The film is mainly set at the front during World War II, where the Soviet army is fighting the invading German Wehrmacht. The film features a non-linear plot with frequent flashbacks.
After a brief dream sequence, Ivan Bondarev, a 12-year-old Russian boy, wakes up and crosses a war-torn landscape to a swamp, then swims across a river. On the other side, he is seized by Russian soldiers and brought to the young Lieutenant Galtsev, who interrogates him. The boy insists that he call "Number 51 at Headquarters" and report his presence. Galtsev is reluctant, but when he eventually makes the call, he is told by Lieutenant-Colonel Gryaznov to give the boy pencil and paper to make his report, which will be given the highest priority, and to treat him well. Through a series of dream sequences and conversations between different characters, it is revealed that Ivan’s mother and sister (and probably his father, a border guard) have been killed by German soldiers. He got away and joined a group of partisans. When the group was surrounded, they put him on a plane. After the escape, he was sent to a boarding school, but he ran away and joined an army unit under the command of Gryaznov.
Burning for revenge, Ivan insists on fighting on the front line. Taking advantage of his small size, he is successful on reconnaissance missions. Gryaznov and the other soldiers grow fond of him and want to send him to a military school. They give up their idea when Ivan tries to run away and rejoin the partisans. He is determined to avenge the death of his family and others, such as those killed at the Maly Trostenets extermination camp (which he mentions that he has seen).
A subplot involves Captain Kholin and his aggressive advances towards a pretty army nurse, Masha, and Galtsev's own undeclared and probably shared feelings for her. Much of the film is set in a room where the officers await orders and talk, while Ivan awaits his next mission. On the walls are scratched the last messages of doomed prisoners of the Germans.
Finally, Kholin and Galtsev ferry Ivan across the river late at night. He disappears through the swampy forest. The others return to the other shore after cutting down the bodies of two Soviet scouts hanged by the Germans.
The final scenes then switch to Berlin under Soviet occupation after the fall of the Third Reich. Captain Kholin has been killed in action. Galtsev finds a document showing that Ivan was caught and hanged by the Germans. As Galtsev enters the execution room, a final flashback of Ivan's childhood shows the young boy running across a beach after a little girl in happier times. The final image is of a dead tree on the beach.
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