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At the end of the Second World War on a military base on a small South Pacific island, U.S. Marine Sgt. Phil O'Hara and his fellow soldiers await their discharges while attending to mundane peacetime duties. On a routine supply pickup, Phil and several of his men meet arriving sea passengers Dr. Robert MacPhail and his wife, and missionaries Alfred and Margaret Davidson who are returning to the island after a year's absence. With two free hours between transports, Davidson and MacPhail are intent upon revisiting the missionary hospital they established on the island. Phil and the men are more enthusiastic about the arrival of the mail boat, which brings another passenger between ships, singer Sadie Thompson, who is headed to New Caledonia. While Phil and the men excitedly smuggle the gregarious Sadie to Bill's Bar in the village, Davidson and MacPhail visit the missionary hospital. Later, when Davidson hears robust singing emanating from Bill's, he stops by to chastise the Marines for breaking the Sabbath. Upon returning to the harbor to catch her boat, Sadie discovers that a week-long quarantine has been issued for the entire island. Phil and the men cheerfully escort Sadie to Joe Horn's modest hotel, where she is forced to accept a small spare room because the Davidsons and MacPhails have already taken the larger rooms. The following day as the monsoon season begins, Davidson expresses dismay at Sadie's boisterousness and the Marines visiting her room. When Davidson criticizes Sadie's character, MacPhail protests, accusing Davidson of intolerance. That evening, Sadie sings and dances for the men at Bill's, as Davidson, playing cards with the MacPhails, recalls having seen Sadie in Honolulu, outside of the notorious Emerald Club, a house of prostitution. MacPhail defends Sadie, upbraiding Davidson for his presumption that Sadie was employed at Emerald's. That night, Phil and the men drunkenly escort Sadie back to her room. Angered by their rowdiness, Davidson bursts in, ordering the men to leave, which prompts Phil to attack the missionary before being stopped by the others. After the soldiers leave, Davidson asks Sadie why she left Honolulu abruptly. Startled, she insists that he clarify his insinuations, but Davidson maintains that he only wishes to offer her redemption. The next day, Davidson visits the governor and demands Sadie's arrest, claiming she is a fugitive from America. Back at Horn's, Phil finds Sadie packing, determined to move into the village, fearful that Davidson may try to prevent her passage to New Caledonia. In the village, however, the native families refuse to take Sadie in, not wanting to incur Davidson's displeasure. Angry and frustrated, Sadie returns to Horn's, where Phil asks her to forgo her plans for New Caledonia and instead meet him in Australia, where he intends to settle upon his discharge. Sadie agrees just as a messenger brings her notice from the governor's office of her deportation to San Francisco in three days. Phil accompanies Sadie to the governor's office, but she insists on seeing him alone. When Sadie pleads with the governor to be allowed to go to Australia, he tells her that if Davidson allows it, he will approve. At Horn's, Sadie confronts Davidson but he accuses her of fleeing from the American police. Sadie admits to having been involved with a man who committed murder and for behavior for which she is not proud. Davidson insists she must pay for her immorality. Later, Phil visits Sadie and when he realizes Davidson is responsible for the deportation order, seeks him out. Learning of Sadie's past, Phil berates her, and declares that he could never marry her. After Phil departs, Davidson visits the distraught Sadie and prays over her. Confused, Sadie withdraws for the next couple of days and begins reading the Bible. When MacPhail expresses concern for her, Sadie reassures him, revealing that Davidson has helped her face up to her past and that she has accepted that she must return to San Francisco. As the transport arrives on the island, Phil visits Sadie to apologize for his reaction and to tell her he has arranged for her passage to New Caledonia. Sadie insists the only way that she will feel free is to accept punishment for her actions and return home. Davidson arrives and Sadie asks a disappointed Phil to go away. Davidson praises Sadie for her strength and she thanks him for providing her with confidence. To Sadie's amazement, Davidson then abruptly demands to know why she is leaving him and coldly tells her she can never change what she is and attacks her. The following morning Davidson commits suicide by jumping from a cliff. Phil rushes to Horn's, worried about Sadie's reaction to Davidson's death. Embittered, Sadie is nevertheless stunned and paralyzed by the news, until MacPhail convinces her she cannot let Davidson's actions ruin her. When Phil insists he wants to resume their plans for Australia, Sadie asks him if he can forget her past and he says he wants the opportunity to try. She agrees and sets off for Australia after Phil promises to meet her there in a month.