Lilies of the Field (1963) – A Movie Review

Sidney Poitier stars as Homer Smith, a construction worker travelling West toward California who stops in a small town in Arizona because he needs water for his car radiator.  He meets some women working a small subsistence farm who turn out to be nuns who escaped from East Germany and are now attempting to build a chapel for their local Catholic parish of poor Mexicans and a few other locals.  He agrees to do some construction chores for them that they are obviously unqualified to perform but the next day when he tries to get paid they give him an egg and a cup of milk for breakfast and give him another list of chores to start on.

At this point he begins the endless series of disagreements with the Mother Superior who rather than wanting to pay him for the work he has already done is convinced that Smith, or Schmidt as she calls him, has been sent by God to build their chapel for free.  At several points Smith either prepares to or actually does leave the convent, but each time something inside of him makes him change his mind.  As he explains to one of the characters in the story, he had always wished he had the money to go to school to become an architect or an engineer.  He had always wanted to build something of his own design and as unreasonable as it is for him to be asked to build the chapel without pay, the challenge of the project is very attractive to him.

And we also see that as much as he and the Mother Superior butt heads over the project and as impolite and unappreciative of all his help as she is, he has admiration for her faith and courage.  And he enjoys the friendliness and innocence of the other sisters and he spends his free time teaching them English and teaching them to sing some of the Baptist spirituals that he knows from his childhood.  The theme of the movie is a song called Amen which is lip-synched by Poitier onto the vocal by the song’s writer Jester Hairston.

And the story unfolds with Smith finding a part time job with a local construction company that allows him to provide the penniless nuns with the first decent meals they’ve probably had in years.  And Smith drives them to the Catholic Mass in town where the local priest performs an outdoor Mass out of the back of his camper.  There the sisters introduce Smith to the congregation and he is able to get a good breakfast at the local diner from Juan (played by Stanley Adams, a familiar face from the Twilight Zone and Star Trek).

But the dream goes bust when the Mother Superior’s efforts to obtain donated construction materials from wealthy individuals and organizations fail completely.  When Smith asks her about the supplies she explodes in a burst of ungrateful abuse and he quits and drives off.  Now the sisters must walk the miles along the desert highway again on Sundays and the congregation notices that Smith is missing.  Despair descends on Mother Superior and all seems lost.  But three weeks later as they are walking to Mass, Smith appears in his car and drives them to town.  The congregation is so happy to see that he has returned that the Mexican laborers donate adobe bricks that they have made and even offer to assist in the construction labor.

But first they must overcome Smith’s stubborn determination to build the whole chapel himself.  A funny scene is presented where a dozen laborers are sitting around watching Smith lug heavy adobe bricks up a ladder to place them on a wall in the blazing sun.  It is obvious that he is almost exhausted by the exertion and the heat.  Finally Juan brings a brick over to the wall where Smith is working.  Juan innocently states that if he doesn’t want the brick he can walk over it and climb up and down the wall with a brick of his own.  When Smith finally takes the brick the rest of the laborers start carrying bricks over.  But soon they start carrying the cement and setting the bricks themselves.  Pretty soon Smith walks away in frustration as his building is being built by others.

But things work themselves out.  The laborers and the sisters have no real knowledge of how to design a building and pretty soon Smith rescues them from the Tower of Babel that German nuns and Mexican laborers arguing about the placement of windows represents.  Smith takes control as the superintendent and the designer.  He finds himself respected and valued by the Mother Superior, the sisters, the parish priest, the townspeople and is even offered a supervisory job at the construction company that he works part time at.  And the completion of the chapel is a bitter sweet event for the sisters and Smith.  But you can see that he has learned what he is capable of and that it is time for him to move on.  So even though the Mother Superior has plans to show him off the next day at the first Mass and then to try and rope him into further construction projects; a school, a hospital; Smith knows that he will leave that night.  But to make the parting easier he starts another one of their singing lessons.  He sings the verses of Amen while the sisters sing the chorus and he sings the song right out the door and over to his car and finishes it off as he drives away.

This is a sentimental movie with its heart in the right place.  Poitier is a funny likeable character who sells his part admirably.  Mother Superior is played as an overbearing authoritarian who hides her fear behind a gruff mask of commands and scorn.  The other nuns are well played.  Stanley Adams as Juan, the philosophical agnostic who hedges his bets against Hell by helping Smith and the nuns in their project, is generally amusing.  The scenes juxtaposing the African American from the south and the German nuns trying to find common ground around religious music is genuinely charming.  This is a nice small movie for Christmas or Easter or any time of the year when you want something heartwarming but relatively lighthearted.  Recommended.

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Edward Brault
Edward Brault
10 months ago

I remember when the film made it’s TV debut on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies”. The ratings were thru the roof and Sidney Poitier became an instant superstar.

10 months ago

Very Good review!