When I heard the news of Sidney Poitier’s death (on January 6th, 2022), one of the first thoughts that came to me was: what a sad coincidence, that the last English-language film I’d reviewed on this blog was one of his (The Bedford Incident). Then, the realization that, in so many years of blogging, while I’ve watched and/or reviewed several films of Poitier’s (including the wonderful Lilies of the Field, for which he won an Academy Award; The Long Ships; The Defiant Ones), I’ve never seen a few of his most iconic films, such as In The Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and A Raisin in The Sun.
I will watch those sometime, sooner or later; but for now, to commemorate the life and career of one of my favourite actors, I decided to rewatch a film I haven’t seen in several decades. The film that’s probably the one with which most Indians (at least) associate Poitier, about a school teacher who manages to change the lives of the disturbed and insecure students he has to teach.
In my younger days, I used to watch a lot of war films: not the newer, more gory and violent ones, but the older, not so graphic type. My favourites were adventure films like Where Eagles Dare, though somewhere down the line I also developed a liking for more nuanced films, films like Battleground or Paths of Glory or La Grande Guerra, which showed the harsh reality of war, of the horror it is to go into battle, to fight a war plotted out by people sitting in a conference room far away…
The Bedford Incident is different. The people sitting in a distant conference room are there all right, but the real problem here seems to be not them, but the man who commands the USS Bedford. Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a hard, embittered man who gives no quarter.
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.
On a stormy night, a Viking longship battles the elements. Waves sweep over, tossing the ship; rocks loom. The men aboard the ship yell in fear and try to hold on to the masts, to each other—to anything—in an effort to stop from being sucked in by the water or dashed against the rocks. But the inevitable happens.
“And so, by the storm’s fury, he lost all that he loved most in this world: his ship, and his shipmates. But he was washed ashore, alone, the only survivor. Then the monks found him and took him to their monastery, where they tenderly nursed him, never asking his name, or his country. And, gradually, he grew stronger…”