Joe Bonham (Bottoms), a young American soldier hit by an artillery shell during World War I, lies in a hospital bed. He is a quadruple amputee who has also lost his eyes, ears, mouth and nose. He remains conscious and able to reason, but his wounds render him a prisoner in his own body. As he drifts between reality and fantasy, he remembers his old life with his family and girlfriend (Kathy Fields). He also forms a bond, of sorts, with a young nurse (Diane Varsi) who senses his plight.
At the end of the film, Joe tries to communicate to his doctors, via Morse code, and wishes for the Army to either put him in a glass coffin in a freak show as a demonstration of the horrors of war, or kill him. In the end, however, he realizes that the Army will grant neither wish, and will leave him in a state of living death.
In the film's climax, his nurse attempts to euthanize him by clamping his breathing tube, but her supervisor stops her before Joe can succumb. This does not occur in the novel. The film ends with Joe weakly chanting "S.O.S. Help me." (more)