Lilies of the Field (1963)

And why take ye thought for raiment? 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.

-Matthew 6: 28-29, King James Version

I am very familiar with this passage from the Bible (part of the Sermon on the Mount, this passage is part of one of my favourites—a beautiful little piece of scripture on how futile it is to worry), but when I first heard of the name of this film, the relevance of its title didn’t strike me. When I started watching it, I realized: yes, the lilies of the field are impermanent, evanescent, depending on no-one and yet not even doing anything very visible to keep themselves alive. But they—like all the flowers of this world, especially the wild ones, with no-one to care for them—are amongst the most beautiful of God’s creations.

Not an exact parallel with the protagonists of this heart-warming and sweet little tale, but close. And with some subtly-put messages about being content with one’s lot, yet pushing on, working hard.

Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field

But, to begin at the beginning. On a dusty road somewhere in the southern United States. Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is a handyman, driving down an otherwise deserted road in his car, when he pulls up. He opens the hood, has a look in, and realises the car has overheated. He gets back in, drives on, and a few metres ahead, turns the car onto a side road—as dusty as the main road—goes on a little way, and finally stops at a small, scrubby and poor little farm.

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There are five women here, all hard at work. All are nuns. Four cluster together, giving Homer shy, friendly smiles as he gets out of the car with his canvas water carrier. The fifth nun—a stern-faced lady with forbidding eyes—stands apart from the others, and Homer, recognising that here is authority, approaches her to ask if he may have some water. Nearly 4 minutes into the film, this is the first bit of dialogue, but we already have a good feel of the atmosphere: a stranger passing through a hard and ruthless land; the nuns, perhaps so lonely, they even welcome the coming of a stranger—yet wary.

The nuns smile in greeting
The nun Homer addresses turns out to be Mother Maria (Lilia Skala); she shows him the hand-pump, and says, in heavily accented, somewhat rickety English, that he can help himself. Homer does, and having filled up the canvas bag and thanked Mother Maria, turns to leave. Mother Maria tries to stop him: will he not stay? They have work for him.

Mother Maria makes an offer while Homer fills water
Homer refuses. As he drives away, in the swirl of dust left behind, we see the nuns coming after his car, looking rather desperate.

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Homer isn’t, however, completely heartless. Within moments, he’s turned round and come back. He tells Mother Maria, in a gruff undertone, that he couldn’t bring himself to see ladies doing such backbreaking work, so he’ll hire himself out to them for the day. Just the day, mind; and he’ll present a bill at the end of the day. Mother Maria looks dubious and repeats the word “Hire,” in an unsure sort of way. Homer is put to work on repairing a leaky roof.

Homer gets to work on the roof
His work completed a few hours later, Homer presents the bill to Mother Maria. And receives an unpleasant shock in return: she simply ignores it. Instead, the nuns (who, it emerges, are from Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and address him as Schmidt) call him to join them for dinner.

Homer, having slogged his butt off all day long, is ready for a bellyful of food, and figures that the conversation about his payment may just as well take place after dinner.

Now comes another shock. Far from a bellyful, what he gets—what each of them gets—is a small plate with a slice of bread, a mug full of milk, and what looks like a little helping of mashed potatoes. Homer races through it, obviously regarding this as a first course.

Homer eats a rather frugal dinner
When he’s finished (it takes him less than a minute to eat, though the nuns eat more slowly, relishing the food—such as it is—and with more decorum), one of the nuns kindly passes him more bread. There’s just one slice on the plate, and Homer polishes it off.

And then, as the nuns put their cutlery aside and wipe their mouths, Homer realises: this was it. Dinner. Mother Maria proudly tells him that someday soon they will have vegetables too, and, later, chicken. Imagine. The four other nuns agree happily, and Homer sits there, stunned. It’s apparent that the women are truly content with what they’ve just eaten, and neither complain about the meagre fare, nor feel the need to apologise to their guest for it.

At the dinner table
Dinner over, the nuns spend some time doing a very important task: learning their English. They have a phonograph record on which, for every German sentence (and they’re all very typically touristy sentences: “Please send a valet to my room,”, and others in the same vein), the English equivalent is spoken. The nuns—Mother Maria, Sister Agnes (Isa Crino), Sister Gertrude (Lisa Mann), Sister Albertine (Francesca Jarvis) and Sister Elizabeth (Pamela Branch)—repeat dutifully after.

