A BELL FOR ADANO has been silent for a long time, its touching WW2 story unknown to recent generations, but it rang with success in its day, first as a 1944 book, winning journalist John Hersey the Pulitzer Prize, quickly adapted as a Broadway play with Fredric March that ran for 11 months, becoming a well-received movie in 1945. Starring John Hodiak (in his best and favorite role), it was based on a real character (Major Frank Toscani, 1911-2001) and his efforts in the Sicilian town of Licata, where, as in Hersey’s novel, Mussolini’s regime had the city’s 700-year-old bell melted down for ammunition. Released two months after fighting ended in Europe, a month before it ceased in the Pacific, it’s a war story without violence, dealing instead with the aftereffects, offering some hopeful measure of healing.
After the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily, the battered seaside town of Adano gets an American military administrator. ‘Major Victor Joppolo’ (Hodiak), an Italian-American from the Bronx, is tasked with maintaining order, building trust and replacing fascism with some elemental democracy. His team pitches in, and the needy citizens are eager for change, insisting the one thing they really need, after food and water, is their treasured church bell, a victim of the Fascist war machine. Joppolo does his best, but Army bureaucracy and the demands of superior officers are a hurdle. The shooting may be over in Adano, but there’s still a war on, after all. *
20th-Century Fox studio pros Lamar Trotti and Norman Reilly Raine worked the screenplay, and Henry King directed, adding another plum to his track record for hits, one that lasted two decades. The exteriors for the battered town were recreated on the California coast near Malibu, Alfred Newman composed a dramatic score, and a strong gallery of supporting players backed Hodiak, enjoying one of his few lead roles.
The main G.I.’s are put over by William Bendix, Harry Morgan, Glenn Langan and Roy Roberts. The cross-section of Adano is represented by Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, Hugo Haas, Monty Banks, Roman Bohnen, Fortunio Bonanova, Marcel Dalio, Henry Armetta and Eduardo Cianelli.
It can’t help being a wee dated, but stereotypes are minimal, and flagwaving is replaced by pragmatism and some by-then-earned cynicism over the absurd snafus and b.s of service hierarchy and paper-shuffling, in this instance bearing down not on bumbling recruits and misfits in boot camp, but urgently impacting the lives and livelihood of afflicted civilians in a battered land. Major Joppolo is a decent man, given authority but hamstrung by it. He’s also lonely, missing his wife, and he has a bittersweet relationship with a local girl played by Tierney, alone without her soldier husband. The story is mature enough to allow that many in the audience could relate to that separation anxiety and longing for human contact.
Exempted from service because of acute hypertension (which eventually took him a decade later at the age of 41), Hodiak, like Van Johnson and a few others, briefly achieved prominence while stars like Gable, Power and Fonda were away in uniform: this is one of his few lead roles, and he’s quite good, conveying strength, determination and sensitivity. Critics knocked Tierney (her hair dyed blonde, which everyone made shallow, undue fuss over) as miscast, but she does all right, and her scenes with Hodiak are well handled.
A touching cameo of humanity and decency from a time of agony and destruction, its gross of $6,900,000 positioned it 38th among ’45’s array, which included a half-dozen of the best, more honest and affecting war pictures made during the conflict. With Stanley Prager, John Russell and Grady Sutton. 103 minutes.
* Partially because there was a considerable Italian-American population, and also because Italy’s war effort was half-hearted compared to Germany and Japan, without their regimes accompanying atrocities, movies and the public gave Italy and its people more of a break. Revelations of Nazi concentration camps and Japanese P.O.W. camps ensured a longer wait for anger and bitterness to relent.