Release Date(s)1963 (August 10, 2021)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Lilies of the Field was a breakthrough film for actor Sidney Poitier, one which moved him into the landmark position of being an African-American lead actor who appealed equally to diverse mainstream audiences. The story features him as Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman who encounters a group of immigrant German nuns in the Arizona desert, only to discover that they believe that God sent him to build a new chapel for them. While he just wants to move on, he finds himself getting entangled with them in ways that he could have never imagined. Lilies of the Field was based on the novel by William E. Barrett, and the screenplay by James Poe follows the book’s narrative with only minor changes—which does mean that there’s a core element in the film which needs to be addressed.
Lilies of the Field is sometimes considered a prototypical example of what Spike Lee dubbed the “magical, mystical negro” trope—an African-American character whose only function in the story is to better the lives of white protagonists, often with little interior life of his or her own. There’s no question that there are elements of the trope present in the basic contours of the story, but effectually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s true that Homer provides aid to a group of white characters, but that’s not his sole purpose in the narrative. Crucially, Lilies of the Field is really Homer’s story—he’s the lead, while the nuns are the supporting characters. It’s his journey, not theirs, and he experiences more personal growth through his interactions with them than they do from him. The key is something which may be lost on modern audiences: these nuns escaped from East Germany after the wall went up, and Homer recognizes that while they can’t possibly understand the kind of oppression that he has experienced, they have still experienced oppression of their own. It’s what keeps him from abandoning them. There are depths to Homer’s character which separate him from other examples of the trope, many of whom truly do function as little more than a narrative device.
Lilies of the Field was something of a personal project for producer/director Ralph Nelson, who financed the film himself and shot it outside the studio system, turning to United Artists as a distributor. U/A was the least risk-averse studio of that era, and it was the only one willing to handle a pickup like this. Their support paid off when the film became both a critical and a financial success, ultimately garnering five Academy Award Nominations including Best Picture. Sidney Poitier became the second African-American to take home an acting Oscar, and the first to do so in a lead role. The win ended up narrowing the kinds of parts that he would play for the rest of his career, but Poitier understood the significance of his prominence in the film industry, and willingly accepted where it took him.
Cinematographer Ernest Haller shot Lilies of the Field in 35 mm using spherical lenses, framed at 1.66:1 for its theatrical release. There’s no information about the elements used for this Kino Lorber edition, but it appears to be the same transfer used for the previous Twilight Time version. Detail is quite good, aside from the expected softness during the opening tiles and any optical transitions. There’s damage throughout in the form of speckling and a few scratches, but it’s light and not very distracting. There’s no sign of DNR or any other digital tinkering, though there’s just a touch of noise mixed in with the grain in the backgrounds of a few shots. Grayscale, contrast, and black levels are all solid. A few minor quibbles aside, this is a beautiful representation of Haller’s Academy Award nominated cinematography.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s a good track despite the low budget nature of the production, with clear dialogue and no major defects. Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds good, though the dubbing of Poitier’s singing voice by Jester Hairston still sticks out like a sore thumb.
Extras include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Sergio Mims
- Lilies of the Field Trailer (SD – 3:15)
- Paris Blues Trailer (SD – 2:46)
- In the Heat of the Night Trailer (HD – 2:48)
- They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! Trailer (HD – 2:05)
- The Organization Trailer (SD – 2:54)
- Duel at Diablo Trailer (SD – 3:09)
- The Wilby Conspiracy Trailer (HD – 2:16)
- Soldier Blue Trailer (SD – 3:41)
In his commentary, film historian and critic Sergio Mims refers to Lilies of the Field as “the little film that could”—a low budget independent production which succeeds at being a life-affirming feel-good movie. Ralph Nelson apparently put up his house to help finance the project, which was shot in just 14 days for $240,000. Sidney Poitier worked for scale with points on the back end, which worked out well when the film became a hit. While he was already an established actor, this film helped him to become a star. Sims gives biographical information about Nelson and Poitier, as well as supporting cast members such as Lilia Skala and Stanley Adams. He also briefly covers James Poe, Ernest Haller, Jerry Goldsmith, and Jester Hairston. He spends some time discussing how Lilies of the Field fits into the “magical negro” trope, and speculates about why Oscar voters were more comfortable voting for Poitier in this film than for In the Heat of the Night. While Sims does lose his train of thought a few times, this is still a valuable commentary for those who wish to learn more about the history surrounding the film. Missing extras from the previous Twilight Time edition include the commentary with Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and the late Nick Redman, the isolated score track, and the accompanying booklet with the essay by Julie Kirgo.
Times have changed since 1963, for good and for ill, but Lilies of the Field still works beautifully. It may be little more than a feel-good movie, but that’s something which is needed in any era—perhaps this one as much as any. It celebrates working together to accomplish a goal despite personal differences, and that’s a message that never goes out of style.
- Stephen Bjork
(You can follow Stephen on Facebook at this link)