Homer, after some bemused (and amused) watching, decides to take over. He can teach these women English more quickly than the phonograph record can. The five nuns, led by Homer, do make some cautious progress with the language, and it helps them lose some of their shyness with Homer, but the question still remains: when is Mother Maria going to pay Homer for the work he’s done on their leaky roof?

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Not in a hurry, it appears. When Homer tries to quote scripture to Mother Maria, trying to unsubtly tell her that a labourer must be paid for his labour, she quashes him by quoting Matthew 6 to him. Consider the lilies of the field, she says. The message is loud and clear: Homer shouldn’t worry so much about the money he’s due.

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It turns out, the next day (when Homer again tries to demand his payment), that Mother Maria actually has another job in store for him: she wants him to build a chapel. She has a drawing of what she has in mind, and she even shows Homer the spot: the ruins (or half-built remains) of an earlier building, close to the tiny rooms in which the nuns stay.

Mother Maria's chapel
Mother Maria shows Homer the site of the chapel
Homer thinks Mother Maria’s off her head. It’s laughable, of course, to imagine that one man, all by himself, would be able to build a chapel. Then there’s the even more real problem of building material: the nuns are poor as church mice; they can barely afford enough to eat—where on earth will they get bricks and cement and everything else that’s needed for the construction?

God will provide, Mother Maria says imperiously.

Equally imperiously, she commands Homer to drive all five nuns to church on Sunday. The church is several miles away, and all these days, the nuns have been walking the distance to and from church. Now that Homer, with his car, is there, Mother Maria sees no need for the long trek. Homer’s emphatic refusal—that he doesn’t go to church, he’s Baptist—has the expected result…

… The next morning we see Homer, clad in a neat dark suit and tie, polishing up the car, ready to take the nuns to church.

Homer takes the nuns to church
Church, to Homer’s surprise, consists of a congregation (all of them, except for the nuns, Hispanic) standing out in the open behind a camper van. Homer ducks out of joining in; he has to have breakfast, he explains to Mother Maria. Leaving the nuns, he goes into a large shop-and-eatery next door. The owner, Juan (Stanley Adams) is amused to hear Homer’s order: freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, stacks of wheatcakes, maple syrup, melted butter, eggs, sausages. Beans, too? asks Juan. Yes, beans, too. Eating at the nuns’ table has given Homer a big appetite.

At Juan's
More importantly, Juan gives Homer some interesting information. The nuns have come here from East Germany: they somehow managed to cross the Berlin Wall, and came to this corner of the US because someone had left them this ramshackle piece of land. They don’t have a cent to call their own, and Juan seems to think they must be loony to try and scratch a living of any sort out of that sad little piece of land they’ve got.

Juan talks to Homer about the nuns
Mass over, Mother Maria insists on dragging Homer off to meet the priest, the Irishman Father Murphy (Dan Frazer). Father Murphy invites Homer into the camper (which turns out to be his home) and tells Homer a little about himself: he lives and travels in the camper, going from one community to another, setting up this makeshift church wherever he happens to be so that people can gather together to worship.

Father Murphy's church
... and Father Murphy himself
Which, naturally, does remind me (and Homer?) of that chapel Mother Maria is so determined to have Homer build.

But that’s a pipe dream, surely? Because Mother Maria does not even have the money to afford bricks for the chapel. Even if he wanted to, how could Homer ever get the chapel built?

Based on a novel by William E Barrett (who also wrote The Left Hand of God), Lilies of the Field is one of those few films that I began enjoying almost from the very beginning—and which left a smile on my face long after I’d finished. There was nothing about this film that I didn’t like, but a good bit which I did like, so that’s what follows.

What I liked about this film:

The story and the way it plays out. Lilies of the Field is a simple, straightforward story: a story of dreams, dreams that often seem so utterly impossible, it might be considered worthless to even entertain such dreams—dreams which require tenacity. And, more than tenacity, faith. Ultimately, that is what this story is about: faith. Not necessarily Christian faith, not even faith in God, but faith in something or someone that helps people keep going. Faith, perhaps, in oneself, or in others. Faith and hope that things will turn out for the best. Faith in the innate goodness of people.

