Shot on a $400,000 shoestring in just 14 days, Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963) can justly serve as a testament to the director/producer’s humanity, humor and perseverance. That Nelson could find absolutely no one to fund his passion project, in hindsight, reveals exactly how attuned his instincts were in presenting this perfectly timed ole-fashioned entertainment with a then ‘new-fangled’ twist; the twist being the casting of Sidney Poitier to star as the irreverently clear-eyed protagonist, Homer Smith – rechristened ‘Schmidt’ by Lilia Skala’s charmingly caustic Mother Maria. It is easy to fall under the spell – or perhaps, religious sway – of this unpretentious, if occasionally schmaltzy tall tale; Nelson’s small-scale film-making, unabashedly big on heart with a little light social justice thrown in for good measure. Boy, could we use such positivism in the world today, unfettered by racial biases on both sides, bound by love and a mutual veneration to respect our differences; equally imbued with the sheer unanticipated joy of discovering something new and greater in ourselves from within; a vantage only made possible by taking a few paces back in the reflection of those we revere. Homer Smith is neither Catholic nor particularly practicing in any religion. Yet, he finds a subtler quality to satisfy his wanderlust – dare we suggest, ‘soul-searching’ in lieu of monetary gains. Homer’s faith in humanity is renewed with even subtler appreciations for life along the way; the charity of this piece, the glue that holds its’ lithe and unprepossessing narrative together.
Viewed today, Lilies of the Field remains a cheekily cheerful melodrama, the utter lack of dramatic urgency counterbalanced by its effervescent wholesomeness. Alas, the formula of Germanic nuns and a black man has since taken a lot of flak by ‘progressive’ revisionists in film scholarship; the ‘magic negro’ theory, overshadowing – though mercifully, never eclipsing – Poitier’s eloquently nuanced performance. The ‘magic negro’ theory is un-apologetically a throwback to the stereotyping of blacks as ‘the noble savage’ – supportive, with an uncanny, almost clairvoyant divinity, ably applied to assist white protagonists in their decision-making processes. Personally, I find the theory itself utterly idiotic, even more so when applied to Poitier in general and this film in particular; precisely in lieu of the scholarship that generally bashes American cinema for its representation of blacks perennially typecast as the disenfranchised poor, at best, and slaves, drug trafficking pushers, addicts, pimps, and, prostitutes – ergo, humanity’s dregs. Can’t have it both ways, folks. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Spike Lee…are you listening? And to quote the late Richard Rodgers, “What’s wrong with sweetness and light? They’ve been around for an awful long time.”
Sidney Poitier would take home a much-deserved Oscar for in Lilies of the Field, the first Best Actor statuette awarded a black actor and, in hindsight, Poitier’s breakout as a star. With his velvety-smooth Bahaman accent, urbane other-worldliness and suave sophistication, Poitier would prove himself the purveyor of this new type of cinematic hero in films like Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, and, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (the latter two made and released in 1967); not only a credit to his race and profession, but also bridging the great divide for black actors soon and steadily to find better roles emerging from under the yoke of that ‘white’ homogenized golden-era Hollywood. Arguably, there is a formula to all of the aforementioned movies; the representation of Poitier as this Teflon-coated black Adonis, virtuous to the last detail. Yet, Poitier’s performance in Lilies of the Field as well as Nelson’s approach to the material is hardly of the Christian allegory treacle depicted in William Edmund Barrett’s novel; its title derived from the Bible’s Luke 12:27-30: “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” In the novel, Homer Smith is canonized, depicted in the stained glass windows of the chapel. He shows no resistance to Mother Maria and accepts his lot as a tool to do God’s bidding.
