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On Oct. 1, 1963, United Artists hosted the New York premiere of Lilies of the Field, starring Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala. The film was nominated for five Oscars at the 36th Academy Awards, winning one for best actor for Poitier. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Lilies of the Field is a funny, sentimental, charming and uplifting film, in which intelligence, imagination and energy are proved again to be beyond the price of any super-budget. The United Artists release, produced and directed by Ralph Nelson, could be termed the sleeper of the year if it had not already grabbed a handful of prizes at the Berlin Film Festival. So it comes not unheralded. None the less, festival awards do not always indicate popular appeal. Lilies, it is safe to say, will be a great audience picture. It deserves all its popularity and whatever artistic success it is granted.
Although the crux of Lilies is the unlikely confrontation between five eager workers of the Lord, and one somewhat reluctant helper, it is given dimension by the background of these six key characters. The dedicated are Catholic nuns, refugees from behind the Iron Curtain. Their strong right arm is a young American, a Negro, who is not of their faith in the strict sense of the word, but is of the greater faith in which all men of good will subscribe, that of leaving the earth a little better than it is found.
James Poe’s screenplay, based on a story by William E. Barrett, is hardly to be faulted. He sets his story easily and economically. He develops it with character and meaningful detail. He skillfully utilizes humor to make a serious point. This is the harder way and the more effective way. How many good causes have been sunk by earnest dullness!
Sidney Poitier plays the young Negro who wanders by chance into the small religious community somewhere in the desert Southwest. The nuns have inherited the arid property and are trying to make it a useful addition to the impoverished community, hopefully planning a church, a school, a hospital. It is apparent to the Mother Superior that Poitier is an instrument of the Lord in this plan. It is not so quickly apparent to Poitier.
There is an obvious allegory in the story, with the alliance of an American Negro with refugee nuns to provide spiritual, education and health facilities for a poor Latin-American community. The element of racism is only once overtly made; in the rudeness of a native American (white) to Poitier. Since the cooperation of disparate religious, racial and national elements has previously been subtly made, this point seems somewhat jarring. But apparently Poe uses it to demonstrate his hero’s self-respect, and to make a point about judging a man’s worth by his labor, not his color.
Although Poitier is a Negro, and plays a Negro, the role is not that of any Negro stereotype, however well intentioned. The character is a universal young man, today’s young man, hep, flip and yet with a longing to create, to build something of enduring value in a world where the bulldozer seems designed to level impartially hill and home. Poitier has had little opportunity to display his comic talents. He shows here his timing and technique are impeccable. His relationship with the five women is delicate — not because of difference in race but of sex — and plays beautifully.
Lilia Skala is the Mother Superior and play strongly against and with Poiter. She is both executive and a woman of God and both qualities emerge. As her small community, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis and Pamela Branch, are fine. The fact that the nuns usually speak German among themselves is not handicap to understanding and should not be stressed. Stanley Adams is good as a friendly atheist; Dan Frazer interesting as the circuit-riding priest and director Nelson is capable in a minor role.
Ernest Haller’s photography is well-composed and lit. Jerry Goldsmith’s music score is unobtrusive but plays on the emotions. Particularly effective is his use of variations on themes, such as hymns, in the forefront of the story. C. W. Faulkner’s sound is natural. James McCafferty’s editing is good. — James Powers, originally published on July 23, 1963
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