In celebration of the first century of motion pictures, the Vatican published a 1995 list of what somebody there considered the top 45 films of all time : fifteen each in the categories of religion, values, and art. Although broadly international in flavor, the list includes a dozen or so American films, although not some of the best actually Catholic films made in the U.S. Not Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, or the biggest miss of all: Lilies of the Field, a film worthy of inclusion in each of those categories.
Lilies is best known, of course, as the breakout movie for Sidney Poitier, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1964. Director Ralph Nelson’s film was also nominated in five other categories, including Best Picture – and might well have won the top prize were it not for Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, which was nominated for ten Oscars and won four. (Albert Finney would have won that best-actor award as Tom Jones had he not been up against Poitier’s Homer Smith.)
Lilies was based upon the 1962 novella  of the same name by William E. Barrett, which differs in some ways from the movie, although both are meditations on faith and freedom; about how God can use us humans to achieve ends we never intended to pursue.
Homer Smith is driving his station wagon aimlessly towards the southeast, his journey having begun upon his release from an Army posting at Ft. Lewis, Washington. He may be headed for South Carolina, his boyhood home. But one May morning he pulls off onto a dirt road in New Mexico that leads to a dilapidated farmhouse where women are working (without men, he notices) and where he hopes to find work.
Of course, the women are nuns, refugees from Eastern Europe, and Mother Maria Marthe is in charge. (In the film, she’s simply Mother Maria.) She knows why Smith, whom she calls Homerus Schmidt, has come, even if Homer doesn’t.
“I was just passing by,” he insists.
“Ja,” she says, “You did not pass!”
You know the rest: Homer builds a chapel for the nuns, who see it as the first step in creating a refuge for delinquent immigrant boys, whom they will discipline and teach.
When Mr. Nelson, one of early television’s most successful directors, read Barrett’s book, he was immediately determined to film it. Yet seemingly all Hollywood turned down his pitch. But he was so sure it could be a great movie that he secured a $250,000 budget by putting up pretty much everything he owned as collateral and promising to shoot the picture in two weeks. That’s about as clear an expression of faith (and maybe to a miracle) as you’ll ever find in Hollywood.
James Poe’s screenplay, which may well have been longer in its printed form than Barrett’s book, is economical, and Nelson’s direction (including of himself as a businessman who reluctantly provides building materials to the nuns) is equally efficient.
Nelson had previously worked with the Austrian actress Lilia Skala (Mother Maria), and he coaxed a fine, understated performance from her that was worthy of her Oscar nomination as a supporting actress. She was really a co-star, of course, but United Artists probably figured she had a better chance of winning, one category down, so to speak.
But Mr. Poitier is the reason for the film’s acclaim – then and now. I firmly believe that he is as responsible as anybody except Martin Luther King, Jr. for changing many Americans’ perceptions of black people. Few other actors have embodied intelligence, decency, and moral strength as superbly as he. Many a racist has thought: He’s a better man than I.
That Homer Smith wants to do all the chapel building is clear in both book and movie, although his hostility to those who eventually come to his aid is stronger in the book. He wants all the credit, because he wants no credit given to Mother Maria’s faith, which is alien to his Southern Baptist sensibilities, and because he does not want to be under her – or anybody’s – control, including God’s.
In both film and book, Homer finishes his work and simply drives off, with no goodbye to the sisters. But a few pages remain in the book in which Barrett recounts what quickly became the legend of Homer Smith: a confluence of news stories, whispered rumors, and pious wishful thinking that turns Homer into a mysterious, saintly figure, who came from nowhere one day, surely sent by God, and then disappeared one night. Almost an apparition.
“Publicity created more publicity,” Barrett writes, “and tourists journeyed into a section of the state which they had never seen because they were told that an unusual experience awaited them, that there was a modern shrine.” And then: “No one can explain these things.”
Money pours in. More nuns arrive, and Mother Maria Marthe’s school is built and lost boys become found men.
The nuns name the chapel after Saint Benedict the Moor , a 16th-century Franciscan, and an icon of sorts, painted by one of the sisters, depicts Homer as Benedict and graces a wall of the chapel.
It wasn’t until I read Barrett’s book the other day that it occurred to me that Lilies of the Field may well have formed in the author’s mind upon hearing the Southwestern legend of St. Joseph and the Staircase (ably recounted here seven years ago by Matthew Hanley). In the three or four times I’ve seen the movie, that had never occurred to me.
As Mr. Hanley explains, in Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel (built for French nuns in the 1870s as an adjunct to their boys’ high school), is a helix-shaped staircase leading to the chapel’s choir loft, constructed single-handedly by a stranger who mysteriously appeared after the sisters completed a novena to St. Joseph. The stairs, a true achievement, may have been the handiwork of a French carpenter. . .or one from Nazareth.
But on that, like Joseph in the Gospels, truth is silent.