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.
A Quiet Hero
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…
Prewitt's Last Stand
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.