Lilies of the Field (1963)

Wow! Lilies of the Field (1963) is another Sidney Poitier film I’ve been dying to see for such a long time. And I was not disappointed! A sleeper hit, Sidney's performance in the film earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor, making him the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar. The messages in the film are just as timely today as they were when the film was released in 1963. This is definitely a film you must watch!

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Wow!  This is another Sidney Poitier film that I’ve been dying to see for such a long time.  And I was not disappointed!  Lilies of the Field (1963) is an uplifting, feel good film that will just fill you with love for your fellowman.  If that sounds corny, all I can say is WATCH THE FILM and you’ll see what I mean!

The warm feeling the film invokes is of course due to many things—excellent script, director, cinematography, supporting cast, etc.  But the reason why Lilies of the Field really works is Sidney Poitier.  As my biographical sketch on Sidney highlights, it’s also the film performance that won Sidney his Best Actor Oscar.

I really really recommend watching this one!  Lilies of the Field is available on through Tuesday.  Just log into your cable provider through TCM’s website.  AND, Lilies of the Field will play on TCM again next week on Wednesday morning!

If you don’t have online access to TCM, you can find the film on Amazon.  This is the copy I purchased earlier this week, that’s how much I enjoyed Lilies of the Field! Alright, to the plot.

Sidney plays Homer Smith, a WWII vet whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, there are some Eastern European nuns nearby to help him out. SCORE!

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 is a small order of Eastern European nuns just off the road!  Super convenient, right?

“Car’s thirsty.  Can I please have some water?”

Meet the nuns! These gals help Homer out, and get him the water he needs for his car.

Homer asks in his friendly way, and the nuns, who 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 he 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, that God has sent him to their humble order to build them a chapel.

Homer gets the water his car needs from Mother Maria and her order. Little does he know, these ladies have some bigs plans in mind that require his help.

An English Lesson

Well, as you probably guessed, as soon as Homer finishes the roof repair, the nuns do everything they can think of to keep him from leaving!  They invite him to stay for dinner, which after the roof repair he’s of course ready to accept!  Though it’s a VERY light meal—seriously it seems to be nothing more than milk and bread—Homer makes the best of it and they all even have a bit of fun together with an English lesson after the meal. 

This has got to be one of the sweetest and funniest scenes in the film!  Sidney’s Homer is utterly charming as he gets these Eastern European nuns, with their thick accents, to repeat English phrases after him, including a little bit of slang!

Homer teaches the nuns some English. Poitier is so incredibly charming in this scene! Definitely one of my favorites in the film.

Homer stays the night, thinking that Mother Maria plans to pay him in the morning.  But to his surprise, rather than receiving his payment the following day, he receives a new job assignment!  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 supporting the need to pay him for his labor.  He shows them to Mother Maria.  And this is where the title of the film comes in!  In response to Homer’s’ verses, 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 grudgingly reads the verse Mother Maria hands him from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. He realizes after reading the verse that he probably won't ever get paid for his work...! LOVE the face Sidney makes here!

Homer Sticks Around

Well, 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. 

What a gentleman! Homer sticks around, and even takes the nuns to mass on Sundays in his station wagon so they don't have to walk the long distance.

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 cute little treats like lollipops.  These interactions between Homer and the nuns are so sweet!  Despite their differences—race, religion, and experience—Homer and the nuns have become friends.  (Oh, and he still hasn’t been paid.)

Eventually the whole town chips in to help Homer build their chapel.  It’s an impoverished community, so it’s particularly heartwarming to see everyone contributing what labor and building materials they can.

Mother Maria invites Homer to join them at Mass each week, but respects that Homer is a Baptist.

The chapel built, Mother Maria invites Homer to come to Mass the next day so everyone can thank him for his hard work.  But the only thank you Homer really cares about is the one from Mother Maria.

With the chapel built and Mother Maria’s gratitude expressed, Homer knows it’s time to move on.  It’s as if a formal goodbye would be too sad for the nuns and Homer, so he leads them in singing a spiritual, “Amen,” and 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, not knowing where the open road will take him next.  (And in case you were wondering, no, he never does get paid!)

Homer proudly puts the cross up on the chapel.

Lilies of the Field: An Unlikely Film

Lilies of the Field is 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, an African American protagonist. 

When director Ralph Nelson was shopping around for a studio to take him up on this film project, various changes to the story were suggested to make the film more “box office,” such as injecting the film with a little romance by having one of the nuns—who wouldn’t have yet taken her final vows—fall in love with Homer.  Another suggestion by the studios was to actually change Homer’s race, make him white, and offer the role to Steve McQueen!  Now I love Steve McQueen, but REALLY??????? 

