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In the waning days of World War II, Major Joppolo, an American of Italian descent, arrives in the small Sicilian town of Adano to take control of the local government which has been in disarray ever since its mayor and other Fascist government officials fled. Joppolo finds the town ravaged by war, its populace of women and old men demoralized by deprivation and the corruption of their Fascist oppressors. Surrounded by remnants of the vanquished Fascist regime, Zoppolo is greeted by Zito and Giuseppe, two of the townsmen who eagerly offer their services. Questioned by Joppolo about what their town needs most, the men lament the loss of their beloved church bell, a loss that overwhelms their hunger and other hardships. After Father Pensovecchio explains that the peals of the bell regulated the daily rhythms of life in the village, Joppolo asks the priest's help in convincing his flock to accept the new American rule. Wary of life under a conquering government, the priest tests Joppolo's sincerity by inviting him to Mass. When the major fulfills his commitment by appearing at the church, he earns the priest's confidence. Later, the major wins the respect of the townspeople when he mandates that government officials will have no special privileges in the bread lines. To secure food for the village, Joppolo asks to see Tomasino, the town's stubborn fishing chief, who has renounced his trade. When Tomasino refuses to come to headquarters, Joppolo goes to his fishing boat, trailed by the women of the village. Suspicious of authority, Tomasino is certain that Joppolo intends to impose a tax on his catch until the major convinces him he only wants to feed the people of Adano. With the help of Lt. Livingstone, a naval officer, Tomasino and his fleet are soon trolling the waters once more. In gratitude, the fishermen send Tina, Tomasino's attractive blonde daughter, to invite Joppolo to dinner. The major, meanwhile, has discovered that the town bell has been melted down. He offers to replace it with a Liberty bell, but the townspeople reject the idea of a cracked bell. When General McKay, Joppolo's commanding officer, orders the main road to Adano to be cleared of all mule carts and other civilian vehicles to make room for military convoys, the villagers dolefully gather outside the major's office to plead that they will perish unless they are allowed to transport food and water into town. Touched by their plight, the major countermands the order over the objections of Capt. Purvis, one of the officers under his command. When Purvis decides to report Joppolo's insubordination to Col. Middleton, the Provost Marshall, Joppolo's sympathetic assistant, Sgt. Borth, stashes the report under a stack of papers on Purvis' desk. That night at Tomasino's house, Tina confides to Joppolo that she dyed her hair blonde to be different, and he tells her about life in the Bronx and mentions that he has a wife. Soon after, Purvis answers the phone at headquarters and is chastised by Middleton for not promptly sending his reports. When Purvis discovers that the letter regarding Joppolo's insubordination is still sitting on his desk, he orders it to be sent immediately, but Borth sabotages the delivery by addressing it to Algiers. After Joppolo's request for a replacement bell is denied, the major turns to Lt. Livingstone. Livingstone's friend, Commander Robertson, recalls a bell on a destroyer commanded by an old shipmate and promises to help. Late one night, a lonely Joppolo visits Tina and she asks him to find out about the status of her soldier sweetheart, Giorgio. Sensing that the major has fallen in love with her, Tina suggests that his desire for her is fueled by his longing for his wife. Soon after, the town's young men return from war and are eagerly welcomed by the women. Giorgio is not among them, however, and Joppolo comforts the grieving Tina as Giorgio's friend, Nicolo, recounts how Giorgio met his death while trying to rally a mob of drunken, disillusioned soldiers. Just as Middleton finally receives the misdirected letter, Robertson delivers to Adano an impressive new bell found in the waters off the African coast. As the town rejoices, a cable arrives from Middleton, notifying Joppolo that he has been relieved of duty for insubordination and must immediately report to Algiers. Opening the cable, Borth decides to withhold the news from Joppolo until after the party to be held that night in his honor. Later, in his office, the villagers unveil a portrait of Joppolo, and after they leave, the major studies the painting, speechless. His reverie is interrupted by the drunken Borth, who blurts out that the major has been relieved of duty and then bursts into tears. Joppolo finds solace in a final dance with Tina, and the next morning, as the bell tolls for the first time, he leaves town, unable to bid farewell to his friends.