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After two years in a Korean prisoner of war camp, decorated war hero Capt. Edward Worthington Hall, Jr. returns to the Travis Air Force Base hospital in San Francisco, where psychiatrist Maj. Byron Phillips interviews him about his experience. Still in shock from suffering at the hands of his Chinese interrogators, Ed can only admit to being scared of returning home. Later at the hospital, Ed's brother's widow, Aggie, attempts to show the returning hero affection, although an uncomfortable Col. Edward Hall, Sr. is distant towards his only remaining son. Days later, attorney Maj. Sam Moulton reluctantly agrees to prosecute Ed, one of a number of prisoners of war accused of treason. The night before Ed is expected to return home, Aggie admits to neighbor Caroline that Ed's homecoming is a painful reminder of losing her husband Pete to the war. The next day, after he learns from Moulton that he is being brought before the Court Martial Board, Ed arrives home to a surprise party. Overwhelmed by the crowd, Ed retires to the kitchen, where Aggie comments on his vulnerability. Ed admits that during the war he began to exhibit some of his mother's sensitivity and laments that he, not Pete, returned from the war. After the party, Col. Dudley Smith finds Ed, Sr. happy about his son's return and, realizing that his friend is unaware of the court martial, informs him that his son is being accused of collaborating with the enemy. Outraged, Ed, Sr. confronts Ed, who admits to the charges, but bitterly defends his actions. The next morning, defense council Lt. Col. Frank Wasnick finds Ed in a hotel room ready to plead guilty, but Wasnick assures Ed that most men would have crumbled under the duress he experienced in Korea. Weeks later on the first day of the trial, Aggie arrives at the courthouse to support Ed, but his father, refusing to believe in Ed's innocence, does not. After Ed pleads not guilty to the charges, enlisted man Millard Chilson Cassidy, who was imprisoned with Ed at Camp Five in Pyoktong, North Korea in the winter of 1951, testifies that Ed threatened an injured soldier and claimed that it gave him "most honorable happiness and joy" to lecture the soldiers on "being nice to the Chinese." Second witness Sgt. Otto Pahnke testifies that Ed attempted to get soldiers to sign surrender papers, which Ed had signed. During Wasnick's questioning, however, Pahnke elaborates that Ed disappeared for over four months after his happiness and joy lecture and then returned to the camp in such an altered state that Pahnke, a World War II veteran, could only relate Ed's condition to those of prisoners he saw at the Dachau death camp. Upon questioning, witness Capt. John R. Miller, who was also held at Camp Five, accuses Ed of informing their captors about his escape plan and then recounts the hours of torture he endured in which he revealed nothing to the Chinese. After Miller lifts his shirt to show the courtroom the scars from the brutal interrogation, court is adjourned until the following day. Later that night, a drunken Ed returns to his hotel to find Aggie, who orders him to fight for his freedom. The next day, with Ed, Sr. now in attendance at the trial, Wasnick explains to the court that the Chinese have broken the rules of morality in their interrogation methods and no allowance has been made for soldiers who have suffered under the torture of the mind. Once on the stand, Ed describes his and his men's imprisonment: On the march to the camp, the Chinese ordered prisoners to bury anyone, dead or only wounded, who was being dragged on the slow-moving sledges. When the American soldiers who resisted were shot, Ed carried a wounded soldier four days so he would not be killed. Ed then explains that officers and enlisted men were kept in separate quarters. Despite having the same rations, the enlisted men were dying from despair. Frantic to save his men, he threatened the young soldier as Millard described, to provoke a fight among the enlisted men and rally them from their apathy. When he was then taken to Chinese headquarters, he agreed to give a propaganda lecture only to be able to return to his men. Writing it himself, Ed created a disingenuous version in hopes that the men would recognize his insincerity. Punishing him for the lecture, the Chinese sentenced him to solitary confinement in a dark, wet cellar room and tried to coerce him to sign surrender leaflets. After refusing, Ed was forced to lie in his own waste in the cell for weeks in the dark. Soon after, Ed was given a letter from his father announcing Pete's death, prompting Ed to collapse and agree to all the Chinese's demands. After testifying that the enemy forced him to write autobiographical notes to help the torturers weaken his sanity, Ed reluctantly agrees to read a passage: After his mother dies at an early age, Ed remembers that his father's ardent militarism kept him far from home and unable to kiss or embrace his sons. During his childhood, Ed often wishes that the painful loneliness caused by his father's detachment will end his own life. Wasnick then explains that the Chinese had a plan: They removed the soldier's leaders, worsened conditions and spread rumors of informers among them, thus causing the men to become lonely and distrustful. They would target the loneliest among the men to collaborate with them. Later that night in his car with his son, Ed, Sr. admits that through Ed's testimony he has been awakened to his own failures, embraces and then kisses Ed, Jr., asking if this is the affection he wanted and begging his son to come home. The next day in court, Moulton asks Ed if he indeed reached the "breaking point" of endurable anguish or if he merely feared it. Ed can only reply that he did not reach that point. In his closing arguments, Wasnick presents evidence that the Communists believe the prisoners underestimate their ability to survive because they underestimate themselves. Wasnick suggests that Ed was broken on the "rack" of his own loneliness because the United States leaders have left their men uninspired about democracy, uninformed about Communist tactics and unprepared for the limits of mental anguish. However, after the prosecution insists Ed ignored the simple rule of repeating "name, rank and serial number" to his captors, the court finds Ed guilty of treason with the exception of hitting the sick enlisted man. Inviting him to submit an extenuation, Ed tells the courtroom that he regrets not knowing the "magnificence" of holding out against the odds.