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In 1947, American priest Peter John O'Shea makes the torturous journey to reach a Catholic mission in a remote province of China. O'Shea is nearly drowned and loses his possessions but finds the mission, where he is greeted by Dr. Dave Sigman and his wife Beryl, who, along with nurse Anne "Scotty" Scott, run the mission's hospital. Anne, who is Catholic, is thrilled about O'Shea's arrival, but the following morning, Sigman tells the priest that he thinks the mission should be closed. Sigman states that because O'Shea's predecessors died, the locals from the surrounding seven villages are reluctant to attend the church, and that pressure from warlord Mieh Yang makes the area too dangerous. O'Shea vaguely addresses Sigman's concerns, then goes to the nearest village with Anne, who is impressed by his respectful treatment of the village elder. Parishioner John Wong asks O'Shea to say Mass, but the priest protests that he cannot, as he has lost his vestments. John persuades O'Shea to preach, and on Sunday, the priest reads from a book of sermons. Anne, who has dresssed up for the occasion, shrugs off Beryl's supposition that she is attracted to O'Shea. At first, Anne is disappointed, but then smiles when the priest speaks in Chinese to the congregation and explains the lesson. After the service, however, a disreputable-looking stranger arrives, and when he spits at O'Shea's feet, the priest violently strikes him. Soon after, Anne attempts to comfort O'Shea, who is disappointed in himself for his lack of control. When O'Shea states that he wants to close the mission, Anne protests, asserting that he has accomplished a great deal of good. As they talk, Anne reveals that she came to China because her pilot husband crashed in the mountains during World War II, and she was hoping that he would be found. Having realized that her husband was dead, Anne stayed on, and has become dedicated to helping the poor villagers. Later, Beryl comments to Sigman about O'Shea's odd demeanor, claiming that there is something "wrong" about him. Sigman, who has warmed to the priest, despite O'Shea's inexplicable concern over the delay of the usual trade caravans, defends him, although he agrees that Anne, who is falling in love with O'Shea, should return to the United States. Concern for Anne prompts Beryl to approach O'Shea and suggest that he talk with a man who could understand what he is going through. O'Shea agrees and sets out for the Protestant mission of Reverend Thomas Marvin, which is several days away. Upon reaching the mission, O'Shea startles Marvin by revealing that he is not a priest, and that his name is actually James Carmody. Carmody relates that he was an American pilot during the war, and after being shot down three years earlier, was rescued by Yang. Although he was a virtual prisoner, Carmody served as Yang's second-in-command. Carmody then describes how he came to his present situation: One day, as Carmody leads a raiding expedition, he hears a shot from the scouting party ahead. When he rides up, Carmody sees that the insolent Pao-Ching, who is the stranger that came to the mission, has shot and wounded a priest. Carmody lashes Pao-Ching for disobeying his orders not to fire, then takes the priest to Yang's mountain fortress. Carmody and Yang engage in their customary crapshoot for Carmody's salary, after which Yang upbraids Carmody for reproving Pao-Ching and tells him that they will have to kill the priest. Word then comes that the priest, named Peter John O'Shea, has died, and Carmody goes to see Jan Teng, the Buddhist doctor who was tending to O'Shea. Knowing how desperately Carmody wishes to escape Yang, Teng hints that a man disguised as a priest could possibly elude Yang's spies. Carmody finishes his story by stating that he assumed O'Shea's identity and traveled to the mission in the hope of joining a trade caravan destined for the coast. Amazed, Marvin instructs Carmody to write to the bishop in Sinkiang, and urges him to return to the mission. Carmody demurs, insisting that he cannot carry on with the charade. As they are talking, the men receive word that Yang's men, alerted by Pao-Ching about Carmody's presence at the mission, are attacking the seven villages. Marvin again tells Carmody that "his" people need him, but the flyer refuses to don the priest's collar again. Soon after, terrified villagers attempt to flee but are stopped by Yang's soldiers, who begin mercilessly beating men and sending them to the mission in an attempt to provoke O'Shea into revealing himself. After three days, during which they are baffled by "O'Shea's" absence, Anne and Sigman are arguing when Carmody appears, again clothed as the priest. Without revealing his identity, Carmody continues to act as O'Shea and tells Sigman that the simple villagers could never outfight Yang's men. Carmody urges Sigman, Beryl and Anne to trust him, but soon the mission is overflowing with refugees. Determined to end the situation, Carmody meets with Yang alone. Carmody urges Yang to depart, and when Yang asks him to return to his service, Carmody proposes a game of dice to determine his fate. Yang agrees that if Carmody wins, he will leave the villages, the mission and the American alone, but that if he wins, Carmody must return with him for five years. Carmody acquiesces, and is deeply relieved when he wins. Yang then proposes to roll for the fate of the Protestant mission, wagered against three years of Carmody's life, and the American again wins. Yang sighs about the legends that will arise from his retreat, then warns Carmody that two priests from Sinkiang are coming. After Yang departs, Carmody returns to the mission and hears John telling a story about Carmody convincing Yang to leave by filling him with fear of the Holy Ghost. That night, Carmody tells Anne that he is an imposter, and she is relieved to learn that she had not fallen in love with a real priest. In the morning, Fathers Cornelius and Joseph Keller arrive and question Carmody about the letter he sent to the bishop, detailing his adventures. Cornelius doubts Carmody's sincerity because of the stories about the "miracle" of his defeat over Yang, and Carmody reveals that it all lay in the toss of the dice. Despite himself, Cornelius is impressed that Carmody was willing to risk five years of servitude in order to save the mission, and states that the bishop wants him to continue impersonating a priest and go to Sinkiang, where his punishment will be decided. Cornelius explains that as the parishioners have not been hurt by his imposture, it would only destroy their faith to learn the truth about their beloved "Shen-fu," the Chinese term for priest. The following day, Carmody bids farewell to John, Beryl, Sigman and his parishioners, while inside the mission, Anne tells Cornelius that despite his deception, Carmody was a good priest. Surprised by the devotion Carmody has inspired, Cornelius tells Anne the pilot's real name as they watch him ride away.