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In China, in 1944, as American troops are forced to retreat from the encroaching Japanese army, Maj. Baldwin, a member of the U.S. demolition team, is ordered to blow up an air base to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Baldwin, an engineer in civilian life, finds the assignment ironic in that he was the person who designed the base. As the troops prepare to pull out, Baldwin's superior, Gen. Loomis, summons him to his office and informs Baldwin that he has been assigned to lead an eight-man demolition team to blow up the roads and bridges in the path of the advancing Japanese army. When Loomis offers to countermand the orders in light of Baldwin's inexperience in commanding troops, Baldwin states that he asked for the assignment because he wanted to experience command. Loomis then warns that command is the exercise of unlimited power. After Baldwin explains the mission to Sgt. Michaelson and Prince, two of the men selected for his team, they grumble that they had been told they could return to headquarters at Kwei Yang after blowing up the airstrip. Baldwin is unsympathetic to their complaints, however. Accompanied by Prince, Michaelson, Lewis, Miller and Collins, the team's translator who feels empathy with the Chinese, Baldwin heads out to seek permission to blow up a bridge from Col. Li, the Chinese commander of the region. Li then informs them that the Japanese are advancing toward a giant munitions dump in the region and suggests that it, too, should be destroyed. Li assigns Col. Kwan to accompany Baldwin, and as they are readying to leave, Madame Sue-Mei Hung, the American-educated widow of a Chinese officer, joins them for the journey to Kwei Yang. They proceed to the bridge, and after dispersing the peasants, blow it up as Baldwin wonders if the peasants will understand their motives. That night, when they stop to rest, Baldwin tries to convince Sue-Mei to take the bus to Kwei Yang, but she explains that public transportation is too primitive and corrupt for safe conveyance, causing Baldwin to remark on the brutality of the Chinese culture. The next morning, a truck stuck along the mountainous road blocks their progress, and when the driver brandishes a gun, demanding that the Americans push his vehicle, Baldwin climbs into the cab and steers it over the edge of a cliff. Later, Kwan informs Baldwin that Li has fled into the hills with his men, leaving his outpost vulnerable. Disgusted by what he sees as Li's cowardice, Baldwin realizes that he must now destroy the road to prevent the Japanese from reaching the outpost. When Sue-Mei worries that the peasants along the road might be injured, Baldwin suggests bribing them with food and tobacco to get them to leave, and Sue-Mei reacts with disgust at his reducing a person's dignity to a common bribe. After blowing up the road, they continue onto a village where they tend to Lewis, who has fallen ill with pneumonia. The next morning, a Chinese deserter tells Kwan that the Japanese are on their way. As they are about to pull out of the village, Collins suggests offering the hungry villagers their extra rations, but when he tries to distribute them, he is trampled to death by the ravenous mob. After loading Collins' body onto one of their trucks, Baldwin wonders what he should tell the soldier's parents about their son's death. When Sue-Mei laments that no one can help China, a country without order, Baldwin reacts with anger, saying he must believe that his mission is worthwhile. The next morning, Baldwin earns the enmity of his men when he announces that he has decided to blow up the munitions dump. At the dump, after wrangling the Chinese general's permission to detonate his post, Baldwin assigns Miller to drive the ailing Lewis and Collins' body to Kwei Yang, while the others wire the dump with explosives. When the facility detonates, the massive explosion sends Sue-Mei and Baldwin scurrying under a truck for cover, and he tenderly holds her. Continuing along the road, they spot Collins' body and Baldwin realizes that Chinese bandits must have jumped Miller and stolen his truck. Enraged, Baldwin insists on exacting revenge. Upon finding the discarded bodies of Miller and Lewis, Sue-Mei argues that revenge will change nothing, but Baldwin refuses to be deterred. Locating the truck parked in front of a village inn, they enter the building to confront the bandits. When a shootout ensues, the Americans take cover in the hills. After a bullet strikes the truck, setting it on fire, Baldwin decides to send a drum filled with gasoline careening down the hill into the truck. Sue-Mei desperately tries to stop him, but he doggedly releases the barrel, sending it crashing into the truck, igniting a giant explosion that engulfs the village in flames. Upon reaching the next outpost, Baldwin radios the American liaison at headquarters to report that the dump has been destroyed. The liaison congratulates him for eliminating the dump, a major American objective. When Baldwin asks Sue-Mei to finish the journey with him, she declares that her journey ended at the village. Baldwin tries to explain that he became obsessed by the power of his command and now regrets abusing it, but Sue-Mei rejects his rationale. Baldwin then turns to thank his men for a job well done.