Lilies of the Field (1963) is a feel-good film that epitomizes Sidney Poitier’s stated mission to make uplifting entertainment:
“I like to have people coming out of a theater feeling better than when they went in.”
With its unique storyline, Lilies of the Field also met another of Sidney’s goals:
“I try to make motion pictures about the dignity, nobility, the magnificence of human life.”
Thanks to its uplifting themes, and the star power of Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field was a surprise critical and box office success.
It also garnered Sidney an Oscar for Best Actor, making him the first black man to win the award.
Let’s go through the plot of Lilies of the Field [aff. link], then we’ll go behind the scenes of this landmark film.
Lilies of the Field: The Plot
Sidney plays Homer Smith, a World War II vet travelling the country with nothing but his car and the few personal belongings he needs to get by. Homer picks up odd jobs as he travels, and is sort of a jack-of-all-trades. While passing through a middle of nowhere Arizona town, Homer has car troubles.
Luckily, there’s a small order of Eastern European nuns just off the road.
“Car’s thirsty. Can I please have some water?”
The nuns, whom Homer quickly learns speak very little English, provide him with the water he needs. But just as Homer is about to take off, the mother superior, Mother Maria (Lilia Scala)—the only nun with enough English to converse with Homer, convinces him to stay for a bit and help the nuns with a roof repair.
Homer is a sweet guy, and agrees to fix the roof. But he makes it clear that this isn’t charity, and squares a deal with Mother Maria to be paid for his work swiftly so he can get back on the road.
Little does Homer know, Mother Maria and the other nuns believe that Homer is an answer to their prayers: the nuns believe that God sent Homer to their small order to help built a chapel.
An English Lesson
As you may have guessed, as soon as Homer finishes the roof repair, the nuns do everything they can think of to keep him from leaving.
They invite Homer to stay for dinner, which, after the roof repair, is an invitation he’s ready to accept.
It’s an incredibly light meal of bread and milk, but Homer makes the best of it, and has fun giving the nuns an English lesson afterwards. It’s a charming scene as Homer gets these Eastern European nuns, with their thick accents, to repeat English phrases and slang after him.
Homer stays the night, thinking that Mother Maria plans to pay him in the morning. But to his surprise, the next morning Homer doesn’t get paid. He gets a new job assignment.
Homer begins to realize that Mother Maria is one savvy nun, clearly using the language barrier to her advantage.
Consider the Lilies of the Field
That night, Homer, a Baptist and himself very familiar with the bible, finds a few verses to support his right to payment for his work. Homer shows the verses to Mother Maria.
But her response surprises him.
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Mother Maria flips to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and hands the bible to Homer, who grudgingly recites:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
Homer Sticks Around
Homer takes a shine to these plucky nuns, and decides to stick around and build their chapel. He builds by day, laying adobe brick by adobe brick. In the evenings, Homer and the nuns enjoy dinner together, and he gives them more English lessons. On Sundays, he drives the nuns to town in his station wagon so they don’t have to walk the long distance to Mass every week.
Homer gets a part time construction job to help finance the building materials for the chapel, and uses the rest of his earnings to stock the nuns’ food supply with heartier ingredients. Homer even surprises the nuns with little treats like lollipops.
Despite their differences—race, religion, age, and experience—Homer and the nuns become friends.
Eventually the whole town chips in to help Homer build their chapel, contributing whatever labor and building materials they can.
Under Homer’s management and contributions, the chapel is finally finished. Mother Maria asks him to come to Mass at the chapel the next day so everyone can thank him.
But the only thank you Homer really cares about is the one from Mother Maria.
With the chapel finished and Mother Maria’s gratitude expressed, Homer knows it’s time for him to move on.
A formal goodbye would be too sad, so Homer leads the nuns in singing a spiritual, “Amen.” While the nuns continue to sing around the dinner table, Homer walks to his car, packs up his meager belongings, and drives off into the night.
He never received money for his work, but the payment Homer did receive was much greater.
And that’s the end of the film.
Lilies of the Field: An Unlikely Film
Lilies of the Field was based on the 1962 William Edmund Barrett novel of the same name. And it was an unlikely story for a Hollywood film: no violence, no expletives, no romance, lots of nuns, and, most unlikely of all for the early 1960s, a black protagonist.
While director Ralph Nelson shopped around for a studio to take him up on this film project, various changes to the story were suggested, all with the intent to make the film more “box office.”
The most comical of these completely serious suggestions:
-Inject the film with a little romance by having one of the nuns—who would not have yet taken her final vows—fall in love with Homer.
-Change Homer’s race, make him white, and offer the role to Steve McQueen.
Now I love Steve McQueen, but REALLY?
