing it loudly in a social club where people are trying to relax.
In a rash moment, Angelo Maggio berates Judson for his piano playing—spurring a conflict that won't end well for anyone. Judson is in charge of the stockade (i.e. jail) at the military base: he's not a good person to make enemies with.
Unfortunately, this enemy-ship escalates when Judson creepily admires a photo of Maggio's sister. It almost erupts into a knife fight, until Sgt. Warden makes peace. But Warden can't defuse the personal hatred. So when Maggio goes AWOL from his post, gets court-martialed, and is sent to the stockade, Judson has virtual free reign to beat the snot out of him… which he does, leaving bruises where they won't show. Classy dude.
Maggio escapes the stockade and dies of his injuries, leaving Prewitt to seek revenge. However, when Prewitt confronts Judson—intending to give him a presumably non-lethal beating—it quickly escalates into a full on Sharks vs. Jets-style knife fight. Prewitt kills Judson and Judson severely wounds Prewitt.
The moral of this story? Don't criticize sociopathic rageaholics' piano skills.