On a night in 1882, at the Alabama home of Captain and Mrs. Keller, a doctor examines a baby in a crib while her parents stand anxiously by. At last he smiles, and tells them the crisis has passed, she will recover from the illness. Her parents respond with joy and relief. Captain Keller (Victor Jory) goes with the doctor to see him out. Mrs. Keller (Inga Swenson) stays with the baby, smiling, talking, gently tucking the covers around her. Something about the baby's face catches her attention. She is at first puzzled, then frightened. She calls out for Captain Keller, who returns at a run. She blurts out her fears to him, he grabs up the lantern, and waves it before the baby's eyes, and screams her name in an attempt to get a reaction...all without effect. As a result of her illness, Baby Helen is now irrevocably blind and deaf.
By 1887, Helen (Patty Duke) has grown into a healthy, but extremely difficult, child. The adults in the household--Captain and Mrs. Keller, Great Aunt Ev (Kathleen Comegys), Helen's older half-brother James (Andrew Prine) and the domestic help--have all given up trying to communicate with her or control her. She is allowed to wander wherever she wants, and do as she pleases. But after an incident in which she flings her new baby sister violently out of her cradle so she can use it for her doll, it is clear something must be done about her, and soon. Mrs. Keller can't bear the thought of having her shut up in an asylum, so Captain Keller reluctantly agrees to find a teacher/companion for her. Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), a 20-year-old Irish-American girl, newly graduated from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in South Boston, is recommended for the position. She is still recovering from a series of operations that have only partially restored her own vision, she has a reputation for being stubborn and is haunted by a tragic childhood. But she has a plan, and is greatly determined to make a place for herself in the world, and a better world for her new student.
At the Keller's home, her first meeting with Helen is promising. She quickly recognizes Helen's intelligence and curiosity. She has brought a doll for the little girl and Helen is delighted with it. Annie seizes the opportunity to introduce Helen to the finger alphabet for the deaf by spelling the word "doll" against Helen's palm. Intrigued, Helen spells it back to her, imitating the letters perfectly. Pleased, Annie tries another word...but Helen is more interested in the doll than the new finger game. Annie makes the mistake of trying to take the doll away from her, and Helen uses the doll to lambaste her in the mouth. While Annie is surveying the damage, Helen quickly locks her in the bedroom, takes the key and runs away.
Annie is able to get her employers' attention and alert them to her dilemma. In the uproar that follows, Mrs. Keller searches Helen for the key, but doesn't find it, so Captain Keller decides the best way to effect a rescue is to put a ladder up to the bedroom window, climb it, and carry Annie back down. Despite Annie's protests that she can climb down herself, she makes the descent seated precariously on Captain Keller's shoulder. Crisis averted, Captain Keller orders everyone back inside to sit down to lunch.
Annie stays behind for a moment or two to watch Helen, who is sitting quietly by the water pump on the well cover, holding her doll. After a moment, she gets up and furtively feels around for anyone else who might still be present. At last, satisfied that she's alone, she takes the key to Annie's bedroom door out of her mouth, and drops it into the well through a crack in the well cover. Annie observes this with mingled amusement and irritation...and she promises Helen (and herself) that she won't be gotten rid of so easily.
Next day at breakfast, Annie watches in disgust as Helen wanders about the table, taking food from each person's plate with her hands, and cramming it into her mouth. The adults pay no attention to her, obviously accustomed to this behavior. When Helen reaches for Annie's plate, Annie quietly fends off her hand. Helen is shocked at first, considers what has happened--and reaches again, all the more determined to take something from this stranger's plate. A scuffle ensues...Captain Keller intercedes, explaining to Annie that they've found this to be the easiest course, and the only way they can have a relatively civilized meal. But Annie decides it's high time to begin her student's education...starting with ordinary table manners. She chases the family out of the house, and the battle is on.
