In October of 1963 a simple film, a drama, was released in theaters that earned its lead actor the Best Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards. That film was Lilies of the Field, and that actor was Sidney Poitier. Directed and produced by Ralph Nelson, the movie was based upon a novel that had been published in 1962, with the same title, written by William Edmund Barrett. Poitier’s co-stars in the film were Lilia Skala,Stanley Adams, Dan Frazer, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, and Pamela Branch. The title of both film and book were borrowed from the Bible, found in the book of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 27-33. It is in this section of Matthew that Christ gave his famous Sermon on the Mount. There is also a parallel scripture passage found in the book of Luke, Chapter 12, verses 27-30. The film is an interesting character study, showing two strong -minded people who meet by chance and work together for the good of all. It is a picture about faith, kindness, charity, respect, and love. Not romantic love, but the love one should have for one’s fellow man.
Poitier plays Homer Smith, a handyman. He is bright, has had dreams of being an architect, but has never had the finances to pursue that goal. He was raised in the Baptist church. As he is driving across Arizona (where the movie was filmed) his car breaks down. Needing water for the radiator, he walks to a nearby farm to ask for some water for his car when he notices a group of middle-aged women trying to repair a fence and doing a bad job of it. The women introduce themselves to Smith, they are a group of nuns from Austria, Hungary, and East Germany. Their English speaking skills, he discovers, are very limited. The Mother Superior of this group of nuns, Mother Maria(Lilia Skala) speaks much better English, and she asks Smith to do a small roofing repair for them. Smith agrees to stay overnight and fix the roof in the morning because he figures he’ll be paid for the small job and money is a good thing to have when driving across a state. The next day, Smith fixes the roof, and then approaches Mother Maria about his fee. He tries to get her to pay him by quoting from the book of Luke 10:7:” The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Mother Maria, replies with a scripture passage of her own:” 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.”
Smith soon learns that Mother Maria is one tough lady who likes things done her way and when she gets an idea that something needs to be done, she goes about getting it done, often in unconventional ways. He also learns that this group of nuns is very poor and that the land their convent is on was inherited by their order. The nuns are trying to live on what they can coax the land to grow, and the milk and eggs that they gain from their dairy cow and chickens. Smith decides to stay at the convent that day until he gets his pay for the roofing job, and against his common sense, he reluctantly agrees to stay for a meal and to stay at the convent to do other small repair jobs that have been needed to be done. He does all of this in the hopes that he will be eventually paid by Mother Maria.
The nuns secretively study Smith’s skills and strengths while he works at the convent and they become convinced that he is the one, sent to them by God, to make their dream of building a chapel for the townsfolk, who are poor also, as the closest Catholic church is many miles away. When Sunday morning arrives, Mother Maria tells Smith that he will be driving the nuns to that distant Catholic church so they can attend Mass. He is invited to also attend the Mass, but he declines citing his Baptist faith. While the nuns are at Mass, Smith goes to a nearby trading post for a heartier breakfast than what he gets from the nuns’ kitchen. While he is at the post, the owner, Juan(Stanley Adams), tells him about the hardships the nuns overcame to emigrate from Eastern Europe, including getting over that Berlin Wall. By now, Smith realizes it is very unlikely that he will be paid and partly due to the respect he has for the nuns in overcoming their hardships in Europe, he stays longer at the convent and decides to at least clear the land where the nuns have said they would want the chapel to be built. As he works on clearing the land, Smith shares his dream of being an architect and decides that he will undertake the building of the chapel for the nuns.
To provide more food for the nuns meager diet, Smith also gets a part-time job with a local construction company and impresses the owner with his skills at handling all of the heavy equipment. Smith also delights the nuns with the new foods he is bringing back to the convent’s kitchen, including lollipops! In the evenings, the nuns usually gather to sing hymns and choruses from older Gregorian Chants. Smith decides to use this time to help the nuns gain in their English speaking skills and he also joins in with their singing. He teaches them some of his favorite gospel hymns, including the call and response song, “Amen”, written by Jester Hairston(who also dubbed Poitier’s singing voice in this movie.)
Smith is determined to build a lovely chapel for the nuns, and that only he will build it. The nuns write letters to various philanthropic groups for donations in order to buy the needed construction materials, but the letters only receive resounding No’s from those groups. Word gets around to the townsfolk as to what Smith(or Schmidt, as the nuns call him) is trying to do, and they begin showing up at the construction site with offers to help and even Smith’s boss at his part-time construction job shows up to donate materials. At first, the offers of help and the donated materials irks Smith, as he alone wants to build the chapel, but he soon realizes he can’t do it alone and he accepts the townsfolks help, the materials, and he slowly becomes the construction site manager. After weeks of work, the chapel is complete and Smith insists that he will place the cross on the spire himself and sign his work where only he and God can see it.
The movie ends on Saturday night; the next morning, Sunday, the new chapel will have its dedication service. Smith is exhausted and he realizes that there is no more work to keep him at the convent. Mother Maria, too proud to ask Smith to stay on does insist that he attend the dedication service so that he can be recognized for all of his efforts by the congregation. She tells Smith about all of the other projects he can work on for the betterment of the town, including building a proper school. Smith mulls all that she has said while he is teaching the nuns their English lesson in the evening, and during this lesson he tricks Mother Maria into saying “thank you” to him; before this, she had only thanked God for the work, gifts, and help that Smith gave to the nuns. Later on in the evening, as he leads the nuns in singing “Amen”, he sneaks out the door and takes one last look at the chapel. Then he gets in his car and drives away. Mother Maria hears the car engine start but stays seated, singing along with the nuns.
The movie was filmed in Arizona on the northern edge of Tucson. It won nominations for not only the Best Actor category, but also in the following categories: Best Supporting Actress for Skala, Best Cinematography-Black and White, Best Screenplay, Best Writing, and Best Picture. It is available through Amazon, and Netflix. As I said earlier, it is not an action flick, no romance, but a fine drama about people working together for the betterment of all.