The film starred Strode as a black first sergeant in the United States Cavalry accused of the rape and murder of a white girl at a U.S. Army fort in the late 1880s.
The film revolves around the court-martial of 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Strode), a "Buffalo Soldier" of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, in 1881. His defense is handled by Lt. Tom Cantrell (Hunter), Rutledge's troop officer. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, expanding the testimony of witnesses as they describe the events following the murder of Rutledge's Commanding Officer, Major Dabney, and the rape and murder of Dabney's daughter, for which Rutledge is the accused.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that the first sergeant raped and murdered the girl and then killed his commanding officer. Worse still, Rutledge deserts after the killings. Ultimately, he is tracked down and arrested by Lt. Cantrell. At one point, Rutledge escapes from captivity during an Indian raid, but later, he voluntarily returns to warn his fellow cavalrymen that they are about to face an ambush, thus saving the troop. He is then brought back in to face the charges and the prejudices of an all-white military court.
Eventually he is found not guilty of the rape and murder of the girl when a local white man breaks down under questioning and admits that he raped the girl.
Jeffrey Hunter as 1st Lt. Tom Cantrell, 9th Cavalry (counsel for the defense)
Constance Towers as Mary Beecher
Billie Burke as Mrs. Cordelia Fosgate
Woody Strode as First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, 9th Cavalry
Juano Hernández as Sgt. Matthew Luke Skidmore, 9th Cavalry
Willis Bouchey as Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate, 9th Cavalry (president of the court-martial)
Carleton Young as Capt. Shattuck, 14th Infantry (prosecutor)