James Poe’s screenplay is edgier than this; ditto for Poitier’s firm – if gentle – forbearance. His Homer ‘Schmidt’ will build Mother Maria her chapel, but not as it pleases her…at least, not entirely, more to satisfy his architect’s sensibilities that even through his agnosticism can see have spiritual merit for this rather isolated community of migrants, presently holding their Sunday worship in the parking lot of a local greasy spoon. The establishment is presided over by a jovial, portly Hispanic, Juan (Stanley Adams…oh, now, let’s talk stereotypes!!! All that is missing is a sombrero and references to the jumping bean). Adams, a very fine actor, refrains from slipping entirely into cliché as this benevolent south-of-the-border hombre while doling out equal portions of tequila and brass tax advice to our wavering Homer. Interestingly, Nelson cast himself in the part of Mr. Ashton, the mildly bigoted owner of a local construction company in need of a good man who can operate heavy paving machinery. Just like Homer, the plight of Mother Maria and her nuns, Sisters Gertrude (Lisa Mann), Agnes (Isa Crino), Albertine (Francesca Jarvis) and Elizabeth (Pamela Branch) will work its magic on the curmudgeonly Ashton in due course; Ashton’s eventual donation of badly needed supplies to finish the job leading Mother Maria into yet another false assumption; she can rely upon Ashton to furnish her with enough materials to build a school – her next pet project. Exactly how this second miracle is to be achieved remains open ended in the movie, as Homer – unlike his literary counterpart – abandons the nuns to seek fame and fortune in Los Angeles, where he was initially bound before stumbling upon this tiny hovel.
If anything, the formula being exorcised in Lilies of the Field is vaguely reminiscent of The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), another bell-ringer, with the luminous Ingrid Bergman’s patient and prayer-happy Mother Superior supplanted herein by Lilia Skala’s terse and slightly terrifying East German commandant; the little Nazi in black britches who never once breaks in her stern mandate, even to admit her own failures, despite inspirational prayers and letter-writing pleas for monetary assistance. Mother Maria’s attempts to hold dominion over Homer begins with the dressing down of his non-Catholic identity. Rechristening him Schmidt, Mother Maria seeks to hold Homer hostage. She repeatedly denies him pay for his work; the Biblical debate that ensues across the kitchen table, ending when Mother Maria recalls the aforementioned chapter and verse from Luke; an interesting quote, as it flies in the face of the film’s doctrine; forcing ‘Schmidt’ to apply his God-given skill set to a worthy cause; a pair of strong hands and even more stubborn resolve to work their miracle together. And even more fascinating is the revised finale, Homer’s departure after the work is finished, without pomp, schmaltz, or even a few tears shed; never even thanked for his contributions, though perhaps instinctively recognizing his achievements will long be celebrated in these parts, not only by the sisters, but the community at large and Father Murphy (Dan Frazer), who prayed for a great gleaming cathedral; tested in this vanity with his present appointment in the middle of nowhere.
Lilies of the Field opens with one of the briefest main title sequences in cinema history set against the stark and heat-stricken south western landscape of towering buttresses and tumbleweed. No man’s land finds Homer Smith on an isolated highway bound for Los Angeles. Curiously, he is a nomad; his car, his home – odd, for this cultured outcast who obviously possesses not only the dexterity of a trained draftsman but also the aptitude and education derived from a more affluent background. An overheated radiator causes Homer to seek out the first available outpost for assistance, stumbling upon Mother Maria and the sisters hard at work in their dwindling gardens near a modest adobe stucco house. Mother Maria raises her head to the sky and gives thanks. God has sent her a strong man to do the work. In her broken English, she quickly informs Homer the roof is leaking. In exchange for water from a nearby pump, Homer willingly offers to make the necessary repairs, spending most of the afternoon with his tool kit on top of the sagging roof. At day’s end, Homer expects to be paid. But Mother Maria is not interested in his expectations or in fulfilling them. Instead, she orders Homer to supper and afterward makes him quietly observe as the sisters listen to a phonograph to teach themselves English. Homer hijacks the lesson, teaching from memory and gaining the sister’s respect. Mother Maria is grateful, though perhaps a tad uncertain how best to utilize ‘Schmidt’ best to suit her purpose.
