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During World War I, an unidentified, grievously wounded soldier is saved by a team of surgeons, although the head doctor, Col. M. F. Tillery, declares that the youth has no higher brain functions. Despite the unease of the other doctors, Tillery is determined to study the soldier, and insists that if the youth had more than mere basal metabolic functions, he would not have allowed him to live. Unknown to Tillery or the other medical personnel, the soldier, twenty-year-old American Joe Bonham, has full mental abilities, although he cannot yet control his lapses of consciousness. While he lies in the hospital, completely covered by bandages and heavy, tent-like blankets, the drugged Joe wonders where he is and drifts into a memory of the night before he left for the war, when he was with his sweetheart Kareen: Despite Kareen's pleading that Joe not enlist, he states that he must, and the couple makes love for the first time. In the morning, Joe bids farewell to Kareen, his mother and two young sisters. Back at the hospital, Joe realizes that although he can feel his blood pumping, he cannot hear his pulse, which means that he is deaf. Overwhelmed by pain and realizing that because he is covered with bandages, he must have been seriously wounded, Joe is only vaguely aware of Tillery's presence as the colonel orders him transferred to the main French military hospital. Believing that he can hear a telephone ringing, Joe then remembers the night that his gruff but beloved father died. When he awakens from his reverie, Joe realizes that the stinging sensation he feels is Tillery removing the stitches from where his right arm has been amputated at the shoulder. As nurses begin removing the sutures from his left shoulder, Joe screams internally and curses them for making him a cripple. Tillery then orders the staff to keep Joe in a locked room, with the shutters drawn, so that no gawkers will have access to him. Still completely covered, except for his forehead, Joe floats in a drugged state and imagines himself at the train station before he and his new buddies shipped out. They play cards with Christ, who instructs the others, who are describing how they are going to die, to leave Joe alone when they protest that he will not actually be killed. In the hospital, Joe's sutures are removed from his hips, as both of his legs have also been amputated, and he shrieks in horror to himself. Overwhelmed by his inability to communicate, Joe's tenuous grasp on reality slips even more as he mentally pleads with his mother to tell him what is happening. He remembers his idyllic boyhood in Colorado, before his family moved to Los Angeles, and recalls his mother's faith in God and his father's love for his fishing pole, his most valuable possession. Meanwhile, Tillery examines Joe and removes the bandages on his face, leaving only a mask covering him from throat to forehead. Joe is baffled why he still has breathing and feeding tubes and cannot see, as he had assumed that once his bandages were gone, he would be able to see and communicate. Joe forces himself to explore his face from the inside and realizes that he cannot move his tongue around his teeth because he no longer has a tongue or teeth, nor even a jaw. As his senses move upward, Joe discovers that he has also lost his nose, eyes and ears, and that his face is a "crater" from his forehead to his throat. The hysterical Joe's thrashing prompts the nurse to sedate him, and as he drifts off, he has a nightmare about a rat chewing on his forehead. Unable to distinguish between dreams and reality, Joe imagines himself in Christ's carpentry shop, where he asks Christ for help. Each of Christ's suggestions fail, as Joe cannot brush the rat from his face if it is real, nor yell to awaken himself if he is having a nightmare. Wearily but with compassion, Christ asks Joe to leave, asserting, "You're a very unlucky young man and sometimes it rubs off." Joe is awakened in the hospital by the footfalls of two nurses, and the head nurse, angered that Joe is so isolated, insists that the shutters be opened so that he can have sunshine, and that his bed be properly made up with sheets. Joe is thrilled by the sensory changes and constructs a scheme to track the passage of time. A year later, Joe laments that he does not know exactly how old he is, nor when the year he has counted began. Remembering back to the war, Joe relives the night he was wounded: In a trench with some English soldiers, Joe is writing a letter to Kareen when an officious British colonel orders Corp. Timlon to remove the stinking corpse of an enemy that is caught on nearby barbed wire and give him a "decent" funeral. Despite the danger, Timlon and several men, including Joe, go out that evening to bury the Bavarian, but they come under heavy fire and Joe is hit by a shell. Pondering his fate, Joe then recalls his family's visit to a carnival freak show and imagines his father as a barker, advertising Joe as "The Self Supporting Basket Case." Joe's reverie ends when a new, young nurse enters the room. Exposing Joe's chest, the sympathetic woman begins to cry, and Joe is moved to feel her tears upon his skin. The nurse prompts Joe to think of Kareen, who chastises him for leaving her pregnant and alone, although Joe assures her that in his mind, she will stay young and beautiful forever. Later, remembering a prostitute he met in France, Joe becomes aroused, and the nurse's caresses bring him such joy that he recalls a sunny day on the lake with his boyhood friend, Bill Harper. The day was marred when Joe accidentally lost his father's fishing pole, but the wise older man comforts his son tenderly. Later, on a wintry night, the nurse begins to scratch letters onto Joe's chest. Slowly, he deduces what she is doing and nods his recognition as she writes "Merry Christmas." Joe is overjoyed, as he now has an exact date from which to tell time. After a disturbing hallucination of a Christmas celebration at the bakery at which he used to work, Joe mentally retreats to a quiet forest, where he encounters his father. The two men discuss life and death, with Bonham commenting that death is better, then telling him that he must think rationally and use his head. Bonham then reminds Joe of the Morse code that he and Bill learned as children, and Joe realizes he can tap out a message with his head. Excited, Joe begins tapping an SOS, which the nurse realizes is not merely an automatic muscular response, as one doctor insists it is. The doctor sedates Joe, but when Tillery, now a white-haired general, visits the hospital, the nurse brings him to Joe's bedside. One of the other men present recognizes Joe's SOS, and it dawns on the shocked men that Joe is not brain dead and has been completely aware the entire time. The men, especially the chaplain, castigate Tillery for condemning Joe to such a cruel existence. When they ask Joe what he wants, Joe pleads to be exhibited to the public to demonstrate how the "army makes men." The brigadier general orders the translator to inform Joe that his request is impossible, to which Joe responds, "Kill me." When Joe continues to ask to be killed, the men sadly exit. Although she has been ordered to sedate Joe, the nurse, overcome by his tragedy, says a prayer, then clamps shut his breathing tube. As he begins to sink into unconsciousness, Joe blesses her for releasing him from his agony, but before Joe dies, the brigadier general returns, opens the clamp and orders the nurse to leave. Feeling the nurse's footsteps fading away, Joe is bereft, and after the doctor injects him, Joe weakly continues tapping out his SOS, knowing that he is condemned to do so until he dies, alone, from old age.