"The General Died at Dawn" verges on film noir, even though made a decade before the genre came to the forefront. With many elements of noir - dark and moody, a flawed hero, a femme fatale, sleazy supporting characters - it is an atmospheric blend of unease, tension and romance.
American soldier of fortune O'Hara (Cooper) is hired to carry concealed money with which oppressed Chinese citizens hope to combat ruthless warlord General Yang (Akim Tamiroff.)
O'Hara's intentions may be noble, but his weakness for feminine beauty is known to his enemies; even though he is strictly cautioned to travel only by plane, O'Hara allows himself to be lured on board a train by the lovely Judy Perrie (Madeleine Carroll.)
Perrie's father, Peter (Porter Hall) is one of Yang's minions. Peter is a weakling
and a sniveller, forever preying on his daughter's conscience by claiming to
be in poor health, close to dying, in fact. "If I've only got six months
to live, I want to die at home in America." Judy despises him, but cannot
abandon him entirely - hence her reluctant agreement to trap O'Hara.
The train is boarded by Yang and his men and O'Hara is taken prisoner. The money meant for the people's fight is taken from O'Hara and given to Peter Perrie for transport to Shanghai.