After refusing to pay him for his work, the two engage in a debate over their respective Bibles; Mother Maria winning the battle of quotations with Luke 12:27-30. Chagrined, Homer retires to the makeshift cot that pulls out from the back of his station wagon; rudely awakened the next morning by Mother Maria, who suggests he has wasted the entire morning by sleeping. Homer points out he is neither of their order, her servant, nor a nun who can be pushed around. Nevertheless, Mother Maria takes Homer to nearby ruins where she intends him to build a chapel. Homer is indifferent to the request and firmly resists – at first. He drives off in a huff, but later returns with groceries and candies for the sisters. Mother Maria gets ‘Schmidt’ to drive them to Sunday mass, held by Father Murphy in the parking lot of a roadside diner. Avoiding the service, Homer gets the diner’s proprietor, Juan, to cook him a lavish breakfast – the first real meal he has had since arriving to this desolate community. Afterward, Mother Maria introduces Homer to Father Murphy. Murphy confides his own vanities were denied him in entering the priesthood; his dreams of being a great orator to the masses inside a cathedral utterly dismantled when he learned he would be expected instead to administer the noble faith to these valiant few living in the forgotten dust in poverty.
Homer confides in Father Murphy he has been commanded to build a chapel without money or supplies; Father Murphy suggesting Homer might find gainful employment at Ashton’s Construction Company in the nearby town. At first, Mr. Ashton is not at all amused by Homer’s inquiry for the job; calling him ‘boy’ and suggesting he knows absolutely nothing about operating such heavy machinery. Unwilling to be berated, Homer calls Ashton ‘boy’ in reply, but offers to prove his abilities on Ashton’s current paving project. Ashton reluctantly agrees and a détente is struck between the men, who regard one another as a means to an end for now, but by the end of our story will have achieved an understanding that at least borders on mutual respect. In the meantime, Homer uses his newly earned funds to buy a few supplies to feed the sisters on foodstuffs they never before could have imagined, much less afforded. He also engages these faithful in a ‘negro’ spiritual; composer, Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing ‘Amen’ serving as the thematic thread to buoy Homer and the sisters in their momentarily united quest. Homer tells Mother Maria the successful completion of the chapel will require money – or, at the very least, donations of the necessary supplies. Mother Maria pledges to get what is needed and begins an ambitious letter-writing campaign to various charities and other organizations. Her pleas, alas, fall on deaf ears. However, in the eleventh hour both Ashton and Juan come to Homer’s rescue; Ashton with supplies, Juan with the necessary manpower to expedite Homer’s construction plans.
Asked by a perplexed Ashton to explain the reasons why total strangers should come together and be invested in the building of a chapel, Juan, the agnostic of the piece, eloquently summarizes, “A man, he gives wood... bricks. In time, what does he get? A chapel... a place where his children can receive the sacraments. To these men, for their children to have faith, it is important. To me, it is insurance. To me, life is here on this earth. I cannot see further, so I cannot believe further. But, if they are right about the hereafter, I have paid my insurance.”
Curiously, Homer resists this help at first; Juan and his men gradually illustrating how much faster the work will go with extra hands to help in the work. Before long, the entire community gets involved; men, women, children and nuns pulling together, laying bricks, making mortar and donating what they can to will the chapel into existence. Near completion, Homer sends for Father Murphy. The priest cannot believe his eyes. The chapel may not be the gleaning cathedral of his daydreams, but it is nevertheless a far more lavishly appointed outpost in which to administer the gospel. Father Murphy is humbled by the outpouring of faith and humanity it took to build the chapel. As Mother Maria already begins to pester Ashton for more supplies for a school adjacent the chapel, Homer quietly bows out. He engages the nuns, perhaps unaware he is preparing to depart, in a reprise of ‘Amen’; their jubilant voices gradually drowning his own as he quietly gets into his car and drives off, leaving all of their futures in question.
