With nothing better to do, and hoping to get paid, travelling handyman and ex-GI Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) helps out five German-speaking nuns – who have fled from behind the Berlin Wall – on the small Arizona farm bequeathed to them by a German immigrant.
However, they hope he can be beguiled into undertaking a much bigger task for them. After fixing their leaky farmhouse roof, Homer discovers that not only will Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) – a proud, virtuous tyrant – not pay him for the job, but she also wants him to build their chapel for free.
Hesitant at first, Homer soon finds himself single-handedly raising the chapel and the financing.
But although he will not receive a monetary reward, Homer knows that when his work is done, he’ll leave that dusty desert town a much better place than when he found it.
There are some fine cinematic moments of good-humoured genius such as the nuns’ English lessons with Homer (Southern drawl and all) as the teacher; the “Ay-men”, not “Ah-men” spiritual session; and a simple march to church that puts to shame the noblest crusade.
Sidney Poitier won only the second Oscar for a black actor in 24 years (the first went to Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind) for his role here as the itinerant handyman.
James Poe’s simplistic screenplay might have become sluggishly sentimental without Ralph Nelson’s discerning direction and Poitier’s sharp humour, and the film also benefits from the distinguished performance of Lilia Skala as a formidable Mother Maria.
Miss Skala’s fierce, scalding purpose as a matriarch of the church towers to an unyielding beauty as you realise that this harsh, unforgiving, barren woman is at once desert saint and mother.