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U. S. Corporal King is the opportunistic, cynical head of a black market operation in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Singapore just before the end of World War II. In the camp are approximately 10,000 British, Australian, and American prisoners, most of whom outrank King, and all of whom are sick and emaciated. King maintains his own health through such methods as breeding rats and selling them as food to his fellow prisoners. He befriends British Flight Lieutenant Marlowe, who speaks Malay and thus can barter with the corrupt camp guards, and he saves Marlowe's life by paying a high price for stolen antibiotics. The provost marshal of the camp, Lieutenant Grey, King's implacable enemy, sees King's behavior as immoral and is constantly frustrated by his inability to catch King in black market deals. He is about to do so when the Japanese announce that the war is over. King and Marlowe go their separate ways, King rejecting Marlowe's offer of friendship now that the camp life ruled by King has ended.