The purity of the Arizona landscape, its uninhabited expanse, has been used for mythic purposes in many movies.
Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field is mostly known for the Oscar-winning performance of Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role.
The film’s title derives from Matthew 6:27-33, of the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament and its parallel scripture from Luke 12:27-30.
In this modern and idealistic parable, Poitier is charmingly cast as Homer Smith, an ex-G.I. handyman who helps a group of nuns from behind the Iron Curtain to build a chapel in the Arizona desert. Unmoved by their mission, he is at first only interested in making a day's wage.
But in no time, Smith finds himself softening to the simplicity of the nuns' preaching. Treating him as if he were sent by God, in answer to prayer, the mother superior thinks he should not expect any pay.
The friendship between these two outsiders, a black man who needs to assert himself, and a strong-willed political refugee, is fascinating to watch. Beneath Poitier's casual bravado and candid irreverence, one senses his strong need to reaffirm his racial pride.
Lilies of the Field boasts a gritty Southwestern look. Shot in black and white, the movie speaks the sinewy poetry of the desert, finding its real music in the landscape itself.
The movie differs from the original source material. The book ends with a chapter in which Homer (remembered as “Schmidt,” the nuns’ name for him) and his work have become a legendary myth among the townsfolk, in which he is an angel. The painting placed on chapel is of a saint who looks like Homer Schmidt.
A TV sequel, Christmas Lilies of the Field, was made in 1979.
Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman, stops at a farm in the Arizona desert to get water for his car. He observes some women, who speak little English, working hard on a fence ineptly. The mother superior persuades Homer to repair the roof, and he accepts the job, trying to persuade the head nun to pay him by quoting Luke 10:7, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Mother Maria Marthe (Lilia Skala) then asks him to read another Bible verse from the Sermon on the Mount: “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.”
The nuns have no money and live off the land, depending on the variable climate for their basic food, milk and eggs. Homer agrees to stay another day, hoping Mother Maria will pay him for his work. Soon, the nuns hold that Homer has been sent by God to fulfill their dream of building a chapel for the townsfolk of poor Mexican.
On Sunday, Homer drives the sisters to Mass in his station wagon, but declines to attend the Mass, because he is a Baptist. Instead, he gets his first proper meal from a trading post. The proprietor, Juan (Stanley Adams), tells Homer about the nuns’ hardships in emigrating from Eastern Europe (the Berlin Wall) only to manage a meager living on a farm left to their order.
Homer stays longer, and after losing another battle of Bible quotes, he confesses to his old goal of becoming an architect, though couldn’t afford school. His unfulfilled dream impels him to agree to undertake the unpaid job of building a chapel. Homer gets another job, at a nearby construction contractor, which helps the nuns. He also helps the sisters to improve their English. Gradually a genuine friendship evolves, based on sharing their respective music and folklore, Catholic chants and Baptist hymns. He teaches them the call-and-response song “Amen” by Jester Hairston.
The nuns write letters to philanthropic organizations asking for money for supplies, but all their requests are denied. As word spreads out, the locals contribute materials, but Homer initially contends that he alone should do the job. Homer completes the chapel, placing the cross on the spire himself. Mother Maria, too proud to ask him to stay, insists that he attend the opening Mass to get recognition from the congregation. Homer takes one last look at the chapel he built. Mother Maria hears his station wagon, but continues to sing as he drives off.
Sidney Poitier – Homer Smith
Lilia Skala – Mother Maria
Lisa Mann – Sister Gertrude
Isa Crino – Sister Agnes
Francesca Jarvis – Sister Albertine
Pamela Branch – Sister Elizabeth
Stanley Adams – Juan
Dan Frazer – Father Murphy
Produced and directed by Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: James Poe, based on the novel by William E. Barrett
Camera: Ernest Haller
Editing: John McCafferty
Music: Jerry Goldsmith