It's a long and violent process...Helen is as determined as Annie, and both girls know this is more than just a fight about plates and napkins. After a struggle which lasts into the afternoon and leaves both girls battered and bruised, Annie emerges as the victor...barely. Afterward, Helen runs outside to her mother for comfort, and Mrs. Keller angrily asks Annie what happened. "She ate from her own plate," replies Annie, softly. "She ate with a spoon. Herself. And she folded her napkin." Mrs. Keller receives this news in complete wonder, her anger gone in a moment. "Folded her napkin?" she repeats. "The room's a wreck," Annie says, wryly, "but her napkin is folded." Annie turns wearily back into the house. "Folded her napkin," Mrs. Keller murmurs, "My Helen folded her napkin," as she holds Helen close in her arms
Captain Keller is in a thundering rage. He wants that "half-blind Yankee schoolgirl" gone immediately, but Mrs. Keller persuades him to let her stay. Nevertheless, he tells Annie, there are a number of conditions that must be met. He begins to lay down the law, but Annie interrupts him. She tells them that she has no hope of being able to make any progress with Helen under the current circumstances. Mrs. Keller pleads with her not to give up on Helen. She tells her how bright Helen was when she was a baby...able to ask for water (to say wah-wah) at a remarkably early age...and how heartbreaking it has been to feel her slipping farther away with each passing year...and how like the lost lamb in the parable, she loves her all the more. Annie listens, not unsympathetically; nevertheless, she tells her bluntly that she thinks Helen's greatest handicap is not deafness and blindness, but her family's love and pity. "Why, even a dog you housebreak," she scolds. But Annie has no intention of giving up on Helen..."Why, only today I saw how much needs to be done," she declares.
She has been exploring the grounds, and has found a little cottage that isn't used, except during the hunting season. She asks that they furnish this cottage with a couple of beds, a table and a couple of chairs, and let the cook's young son, Percy (Robert Darden), sleep there to be available for errands. She instructs them to bring Helen there after a long buggy ride, so she won't know where she is, and leave her there, completely in her care. "She must be dependent on me for everything...for food, for water...even for the very air she breathes," she says, because any of these might be an avenue through which she can reach her. Mrs. Keller eagerly agrees, and after a while so does Captain Keller...reluctantly...for two weeks only. After that, whether she has been able to reach her or not, they must both return to the main house.
Preparations are made, and Helen arrives at the cottage. She is pleased to find some of her favorite toys and clothes waiting for her, in a basket in the middle of the floor. Then she has a sudden premonition of something amiss, and begins to make the sign that means she wants her mother. Her parents quickly withdraw, and as Helen gropes around the room, she encounters Annie. In rage and horror at being left alone with this hated person, Helen goes wild, trashing the house and its contents. Physically and emotionally exhausted, she finally falls asleep, clutching her doll.
Annie hits on a plan to get Helen to tolerate her: She wakes Percy, and brings him in from the other room, and has him stand near Helen. Helen recoils at first, then recognizes him, and is overjoyed to have him there. Annie sits on the other side of Percy, takes his hand, and begins to show him how to spell using the finger signs. When Helen discovers what's going on, she tries at first to keep Percy away from Annie, then curiosity overcomes her and she tries to "eavesdrop" on the new signs Annie is teaching...but Annie lightly flicks her hand away. At last, consumed with jealousy, she pushes Percy out of the way, and holds up her own hand defiantly, to be taught the new signs herself. Annie signs the word "milk" against her palm, and Helen repeats it back to her. Annie gives her a glass of milk, and helps her into bed. Detente has been reached, and the work can begin.
In the days that follow, Helen learns many new things...how to wash and dress herself, how to feed and clean up after herself...how to climb a tree, how to wade in a creek...how to play hide the thimble. She also learns many new words. But she still doesn't understand what she's doing, and in quiet moments it's clear she misses her mother and her old way of life.
Mrs. Keller has been missing Helen, too. As previously agreed, she comes to the cottage each day to watch her without her knowledge, and to learn from Annie the alphabet Helen is also learning. She is pleased with Helen's progress and shares Annie's hope that some spark of understanding will eventually ignite in Helen's brain. But the two weeks Annie was given to teach Helen without family interference is drawing to a close, and Mrs. Keller is not willing to persuade Captain Keller to give her an extension. On the last day, when Mrs. Keller comes for her, Annie must hand her over.