One studio suggested the race of Homer Smith be changed, and the role offered to Steve McQueen! I love Steve, but such a drastic change to the story would have ruined the film, and its graceful support of integration.

Luckily, Ralph Nelson realized that the main points of the film—inclusion, loving your fellow man, celebrating differences, fostering support for integration (remember, this was the early 1960s!)—would be lost if these changes were implemented.  Nelson held strong, did not compromise, and eventually landed a budget of $250,000 to make the film.  Not much, but he could work with it!  First things first though, he had to find his Homer Smith.

Casting Homer

At first, the role of Homer Smith was offered to Harry Belafonte, one of Poitiers dearest friends.  But Belafonte turned the role down flat, believing the film would do nothing to further Civil Rights, and that the character of 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.”

Sidney with good friend Harry Belafonte at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Belafonte turned down the role of Homer Smith, while Sidney saw a golden role and snatched it up!

So Belafonte clearly wasn’t interested. His good friend Sidney on the other hand, saw something completely different in Homer Smith after reading the Lilies script.  Sidney was so excited about the prospect of playing Homer that he said,

“If anyone [else] plays this part, I’ll go shoot him dead.  This part is for me!”

Crazy how differently these two buddies perceived the same role, isn’t it?!  Belafonte is talented in his own right, but I do think Sidney was the best man for the role, and I am so glad Sidney recognized a good part when he saw one.

Sidney attends the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. L-R: Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, and our guy Sidney.

Sidney's Beliefs

Sidney was further interested in Lilies of the Field because it was directly in line with his views on how integration could be achieved, and racial barriers broken down, in the United States. Sidney believed movies should promote integration with human stories of universal themes that everybody—not just one group—could relate to. 

If films about people of all races working together, finding common ground, and accepting each other were made, Sidney believed that these positive stories and images would inform people’s opinions in real life, bringing about integration and equality.  Lilies of the Field has this positive energy in spades, and the film, in my opinion, is one of Sidney’s greatest and most influential legacies to the Civil Rights Movement.

There was no room in the budget for stunt doubles or fake building materials, so Sidney himself carried all the heavy wood planks and tarpaper rolls in the film!

A Film on a Budget

Even with Sidney on board for Lilies of the Field, there were great sacrifices made to get the film into production.  Many of these sacrifices were made by Sidney himself!  Remember, the film had a peanuts budget of $250,000! At this point in his career, Sidney was earning just over half that amount per film he made!  But Sidney believed in the project, and director Ralph Nelson got him to agree to star in the film for $50,000 and 10 percent of the profits.  To put that sacrifice into perspective, don’t forget that no one thought the film would be a success because it lacked romance and violence!

Another sacrifice Sidney made for Lilies 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 and scenes.  And there would be no doubles for the heavy lifting.  Sidney did it all! And he did it happily.  As Sidney shared at the time,

“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.”

A Sleeper Hit

Despite its non-conformity to 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, the film 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.  Sidney had indeed proved that his name alone above a film title had intense drawing power. Pretty darn awesome.

In 1964, Sidney became the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963).

And the Oscar Goes to...

Because of his amazing work in Lilies, when the 1964 Academy Awards ceremony rolled around, Sidney was a favorite for a nomination, but the competition for the actual award was stiff: Albert Finney for Tom Jones (Poitier thought Finney would win!), Rex Harrison for Cleopatra, Sidney of course for Lilies of the Field, Richard Harris for This Sporting Life, and Paul Newman for Hud (another super fantastic performance!  You know how I feel about Paul Newman!)

Sidney debated whether or not to attend the awards ceremony: Hollywood pomp wasn’t really his thing.  But, gracious and thoughtful guy that he is, it didn’t take long for Sidney to realize that this was a momentous occasion, a historical moment much bigger than himself.

In Sidney’s own words,

“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.”

And so he attended.  And he won!  Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win a Best Actor Oscar, and the first African American to win an Academy Award for a role that did not reduce his character to a stereotype. 

The Test of Time

Lilies of the Field is a film completely of  its time, but it also stands the test of time: the film holds up just as well today as it did on its release in October 1963.  The messages are universal and important to remember—love one another, embrace differences, work together, all men are created equal.  How could such messages not make us, in Sidney’s own words,

“Come out of a theater feeling better than when you went in.”

Have you seen Lilies of the Field?  Do you enjoy the film as much as I do?

Had to include it! Sidney's Homer leads the nuns in singing the spiritual "Amen" three times throughout the film, and each time it's utterly charming!

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