Based on William E. Barrett’s novel, a pilot stranded in China escapes from a warlord by pretending to be a priest at a mission.
In a remote province of China in 1947 Jim Carmody (Humphrey Bogart) rides a donkey in the rain. He falls off a bridge into a stream, climbs out, and walks to the mission. Dr. David Sigman (E. G. Marshall) and the nurse Anne Scott (Gene Tierney) call him Father O’Shea and ask him to bless a Chinese patient. Jim says he lost his vestments, but he blesses the man as he dies. Anne asks Jim to pray, and he does.
John Wong (Victor Sen Yung), the church sexton, wakes Jim in the morning and asks him to say mass. John says they need 42 weddings, 36 baptisms, and many confessions. Dr. Sigman tells Jim he recommended closing the mission because the Chinese avoid the mission, but the bishop disagreed. They discuss the warlord Yang. Dr. Sigman says they are in a civil war and angrily asks Jim for more information. Dr. Sigman tells him not to depend on his collar, and Jim offers to take it off. Dr. Sigman apologizes and invites him for dinner.
Jim walks to the village with Anne and calls her a “pretty girl.” In the village Jim blesses the oldest man and asks for his blessing. He learns the caravan has not come there in months. In his room Jim puts his gun under his pillow. John insists that Father O’Shea must say mass tomorrow or at least preach a sermon. Jim finds a book of sermons.
Anne and Beryl Sigman (Agnes Moorehead) discuss the priest. In church Jim reads an epistle and then preaches in Chinese. Outside an armed man arrives, and Jim hits him twice. The man gets up and rides off. In his office Anne asks Jim if he is all right. Jim says he is thinking of closing the mission because it is dangerous, and they don’t belong there. Anne says she is married and came looking for her husband. She says they are needed, and she will stay.
Jim plays chess with Dr. Sigman, who talks about a notorious beer joint that is filthy and what might be done about it. A boy takes Jim to a family with a child that was born dead. The mother asks him to tell her the story of Mary and Joseph. He tells the others that she died. He asks where her husband is and learns he is in the yellow house. Despite their warnings, he goes there. He walks past the women and tells the man drinking that his wife is dead. He slaps the man and then talks to him gently. Together they go back to his house. There he sees Dr. Sigman, and they walk back together.
Dr. Sigman and his wife Beryl talk about the priest. Beryl says Anne should go home because she is stirred up by Father O’Shea. Dr. Sigman asks if she will go. He asks her if he should quit.
Jim plays piano and leads children in singing. Anne comes in, and Jim sings “Loaf of Bread” with her. The children go to bed, and Jim follows Anne outside. She says she can’t go to confession yet and retires. Jim finds a bottle of Scotch in his room and says good night to John. Beryl knocks and comes in. She says Anne has a crush on him, and she suggests that he visit a Protestant mission.
Jim rides a horse there and talks with Rev. Marvin. Jim tells him his name and that he is not a priest. He says he was a pilot and crashed there. He was picked up by the warlord Yang and felt like he was his prisoner. Jim asks the armed man who shot the priest, and Jim smells his gun. Jim says he ordered no shooting and slaps him. Jim says they brought a girl to keep him happy. He takes the priest to get medical care, and he kisses Mary Yin (Jean Porter). Jim asks how he can get out of there. Jim reports to Mieh Yang (Lee J. Cobb) and describes the weapons they got. They roll dice for his pay, and Jim loses. Jim says Pao Ching shot a priest, and Yang offers to pay for it. Yang orders Jim to apologize to Pao Ching, but Jim says he is quitting. They learn the priest died. Jim asks a man how he could get out of there. He says that a priest crossing the hills would be safe and that caravans stop at the mission.
Jim tells Marvin that he decided to try for the mission. Rev. Marvin says he must inform the church authorities. Jim says he wants to go with a courier. He will not put the collar on again. A messenger says that Yang is going east. Marvin advises Jim to put the collar on, but he refuses and says the mission will be safer without him there. Marvin says it will protect his neck, and Jim takes the collar.
Soldiers whip people in the village, and Dr. Sigman and Anne treat them. Jim returns and asks how many Yang has beaten. Dr. Sigman says they can fight Yang’s hundred men. Jim says that would be foolish, and he asks them to trust him.
In a church Jim silently talks to God. Jim wakes John to go. Dr. Sigman comes in and angrily complains about the people gathered and Yang. Jim says Yang wants him. He gives Dr. Sigman his gun and leaves as the people kneel. He walks past Yang’s men on horseback, and they follow him. Jim comes up to Yang, who says the village is worthless. Yang makes sure he has no gun and says he has come down in the world. Yang calls him a deserter and threatens him with torture. Jim says Yang would lose face. Yang says he wants him to work for him again. Jim asks for the safety of the mission and the village, but he offers nothing in return. Yang says he will take what he wants. Yang says he will give him the mission and village if he will serve him for three years. Jim asks for the dice, and Yang says they play for five years. Jim wins. Yang asks Jim to bet three years against the Protestant mission, and Yang loses again. Yang says he will become benevolent and create a legend. Yang says he gave up a good woman in Mary Yin.
Around a campfire John tells people about Father O’Shea. In a garden Anne thanks Jim. He says he is leaving the mission with the caravan, and he tells her he is not a priest. He says two priests are arriving. He says he did it with a dice game. He says he walked into the trap at the mission. People will learn that he was a fake. Anne confesses that she fell in love with a priest, and he says he was falling in love with her. She runs into the house.
Two priests arrive on horseback, and Jim welcomes them. Father Cornelius (Carl Benton Reid) suspects the belief in his miracle. Jim says he shot dice, and he had a feeling he would not lose. Father Cornelius says he will dress as a priest until he sees the bishop. Father Cornelius says it is better not to disillusion the people. Jim says Miss Scott knows. Jim says goodbye to John and walks into the church.
The Sigmans say they are fond of Jim. Anne tells Father Cornelius that she thought Jim was a priest. She says the people put their faith in him, and he did not fail them. Children sing to Jim, and he leaves. Anne waves goodbye to him.
This drama set during a time of turmoil in China shows how any man might fulfill the role of a priest in some circumstances. The pilot goes from the extreme violence of helping a warlord to the opposite of a holy person, trying to do his best in each role. The situations stimulate various characters to examine themselves and their feelings. Historically China was on the verge of adopting a materialistic philosophy, and after the revolution Christian missionaries would no longer be as welcome.