Setting: World War II, 1942, Karelia
A dense forest. Parts of a crashed aeroplane lie scattered in the snow &dnash; enemy fighters have shot down Alexei Maresiev’s plane in a dogfight. The pilot curses the enemy, but at the same time is glad to be alive and in one piece: he will not be taken captive. Maresiev quickly leaps up then falls again from the sharp pain in his legs. But he cannot remain here, to the rear of the enemy, where every rustle of the trees could signal death. Alexei decides to make a break for the east to his own people.
On a trek lasting three painful days Alexei comes to the edge of the forest that shows traces of recent fighting. Alexei’s energy deserts him. The pilot takes out a photo of his beloved girlfriend Olga. He dreams that she speaks to him with words of love and support... In his mind he sees a vision of his hometown of Kamyshin and the Volga. These memories give rise to new energy. Crawling and dragging himself forward with his hands, Alexei moves towards the place where explosions are going off and where his comrades are.
A burnt tree covered in snow. Alexei can no longer crawl, his arms are too weak. He thinks he is being pursued. He takes out his pistol, but hears children’s voices &dnash; they are speaking in Russian; they are the village boys Fedya and Seryonka.
Recognising Alexei as one of their own, Fedya rushes to call the people while Seryonka relates how Germans attacked the village and the boy’s father and brother were killed. All of the villagers had to flee for the woods.
Fedya returns with Old Granddad Mikhailov and other villagers. The Granddad tells Seryonka to get back to the others, and Alexei is carried on sleds to the forest community’s hideout.
Alexei lies in gloomy dug-out. Granny Vasilisa brings Alexei some chicken broth &dnash; she has killed the only chicken she had left. The sound of a plane can be heard which lands close by. It is Seryonka, having accomplished his task, who has flown in together with a nurse and a military pilot. In him, Alexei recognises his friend Andrei from the same company. The latter, on seeing Alexei, cannot disguise his joy. The Granddad discovers from Andrei that Olga, mad with love for the wounded pilot, is Alexei’s fiancée.
A military hospital. Alexei awakes after his operation. In his concussed state he sees images of his brothers, mother, Olga and Andrei. Maresiev is haunted by a gloomy thought &dnash; he has lost his legs, his comrades in the regiment will wait for him in vain, they will be oppressed by it. The nurse Klavdia tries to calm Alexei. Life in the ward continues at its own pace. The commissar speaks of the determination of the Red Army’s ranks during the civil war, and Kukushkin teases Grisha Gvozdev who is in love &dnash; Gvozdev dreams of meeting Anyuta. Only Alexei is silent, having sunk into his own dark thoughts.
The commissar shows Maresiev an old magazine that relates an article that was published during the First World War: a Russian pilot called Karlovich was severely injured and lost one foot, yet he returned to the ranks. Initially Alexei pays no heed to the story, but gradually the commissar’s words “but you’re a Soviet person” get through to the young pilot’s soul. “But after all I’m a Soviet person,” Alexei says to himself.
The hospital. The arrival of spring can be sensed. Alexei is in constant training following his operation. Overcoming the terrible pain through willpower he learns to walk using prosthetic limbs. The surgeon Vasily Vasilievich enters. Himself having lost his only son on the front lines he cheers Alexei up and supports him.
His comrade in the ward Gvozdev is visited by his girlfriend Anyuta. Gvozdev is thrilled at Alexei’s willpower.
Andrei comes to see Maresiev. Alexei tells him about his beloved girlfriend Olga, about his doubts and his feelings for her, about his intention to write to her “after the first air strike, after the first plane to be shot down.” Supported by Klavdia and Kukushkin, the commissar enters. The talk about things in general suddenly breaks off: the commissar’s weak heart could take no more... Everyone is amazed at the death of this great “true” man.
All leave the ward, switching off the light. Only Klavdia remains; she sits in a chair, almost invisible in the semi-dark...
Early autumn. The garden of a sanatorium near Moscow. Alexei is in despair, he is trying to write to Olga. All of his attempts to become a pilot once more have met with no support. He is offered work in the home guard. Olga should know how difficult things are for him. But Alexei resolves not to give in to this moment of weakness and will write only after he is fully well.
In a sanatorium on the shore of a lake lively events are unfolding &dnash; a group of patients is released early. They set off to defend Stalingrad where Russia’s destiny will be decided. Alexei also hoped to return to the front with them, but the medical board has not approved his request and sent him to the home guard. In order to show how well he copes with his prosthetic limbs, enduring the pain Alexei dances a waltz with Anyuta, followed by a rumba. His endurance and self-control make the senior doctor change his mind: “We believe in you, we will help. You will fly!”
Together with Andrei and Anyuta, Alexei is on a boat on the lake near the sanatorium. Their thoughts are with their loved ones from whom they have received only short letters. Alexei seems to think that their three voices are joined by a fourth &dnash; Olga who is waiting for him and loves him. She is on the Volga &dnash; for which Alexei and Andrei will soon depart.
The first air raid involving Alexei is over. One after another the silver planes land at the aerodrome, but still Alexei does not come. According to the colonel’s estimations he must have run out of fuel. The comrades are all anxious. But suddenly a roar is heard &dnash; it is Alexei’s plane coming in to land. They all clasp his hands and congratulate him &dnash; Alexei shot down three enemy planes.
His dream has come true! Once more he is a pilot and once more he is fit and well! Alexei recalls those who helped save his life and helped him achieve his goal. Now he has the right to write to Olga and tell her everything... But Olga, a junior lieutenant in the guards with the Order of the Red Star on her blouse, has come to Alexei herself. She has become even closer and dearer to Alexei. She has known everything for a long time through a letter from Andrei. A correspondent who comes to visit Maresiev asks him to tell him about himself...