That ‘innate goodness’ is another aspect of Lilies of the Field that appealed to me: the inherent sense of right and wrong, the consciences of the people in it. The imperiousness of Mother Maria—the bossy way in which she goes about forcing people (like Homer) to do what she wants—or Homer’s own not-very-respectful way of talking to Mother Maria (he’s not really rude, just irreverent): neither prevents them from actually, deep down, showing respect, simple love, and humanity for the other. And for others around.

I loved other things about the film, too: the characterizations, for example. Everybody here is believable; real people, people who value things like friendship and hope and helping others even at a cost to themselves. Nobody is infallible or too saintly for words; on the other hand, nobody is outright villainous.

Homer and the nuns
Lilies of the Field is, on the whole, a lovely little film. A feel-good film, a heartwarming story about all that makes life really worth living: love, human companionship, the comfort of faith. It’s a sweet film, yet not syrupy; and it has a nice touch of humour.

And there’s Sidney Poitier, one of my favourite actors, and in a role that won him an Academy Award for Best Actor (the first time an African American won the award). Watch it, if only for him. He brings Homer Smith to life brilliantly: sassy at times, sometimes vulnerable, sweet and kind, yet occasionally also mulish—a superb portrayal of a complex and interesting character.

Plus, one delightful hymn that I really loved, Amen Amen Amen.

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24 thoughts on “Lilies of the Field (1963)

  1. I think I’ve seen this film, but I can’t remember it anymore.
    But I remember the nice, warm feeling I had afterwards.

    Faith, faith is very important!
    Thank you for the nice review!

    • “Faith, faith is very important!

      I know! Faith, I believe, is what keeps us going – you have to have faith in something, someone in order to go through life without being cowed down by every adversity that comes your way. Even if it’s just faith in yourself, or faith in the thought that this, too, shall pass.

      Thank you for the appreciation, Harvey!

  2. I remember watching this many years ago; like you, I picked it up because it had Sidney Poitier. And perhaps because I didn’t have the faith depicted, I didn’t appreciate it quite as much. I envied it, surely, but it was hard to empathise.

    • One’s appreciation of a creative work depends so much on whether or not it reflects one’s own beliefs, after all. Rather like how I found Jai Santoshi Maa utterly intolerable! I thought Lilies of the Field had a sweetness – and wasn’t Bible-thumping – that resonated with me. But I can understand why some wouldn’t care for it.

  3. Madhu ji,
    I haven’t seen this movie.

    “And, more than tenacity, faith. Ultimately, that is what this story is about: faith. Not necessarily Christian faith, not even faith in God, but faith in something or someone that helps people keep going. Faith, perhaps, in oneself, or in others. Faith and hope that things will turn out for the best. Faith in the innate goodness of people.”

    That was very significant statement and very aptly put. Thanks for yet another good review, which has become a routine affair. Your fluid commentary compels me watch the movie. Hope to find it on YT.

    • Thank you, Venkataramanji! Your appreciation warms my heart.

      Another friend of mine, also looking for the film after reading my review, tried searching for it on Youtube, but couldn’t find it. I do know that it’s there on Hulu, so you could try here:

        • Madhu ji,
          I do not have words to thank you. Watched the movie with my family and we were ‘simply’ overwhelmed. It was simple, straightforward, wonderful movie. Not only a must watch film, but should be embedded within forever. No words can describe my feelings after watching the movie. Touching? Moving? What can I say?

          Towards the end when Homer Smith was placing the cross at the altar, his expression enlightens the inexplicable! And when he enters the Chapel the next day morning his face is tranquil, as though the Supreme Being and he are in communion!

          I realize that Solution to any problem is simple, but the complication lies in our mind. If we can hear and listen to the nature, then nature provides the right (natural) answers. Providence provides the solution for every situation, only our approach should be humble and simple. Sorry I am not trying to preach, I am only trying to put words to my feeling.

          Now I can comprehend the content of your concluding lines,
          “And, more than tenacity, faith. Ultimately, that is what this story is about: faith. Not necessarily Christian faith, not even faith in God, but faith in something or someone that helps people keep going. Faith, perhaps, in oneself, or in others. Faith and hope that things will turn out for the best. Faith in the innate goodness of people.