Annie feels that she has failed. She watches sadly as Helen goes through the house gathering all the keys from all the doors. She takes them to her mother and puts them in her pocket...a gesture that clearly indicates she wants everything to go back to the way it was. Just before dinner, Captain Keller calls Annie into his study, and hands her a check for her first month's wages, with a little speech of congratulations and gratitude. Annie confides her fear to him, that Helen will slip back into her old habits, and asks his help to keep Helen to what she's learned. He readily agrees...and then invites her to a special homecoming dinner for Helen, featuring all her favorite foods.
They sit down, and grace is said, and Annie hands Helen her napkin...and watches as she drops it on the floor. It was very subtly done...could have been an accident. Annie picks it up, and puts it back on her lap...Helen removes it, and drops it on the floor again. Annie rises to take Helen from the table, but she flees to her mother for comfort. Mrs. Keller tries to smooth things over, saying that it's only a napkin, nothing breakable. "And everything I've taught her is?" retorts Annie. Mrs. Keller hesitates, then relents, handing Helen over to Annie. But Captain Keller intervenes this time, saying there is no need to discipline the child on her first night back. He sits Helen down, and fills a plate for her, hands her a spoon, and goes back to his own place. Helen throws the spoon across the room, grabs a handful of food and tries to stuff it into her mouth. Annie grabs her and drags her away from the table. In the struggle that follows, Helen douses Annie with the contents of the water pitcher, and Annie grabs the pitcher and Helen, and storms majestically out of the room. Captain Keller begins to follow, intent on intervening again, but his way is blocked by his son, James...who finally finds the courage to tell his father he is wrong...that he must back down and allow this Yankee girl to teach Helen the discipline she needs...so that she can go on learning.
Outside, Annie drags Helen to the pump, to make her refill the pitcher. Helen is desperately making her sign for her mother, and Annie says coldly, "She's not here." She makes Helen hold the pitcher under the pump, while she works the pump handle. As the cold water pours over the pitcher and Helen's hand, Annie automatically spells the word "water" against her free hand. "W-A-T-E-R, water," she says aloud, a lesson she has repeated many times. "It has a name, and the name stands for the thing..." She stops, noticing that Helen is standing transfixed, a look of profound realization dawning on her face. The pitcher drops from her hands and shatters. Something is coming to her out of the past. The water from the pump is dripping on her hands. "Wah.....Wah...." she says, with great difficulty...."Wah....Wah."
The water has stopped flowing. Helen hits the faucett frantically, to indicate she wants it to flow again. Annie pumps, and the water flows over Helen's hands again. "Wah....Wah..." she says...and reaches for Annie's hand to spell the word against her palm. Annie puts Helen's hands on her face and nods to confirm that she is correct. Helen grabs the pump handle and pumps wildly herself, then holding Annie's hand under the stream of water, she spells the word against her palm again. With Helen's hands on her face, Annie nods again: this is, indeed, water.
She knows! The connection has been made, the spark has ignited, and now Helen knows! And suddenly she realizes that this is only the start...that there is much, much more for her to learn, and she wants to know it all, everything, all at once! In a frenzy, she runs around, dragging Annie after her, touching things and then holding out her hand for Annie to spell their names. Annie follows, spelling to her as fast as she can, and she calls out for Mrs. Keller to come out. The whole family spills out of the house, and when Helen bumps against her mother and father, Annie spells each of their names to her in turn, and cries out to them jubilantly that Helen finally knows!
As they embrace her, Annie goes back to sit by the pump on the well cover, overcome with emotion. After a few moments, Helen pulls free from her sobbing parents, and finds her way over to Annie. Shyly, she points toward her...she wants to know her name...this wonderful stranger who has turned the light back on in her mind, and put the world into her hand. Annie spells the word "Teacher" against her palm. Helen goes back to her mother, reaches into her pocket for the door keys she cached there earlier. She spells "Teacher" against her mother's palm, and brings the keys back to Annie.
Later that night, Annie sits alone in a rocker on the upper porch of the house. A door behind her opens, and Helen comes out to her. She kisses Annie and cuddles into her lap. Lost and found...rescuer and rescued...combatants and companions...two turbulent souls, at peace with each other, and themselves, at last.