This little movie has a whole lot of entertainment. Made on a shoestring, the total budget was less than $250,000, but director Ralph Nelson had the guarantee any overrun by mortgaging his house. Nelson, screenwriter Jane’s L. Poe and star Sidney Poitier all took small salaries in exchange for part of the gross. Nelson also played one of the supporting parts to save money. The film grossed nearly $4 million during its initial release. Nelson kept his house.
A traveling construction worker (Poitier) stops at a small farm in Arizona to fill the radiator of his station wagon. The farm is owned and run by a group of nuns from Eastern Europe. Poitier agrees to do some repair work on their roof in exchange for payment. And so it begins.
The nuns are poor, they essentially live off the land. There’s no money, but it takes awhile for Poitier to figure that out, but it’s after he spends the night and takes on more work. He even begins helping the nuns with their English.
The nuns believe Homer Smith, or Schmidt, as they call him in their poor English, has been sent from God to help them. They prayed for a big, strong man to help them, and here he is, much to Smith’s surprise. Specifically, he was sent to build them a chapel. Smith wants nothing to do with it, he’s working his way across the country, this was just a stop on the road. Or so he thinks.
Smith has met his match with Mother Maria, who is as stubborn as she is a believer. She cuts him no slack and fully believes Smith was sent to build them a chapel. He expects to be paid for his labor, but she refers him to a Bible passage about lilies of the field. He is clearly getting nowhere with her.
Smith is a talented heavy equipment operator and skilled with him hands, but a builder, he is not. In time, he takes Mother Maria’s expectant as a personal challenge. While he slowly agrees to take on the project, the nuns have no building materials. They send out letters to every organization they can think of, without result.
In the meantime, Smith offers his services as an equipment operator, two days a week, to the local construction company owner. He uses his earnings to buy groceries for the nuns, and himself, being tired of eating potato soup.
After driving the nuns to trading post where the visiting priest holds service, Smith strikes up a friendship with Juan, who operates the trading post. He learns from Juan how the nuns escaped from East Germany, over the wall to come here to the farm that was willed to their order. They barely scratch out a subsistence growing crops and raising chickens to eat.
Juan isn’t really a believer, but says that he participates in religious activities as a means of spiritual insurance. He suggests Smith is doing the same. Smith reveals that he couldn’t afford college to become an architect, building the chapel is his chance to design and build something.
Smith and Mother Maria are a lot alike. Stubborn and not giving an inch. Their battles are one of the best parts of the film. She is firm in her way, and he squirms in trying to get an inch from her. To her, Smith’s efforts are the result of her belief. He struggles to get a simple thank you from her. She thanks God, not him.
The nuns are strangers in a new country, struggling, but they have their faith. Smith is a Black man in the early 1960s, with struggles of his own. The film does not confront race issues, the only instance of race is when Ashton refers to Smith as boy. Smith gives it right back to him, calling Ashton boy. Smith and Mother Maria have similar, but different paths, ergo their spirited battles.
After she strikes out getting donated building supplies, Smith and Mother Maria are at odds, he finally has had enough of her bullish ways and leaves. The nuns must walk the many miles to their Sunday service. Gone three weeks, Smith returns.
And their fortunes change.
Instead of donations by organizations, the poor, mostly Mexicans, step up to provide labor, Adobe bricks, stained glass window, lumber and even a chandelier for the chapel.
At first, Smith turns down any help of labor, believing that only he has the skill or attention to detail to build it right. He is soon overcome by exhaustion and realizes he needs the help and they are good.
The owner of the Ashton Construction Company (Ralph Nelson), who employs Smith, has frequently been hit up for donations by the nuns. He reappears occasionally, gruff at first, he was gradually worn down.
This is a story about faith, which comes in many forms, and fortifies the human spirit in many ways.
Poitier was rewarded for his role with the Best Actor Academy Award, the first African-American to win in a lead role. He also won a Golden Globe and the BAFTA for his performance.
The film was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, cinematography, adapted screenplay and picture.