          That ‘innate goodness’ is another aspect of Lilies of the Field that appealed to me: the inherent sense of right and wrong, the consciences of the people in it. The imperiousness of Mother Maria—the bossy way in which she goes about forcing people (like Homer) to do what she wants—or Homer’s own not-very-respectful way of talking to Mother Maria (he’s not really rude, just irreverent): neither prevents them from actually, deep down, showing respect, simple love, and humanity for the other. And for others around.”

          Thank you Madhu ji for providing me the KEY to the vital LINK, when I was unable to get through.

          • Venkataramanji, I am so glad that you and your family liked the film. That really makes me very happy, because I did want to share the simple joy of Lilies of the Field! And I like, very much, what you say about the film, about complications lying in our minds. It’s so true: we end up worrying about things, when half those things may never happen – or when there is a solution, with us, or with nature, or other people… it’s so important to trust, to believe, and to hope.

  4. Back in my childhood, I constantly heard my parents praising Sidney Poitier. Both my parents were huge fans. My mum particularly was bowled over by his performance in ‘Guess Who Is Coming To Dinner’. When you hear so much praise, your expectations rise and there is that danger of you feeling – when you see the performance yourself- “Good Heavens! What was all that fuss all about?” But no, I had no choice but to agree with my parents. He had a very compelling personality. I have heard about ‘Lilies….’ but not seen it. One thing I am sure about and that is if I do see it I am going to love Sidney Poitier. You mentioned ‘Left Hand of God’. That is one of my favourite films, I saw it long back, late at night on Doordarshan. It was unforgettable,

    • I have to admit, I still haven’t got around to watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? – one reason possibly being that I’m not fond of Katharine Hepburn. On the other hand, considering how much I like Sidney Poitier, I suppose I should watch it sometime. Sadly, the last Poitier film I watched – and reviewed – was rather forgettable: The Long Ships. Lilies of the Field was a gem, in comparison. Very sweet film.

      Shilpi, I think you and I must have watched The Left Hand of God at the same time, because I too remember watching it late night on Doordarshan! Despite not being a Bogart fan, I liked the film a lot: the premise was so interesting, and the very idea of a pilot disguising himself as a priest was right up my alley.

  5. Madhu,
    You would have guessed this has entered my list of must-watch movies, after reading your review. Normally in such cases I don’t post my comments until I have watched the movie, but your review was so sweet I could not help myself. The screenshots and your description paint an idyllic setting, which is another reason for watching it.

    The most interesting aspect I feel is that in spite of Sidney Poitier, there seems to be no ‘race’ in it. His other major movies I have seen – In The Heat of The Night, To Sir With Love and Guess Who Is Coming To Dinner Tonight – all had an underlying ‘race’ theme. I had presumed if it was 50s and 60s and Sidney Poitier, the movie would be around subtle or overt racism. Poitier’s great strength was showing indignation and silent rage without bitterness and without being judgmental.

    • “The most interesting aspect I feel is that in spite of Sidney Poitier, there seems to be no ‘race’ in it.

      Yes, I found that unusual too. There is a slight hint of different races, but it’s incidental, and it’s pointed out by Homer himself: he’s trying to teach the nuns English, and in the process talks about colours – black and white. The example he uses is of skin colour: I am black, you are white – and that’s it. That’s about it: it’s a fact, nothing more is read into it by either of the parties involved.

  6. Thanks for a great review, Madhu! I have watched this movie a couple of times on TV, and it was great both times! Right now, we are going through a tough phase in my family, which hasn’t left me with much time, hence my delay. I did see the post, but didn’t get the time to read through it until yesterday. Yes, I do believe that faith is what carries us through the difficult times in life, and that is what I am clinging to right now. I hardly ever watch any movies or listen to any songs, including the ones from your post on Madan Mohan. One of these days, I think I will make the time, somehow, to sit and read it and listen to all the songs, I don’t want to pour out my woes here, which is why I studiously avoid writing.

    • ” Right now, we are going through a tough phase in my family

      Oh, I’m sorry, Lalitha! I do hope things get sorted out soon. Hang in there, as they say. And yes, keep clinging to faith – I’ve seen that it helps. Really.

      Take care, and thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment on thist post even though you don’t have much time these days! I’m glad you like Lilies of the Field as much as I do. :-)

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