Set in 1941, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) has just transferred from Virginia to the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, and meets up with buddy Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). He was the top bugler in his previous base, but requested a new post for personal reasons. His Schofield captain, Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), wants him to box for their company – a division championship would get him a promotion - but Prewitt is only interested in staying with the outfit and assuming standard military duties. Overconfident (or brutally honest) 1st Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) is intent on doing his job too, which is to please Holmes so that Warden can be left alone to properly command the troops. He also has his eyes on the captain’s wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr), a shapely blonde with an untouchable aura. In reality, she too admires the sergeant.
When Prewitt’s superiors start giving him unfair treatment in an attempt to pressure him into boxing, Angelo is the only one who will stand up for him, and in turn gets lumped into the punishments. During a leave, the duo hits the town where the bugler spies Alma “Lorene” Burke (Donna Reed), a New Congress Club girl that he immediately falls for. Meanwhile, Warden runs off with Karen to the beach in the film’s most iconic moment. Karen deals with a soiled reputation for trying to contend with her marital troubles, while Prewitt also tries to bury his painful boxing past, in which he feels responsible for putting a rising star in a coma. The company refuses to let up on the “treatment,” and when Maggio ends up in the stockade to face off with his nemesis, Sergeant of the Guard “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine), Prewitt faces grueling predicaments and tough decisions.