In 1944, a war correspondent named John Hersey won a Pulitzer Prize for a novel entitled “A Bell for Adano”. The very popular book was based on his spending time with a Capt. Frank Toscani who was military governor of the liberated town of Licata in Sicily. Hersey felt Toscani’s efforts to replace a 700-year-old bell that had been melted down for ammunition would make a good story. It did and was soon made into a Broadway play starring Fredric March. Twentieth Century Fox bought the screen rights for $85,000. It considered Dana Andrews, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and Jimmy Cagney for the role of Major Joppolo. The role went to John Hodiak. It was his first lead role and he considered it to be his favorite. Gene Tierney was cast as his love interest and was given top billing for a much smaller role. (But the movie poster could legitimately have a woman on it.) The director was Henry King, a prolific director who was nominated for Best Director twice. He directed “A Yank in the RAF” and “Twelve O’Clock High”. The film ran into some problems with the War Department. The Pentagon did not like Hersey’s portrayal of a blowhard, unjust general and wanted the town’s problems to be caused by the war, not by a Pattonesque general. The screenplay ended up following the military’s “suggestions”. The movie also ran into trouble with Toscani. He sued because it depicted him as a married man who was not faithful. He was also upset that the film showed him disobeying an order. He lost the case because the judge pointed out that the movie did not use his name and technically Joppolo was a fictional character.
The movie opens with a jeep arriving in a Sicilian town. Major Victor Joppolo (Hodiak) is accompanied by Sgt. Borth (William Bendix). Joppolo is there to run the town and handle any problems. They are immediately accosted by Zito (Marcel Dalio) who insists he is anti-fascist and wants a job. His brown-nosing is eerily similar to the old brothel owner in “Catch-22” when he explains to Nately how he shifts allegiance depending on the situation. Zito gets the main subplot rolling by pointing out that the town is without its most prized possession - the bell. Joppolo appears unhappy with his job and barely tolerant of the variety of characters he will have to deal with. All of them are anti-fascists, of course. Joppolo is determined to do his job and impress the Sicilians with American efficiency. Getting a new bell will be a high priority. He attends mass to show an American face and can’t help but notice a stunning blond named Tina (Tierney). Romance ensues, even though Joppolo is married. He comes of as a Boy Scout compared to the horn-dog Capt. Purvis (Henry Morgan). Joppolo does a great job winning over the citizens and dealing with the mixture of colorful characters, but his real trouble comes from above. A general gets miffed over a stalled donkey cart and orders no more carts in the town. (He has the recalcitrant mule shot in a scene similar to Patton’s encounter with a mule cart in Sicily.) Since the town depends on the carts for water and other essentials, Joppolo decides to disregard the order. Imagine what would have happened if Patton had issued the order.
“A Bell for Adano” does justice to the novel, as you will see below. If you are familiar with the novel, you will know not to expect any action (except for what Joppolo is hoping to get from Tina). It’s more of a character study with some culture clash humor. The movie has a touch of propaganda, but not the type that would motivate audiences to work harder in the factories. After all, the war was over in Europe when it was released. The goal of the movie was to show that Italians were now our allies and Americans are humane occupiers. Oddly, the film has the Navy coming through on the bell and the Army looking bad as represented by a martinet general.
The plot could be compared to Andy Taylor arriving in Mayberry to take over from a corrupt administration. There’s no Barney Fife, but there are some comic relief characters. Adano is a stereotypical Italian town and the movie is a bit condescending toward it. It’s hard to view Italy as much of a foe. It’s impossible to imagine a German occupied town behaving the same way. The movie fits into the most popular movie setting of the time – the small town.
The movie earns some good will from the performances. Hodiak and Bendix were well-known at the time and they are deft in their portrayals of soldiers just trying to do a job. Morgan’s wolf is too over the top. Joppolo brings him to a date with Tina’s family and he behaves like a total cad, and yet his superior officer just puts up with it. The problem in the cast is Tierney, who is woefully miscast and struggles with the accent. But she’s easy on the eyes and somebody had to play Tina.
“A Bell for Adano” is a nice little movie. It’s not going to challenge you, unless you think there is a possibility the town won’t get its new bell. It’s a good alternative to reading the book because it follows its source pretty faithfully. And you get to see what a Sicilian town was like in the Middle Ages.
GRADE = B-
The Book: In the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Hersey makes it clear that Joppolo is a good man and the book is about him. The theme is America comes to Europe. It starts soon after the invasion of Sicily. Joppolo is more idealistic than the movie character. He sees his job as a chance to prove that occupation governing can be fair and effective. He represents AMGOT (American Military Government Occupied Territtories). In a subtle change, in the book Joppolo asks the priest to go to his Mass, in the movie the priest asks Joppolo. He does notice Tina in the church. She does not have anything to do with the bread line kerfuffle. (Clearly the scene was rewritten to give Tierney more screen time.) The subplot about the bell is basically the same, except the bell was for city hall, not the church. The romance is the same chaste affair as in the movie. Joppolo does try to get information about Tina’s fiancé. When the story of his death is revealed, it is so bizarre as to be almost comical. Thankfully, the movie does not reenact it.
The book’s supporting cast is well-portrayed in the movie. The book does have an omitted sub-plot involving the fascist mayor. Joppolo has him apologize to a crowd for a different offense each day. Later, the mayor spreads rumors and gets himself put in jail. He escapes, but is quickly recaptured. Another negative character is Gen. Marvin, who was clearly modeled after Patton. It’s ironic that although Joppolo is supposed to be the model for democracy, his boss is just as much a Mussolini as the Italians were used to. The book’s Marvin is a bigger jerk, which means that Joppolo’s defiance of his order can have only one outcome. The book does a better job of putting Joppolo out on a limb. Purvis is also toned down for the movie. In the book, he is more of an alcoholic and his comments are more lewd. He represents the ugly American.
The book fleshes out the fishing subplot. Tina’s father is the leader of the fisherman’s “union”. Joppolo gets them back on the job. One of the boats hits a mine. A little boy is run over by an American truck while trying to get candy. There is a chapter on a poison gas scare. As you can tell, the movie wanted a more upbeat narrative. But the book and the movie end up in the same place with the demoted Joppolo leaving town to the sound of the bell.
The book emphasizes more of how Joppolo’s rule was very different from the previous government. There is more on the culture shock of Italians meeting Americans. Setting the novel in a Sicilian town is like taking a step back in time. Hell, the town has a town crier! It relies on mule carts. Joppolo is more saintly in the book. He does not arrive in town with a frown on his face. He looks forward to the challenge.
As usual, the novel that is the source of a movie gives you more details and more characters. Unfortunately, in this case, more is not better. Hersey should have taken his four day stay with in Licata and turned it into a short story.
BOOK = C