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Father Keogh, a dedicated Roman Catholic priest from Ireland, arrives in Quantano, an isolated Mexican village cowering under the atheistic and tyrannical rule of bandit Anacleto. Father Keogh replaces the aging and broken-in-spirit Father Gomez. Despite threats and several attempts upon his life, Father Keogh openly defies the bandit and persuades some of the villagers to start attending church again, among them Locha, the daughter of the leading landowner. In retaliation, Anacleto tries to intimidate the priest by murdering the villagers in alphabetical order. Gradually, however, he begins to feel reluctant admiration for his adversary (he even kills one of his own men for attempting to shoot the priest). Eventually Anacleto asks if he may live with Father Keogh to determine whether it is the "song" (the religion) or the "singer" (the priest) that inspires good. During his stay Anacleto learns that Locha has fallen in love with Father Keogh, and when her family tries to force her into a loveless marriage, Anacleto hides her at his mountain stronghold. He then tells Father Keogh that unless he announces from the pulpit that he is a failure as a priest, Locha will be killed. Father Keogh agrees, but as he begins his sermon he spies Locha safely seated far back in the congregation. Tricked by Anacleto into breaking a vow to defeat evil, Father Keogh launches into a violent denunciation of the bandit. Authorities arrest Anacleto, and his gang attempts to rescue him on the way to prison. During the ensuing gunfire both Anacleto and the priest are fatally wounded. As the two men die side by side, Anacleto murmurs "the singer, not the song."