At 94 min. Lilies of the Field squeezes every last drop from the milk of human kindness to the absolute point where the nipples from this Jehovah’s goat of a story ought to have run dry. Miraculously, however, the religiosity of the piece is never strained; Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala’s interplay remaining taut and occasionally tense, but always with a mutual respect firmly at play. The one regret of the piece – perhaps – is that Poitier, a fine actor, was nevertheless utterly tone deaf, necessitating the dub of his rousing anthem to the Lord – Amen – by Jester Hairston, whose singing pipes in no way match Poitier’s speaking voice. Personally, I don’t find this altogether disconcerting; at least, not as much as the fallout that, in retrospect, would afflict Sidney Poitier’s acting career. In the all too brief span of 5 years, Poitier would see his reputation as Hollywood’s golden boy evaporate; a positive figure for the black community to immortalize diffused by less than stellar parts and his seeming inability to break free of the mold that had been established for him in movies like Lilies of the Field; and such a shame, that pundits on both sides of this racial divide instead have quickly chosen to discount his achievements as having ‘sold out’ to the mercilessly politicized white autocracy. Can we not agree Sidney Poitier’s career is transparently built upon variations of the classic western hero; a stranger who rides into town and affects social change through non-violent means, resulting in an enlightened moral/social consciousness blossoming shortly before the final fade out? Exactly what is so gosh darn stereotypical about that? And Poitier, with his not so easily placed accent, immaculate manners and forthright resolve is exactly the sort of role model – black or white – Hollywood films could use a lot more of both then and certainly now.
Focusing on Poitier’s race denies him the potency of his superior skills as a natural actor; supra-elegant, and yet earthily genuine. He really ought to be considered on these merits first, if not alone; more so than as the polarizing figure, considered non-threatening to whites, but unsettlingly ‘not black enough’ by the criteria of his own people. If Poitier’s contributions to American cinema continue to be debated on the basis of race today, it is only because current members of the Hollywood community like director, Spike Lee persist in referencing him with back-handed praiseworthy notations as the template for their modern age proliferation in the industry. But Poitier ought to be remembered first and foremost as a great talent, a superior star, and, a monumentally talented performer to who the issue of race was almost an afterthought and not the central focus of the content of his character. A brilliant performance by an equally as brilliant man is still a brilliant performance by an as equally as brilliant man. Bravo, kudos and many sincere thanks to Mr. Poitier for enriching our cinema culture and heritage. Last, but certainly not least - amen!
Regrettably, there isn’t a whole lot of praise to sing for Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray; MGM once again cutting corners wherever it can and delivering a rather dirty, grainy and not altogether pleasing presentation in hi-def. This disc is obviously culled from less than perfectly archived sources. Framed in its native 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Lilies of the Field suffers from a lot of age-related dirt and scratches. Film grain adopts a digitized quality in long shots but looks to have been unnaturally scrubbed from close-ups and medium shots. The entire image is soft; again, close-ups and certain medium shots fairing much better than establishing long shots. I cannot get excited about this visual presentation; fine detail utterly lacking and contrast slightly boosted – the mid-register tonality all but absent. There is a harshness that I cannot imagine being indigenous to the original theatrical presentation.
Fair enough; Lilies of the Field was shot quick and dirty without the benefit of studio-bound key lighting. Even so, as presented here, the image suffers from video-based digitized grain and, at intervals looks as though some artificial enhancements have been applied to both sharpen and flatten out the origins of its film-based visual characteristics. The DTS mono sounds dated and very rough in spots. TT has supplied us with an isolated score and a very informative audio commentary that will surely not disappoint. But the actual film as presented herein is disappointing to say the least. I want to say, pass and be glad that you did – except that Lilies of the Field – even in such a deplorable state – outshines most any heavy-handed ‘religious-themed’ movie attempted today. For this reason alone, I will recommend this disc. But if you already own the DVD I honestly cannot see the point in this upgrade. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)