Ralph Nelson said no way to both suggestions.
Nelson knew that the main points of the film—inclusion, loving your fellow man, celebrating differences, fostering support for integration—would all be lost if such changes were implemented.
Nelson held strong to the story as written, making no compromises. And eventually, he landed a budget of $250,000 to make Lilies of the Field. It wasn’t much, but he could make it work.
Now it was time to find the right actor to play Homer Smith.
Lilies of the Field: Casting Homer
At first, the role of Homer Smith was offered to Harry Belafonte. But Belafonte turned the role down flat, believing the film would do nothing to further Civil Rights. Belafonte believed the character Homer Smith was, well…basically boring.
To quote Belafonte:
“He [Homer] didn’t kiss anybody, he didn’t touch anybody, he had no culture, he had no history, he had nothing.”
But Sidney Poitier saw something completely different in the role. To Sidney, Homer Smith was gold.
Where Harry Belafonte saw a boring character with no culture or romance, Sidney saw a flawed, completely human charater that radiated goodness. Where Belafonte saw no Civil Rights furtherment, Sidney saw an opportunity to promote feelings of brotherhood on screen.
After reading the Lilies of the Field script, Sidney was dead set on playing Homer Smith:
“If anyone [else] plays this part, I’ll go shoot him dead. This part is for me!”
In Lilies of the Field, Sidney saw a story directly in line with his views on how equality and integration could be achieved, and racial barriers broken down. To Sidney Poitier, films could do the most good for Civil Rights if they promoted human stories of universal themes that everybody—not just one group—could relate to. Such films would be more effective at turning hearts and minds towards integration than any militant, angry message could ever be.
And so with Harry Belafonte out, Sidney happily took on the role of Homer Smith.
Lilies of the Field: A Film on a Budget
Even with a big star like Sidney on board, there were great sacrifices made to get Lilies of the Field into production.
Many of these sacrifices were made by Sidney himself.
The film’s total budget, $250,000, was just under half of what Sidney earned per film at this point in his career. For Lilies of the Field, Sidney would take a major pay cut. But he believed so strongly in the project, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make. Ultimately, Sidney agreed to star in the film for $50,000 and 10 percent of the profits.
The profit sharing may sound nice, but don’t forget, with its absence of violence and romance, no one thought Lilies of the Field would be successful.
Another sacrifice Sidney made for Lilies of the Field was his labor.
Due to the film’s tight budget, REAL bricks, wood planks and beams, and rolls of tarpaper were used for all of the construction materials Homer carries and works with. And there was certainly no budget for doubles to do the heavy lifting.
So Sidney did it all. And, much like Homer, he did it all happily:
“Heck, when you believe in a picture like this you do anything to help get it made. I had to lift the timber…on this project we got no money to spare for falsies.”
Lilies of the Field is a Sleeper Hit
Despite not fitting the typical Hollywood film formula, Lilies of the Field was a sleeper hit.
Theater owners clamored to get their hands on a copy. Six months after its release, Lilies of the Field had already earned $2.5 million. With his 10 percent cut of the earnings, that meant $250,000 for Sidney.
Taking that initial pay cut turned out to be one of the most lucrative decisions of his career. With Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier proved that his name alone above a film title meant blockbuster success.
And the Oscar Goes to...
When the 1964 Academy Awards rolled around, Sidney was a Best Actor favorite for his work in Lilies of the Field. But the competition was stiff: Albert Finney for Tom Jones (Sidney thought Finney would win), Rex Harrison for Cleopatra, Sidney for Lilies of the Field, Richard Harris for This Sporting Life, and Paul Newman for Hud.
Sidney debated whether or not to attend the awards ceremony: Hollywood pomp wasn’t really his thing. But it didn’t take long for Sidney to realize that this nomination was momentous, a groundbreaking achievement much bigger than himself:
“I realized that there was a great deal riding on my chances, that a victory on Monday [Oscar] night would mean an enormous amount to a great number of people, and it would be unfair of me to take the edge off it by not appearing.”
Sidney attended the awards ceremony.
And he won.
Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar, and the first black actor to win an Academy Award for a role that did not reduce his character to a stereotype.
Lilies of the Field Stands the Test of Time
Lilies of the Field is a film completely of its time that also stands the test of time. It holds up just as well today as it did on its release in October 1963. The messages are universal and timeless: love one another, embrace differences, work together, all men are created equal.
Watch the film, and see, in Sidney Poitier’s own words, if you come out of the theater feeling better than when you went in.
That's it for Lilies of the Field
And that’s it for Lilies of the Field.
Join me next week for all about Sidney and 1967’s To Sir, With Love.