Reeling Backward: Lilies of the Field (1963)
Sidney Poitier is a revelation in the gentle if somewhat dated classic, winning the first leading actor Oscar by a non-white performer playing a wanderer who helps some stubborn nuns.
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No, “Lilies of the Field” has not aged particularly well. It’s very much a product of its era, smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning civil rights movement, as Hollywood sought to produce reassuring fare to make Black people demanding their rights seem less threatening to mainstream whites.
It’s headlined by Sidney Poitier, already the biggest African-American screen star, as Homer Smith, an agreeable wandering laborer who helps a group of East German nuns build a chapel in the middle of the Arizona desert.
The theme is that he’s roped into helping them out, grows resentful over the lack of pay and gratitude, but eventually embraces the spirit of generosity and passes it on to others.
You could even say the character falls into the “magical Negro” trope (so dubbed by Spike Lee et al), in which a Black person shows up to help white people with their problems and maybe see the world in a little more tolerant way.
(Though Smith doesn’t display any supernatural powers.)
Still, “Lilies” is still well-made and entertaining with a light dollop of social commentary. And Poitier is a revelation, a charismatic and thoughtful screen presence. He would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actor, the first non-white performer to win a leading role. (Hattie McDaniel won supporting actress for “Gone with the Wind” almost a quarter-century earlier.)
The film, based on the novel by William Edmund Barrett, would also earn Academy Award nominations for best picture, screenplay (James Poe), cinematography (Ernest Haller) and supporting actress for Poitier’s co-star, Lilia Skala, who plays the head nun, Mother Maria.
Ralph Nelson, who put the project together as producer and director, went unacknowledged in the directing category. Shades of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which is this movie’s spiritual inheritor.
Really what makes the film still touching today is the relationship between Maria and Smith. The old nun is stubborn, ungrateful and seems to expect people to help them through sheer dint of their innate goodness — though she’s not above bending an ear or twisting an elbow to get the help she wants to build their “shapel,” as their Germanic accents render the little church. They also call Smith “Schmidt” as the closest Germanic approximation.
It’s barely hinted at in the movie, but the five nuns made their way from East Germany over the Berlin Wall to set up a Catholic mission in Piedras, a remote Arizona town where most of the residents speak only Spanish. Their own English is not very good, with only Maria having a barely functioning vocabulary, so there’s no additional language barrier to overcome.
Besides Maria, the other four are played by Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis and Pamela Branch. Their names aren’t really important as they don’t have distinct personalities and largely function as a black-and-white Greek chorus. Though it’s notable that they are more friendly to Smith than Maria is.
Smith is a jack-of-all-trades handyman who drives around the country (in a 1959 Plymouth Sport Suburban station wagon), hiring out his skills whenever he needs money and reveling in being his own boss. He stops in to the nuns’ old farmstead when his car runs low on water.
Maria looks upon Smith with some suspicion, but insists that he repair their leaking roof. This leads to other small jobs, and the insistence that he stay for dinner and the night. Smith is agreeable, though perturbed by the meager meal (bread and milk) and breakfast the next morning, consisting of one egg.
(I shouldn’t make a habit of speculating what’s under nuns’ habits, but I’ll just say they seem rather filled out for people subsisting on such a diet.)
Maria has a way of changing the subject whenever Smith brings up the matter of payment, and has soon put him onto the job of building the chapel, which is currently one corner of adobe bricks. Smith keeps threatening to vamoose but can never quite bring himself to abandon the women.
On Sunday he drives them to the town center, which is just a gas station/roadside bar & grill, for church services. These are conducted outdoors on the back of a trailer belonging to Father Murphy (Dan Frazer), a burned-out priest who covers a 400-mile area. He confides to Smith that the sisters are penniless and their vision of a chapel is just a pipe dream.
Smith finds a companion and confidante in Juan, the Mexican-American owner of the stop, who keeps him fed while the nuns participate in mass. A good Baptist, Smith declined to take part.
(Juan is played by Caucasian actor Stanley Adams, in a move that adds to the film’s archaic feel.)
The big shift in Smith’s attitude comes when he’s challenged by Mr. Ashton (played by Nelson himself), the owner of a local construction company, as being unequal to the task of building a chapel by himself. Smith is also P.O.’d at being referred to as “boy,” and makes sure to return the insult. Rather than being put off, Ashton agrees to hire Smith on as a heavy machine operator two days a week, the rest of his time being devoted to the chapel project.
They soon run low on bricks, lumber and other supplies, which Maria has promised to procure without any real prospects, and an annoyed Smith takes off for a few weeks. Still, Maria insists to everyone that he will return, since Smith has been sent by God. He does indeed come back, outfitted in a flowered beach shirt and sunglasses after having apparently blown off some steam, and resumes his duties.
Some of the local congregation offer to help with the construction, which Smith at first refuses, having now embraced the project as his own calling. But he soon relents, and is surprised to find himself enjoying the prospect of being a boss. An impressed Ashton even tries to recruit him as his foreman.
The issue of race isn’t exactly front and center in “Lilies,” but it’s not shunted off to the side, either. Smith, who gives lessons in English to the nuns, is proud to acknowledge his black skin and heritage. He also teaches them a “down home” gospel song, “Amen” — actually sung by composer Jester Hairston.
And he’s amused by the Mexicans referring to him with the same word they do for whites. “Gringo! I don’t know if that’s a step up or a step down from something else I’ve been called all my life.”
All the while, Smith is increasingly incensed by Maria’s failure to thank him for his hard work and generosity, even using his construction wages to fill out the sisters’ scant dinner table. He finally gets his thanks in the end, though he has to essentially trick her into doing so, and is satisfied by the look of realization on her face that she’s been raising her eyes to the Lord so much she forgot to acknowledge the man in front of her who performed the earthly toil.
In the end, Smith lays aside his feelings of resentment and is content to have done good for its own sake. He writes his name into the wet cement at the top of the church spire, knowing no one will likely ever see it. When Maria offers him a place at the front of the church for the inaugural mass so he can be seen and acknowledged, Smith loads up his station wagon and drives off into the night without even so much as a goodbye.
“Lilies of the Field” is semi-fictional, based on the true story of the Sisters of Walburga, who came from various eastern European countries (not just Germany) and started up an American nunnery (in Colorado, not Arizona).
It’s solid old-school Hollywood filmmaking, uplifting if a bit predictable. But the tale of two very different people coming together is still a timeless one, a pair who don’t really much like each other but find a way to sharing respect.