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Film / Lilies of the Field

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Lilies of the Field is a 1963 American religious comedy-drama film directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Sidney Poitier.

Homer Smith (Poitier), an itinerant laborer and Army vet, is driving through the Arizona desert when he stops at a small isolated farmhouse in search of water for his overheated radiator. The house turns out to be occupied by an order of German-speaking nuns who are refugees from East Germany and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. The nuns are living a very hardscrabble life in the desert, appearing to survive on nothing more than the milk from one cow and the eggs from a few chickens. Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), the mother superior of the group, prevails on Homer to fix the leaky roof to the farmhouse, which he does.

After staying the night with the nuns, Homer wakes up the next morning expecting to be paid for his work. Mother Maria, however, does not pay him—eventually it becomes clear that she has no money to pay him with. Instead, by sheer force of will she persuades Homer to stick around and do odd jobs on their little farm in exchange for room and board. Homer also takes on the job of driving the nuns to their weekly Sunday mass, which is held in the parking lot of a gas station because there's no church. Mother Maria comes to believe that Homer has been sent to the nuns by God to carry out her dream: the construction of a real chapel next to the farmhouse, to give local Catholics a real place of worship. While Homer would still prefer to be paid in cash, he also has unfulfilled dreams of being an architect, so eventually he agrees.

The screenplay, by James Poe, was adapted from William Edmund Barrett's 1962 novel The Lilies of the Field. Jerry Goldsmith composed the score. Sidney Poitier became the first black man ever to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, and one of only five to this day—the others being Denzel Washington for Training Day, Jamie Foxx for Ray, Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, and Will Smith for King Richard.


  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Once the workmen raise the roof, they throw a huge fiesta with song and dance and cheering in which they all get falling-down drunk. Their wives, meanwhile, sit and watch on in stony silence, and Mother Maria comes to join them, the nuns' evening activities having been interrupted by all the noise. (The remaining nuns drum their fingers on the table to the music once Mother departs).
  • Apron Matron: The Mother Superior of the convent, Maria, is as hard-working as any of the sisters, and sterner than all of them combined. Strict as she is, her leadership allows the nuns to survive with no money, eking out their livelihoods by working the land.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Father Murphy prayed for a great cathedral in a wealthy diocese. He got God's nature as a cathedral and a diocese wealthy in faith.
  • But Now I Must Go: Mother Maria starts getting ambitious towards the end, coming up with plans for a hospital and a school. The construction boss who gave Homer some part-time work offers him a full-time position as foreman for a road-building project. Homer declines all offers, saying he has to move on. At the end he simply gets up and leaves while singing "Amen" with the nuns, hopping into his car and driving off while the nuns are still singing.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: Frustrated over not just not being paid, but the inability of Mother Maria to get any bricks to build the chapel with, Homer gets in his car and takes off. He's gone for three weeks. Finally he returns, for no other apparent reason than feeling bad about leaving.
  • The Drifter: Homer is a wandering laborer who lives out of his station wagon, rigging up a little tent that he hangs off the rear door and sleeps under at night. He only stops at the farmhouse to get some water for his car, but winds up getting roped into building a church.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Once Mother Superior secures Homer's support, she easily starts taking him for granted.
  • The End: "Amen" instead of "The End" pops up to end the movie.
  • Flawless Token: A hallmark of the film career of Sidney Poitier, who was pretty much the first black leading man ever. Here his Homer Smith is noble and generous, even willing to build a whole damn church for free. Partially justified when Homer tells Mother Maria that he'd always wanted to be an architect but couldn't afford the schooling.
  • Funny Foreigner: The nuns. They insist on Germanizing Homer's last name from Smith to "Schmidt." And Mother Maria can't pronounce "chapel," instead saying "shapel." In the final scene she gets it right.
  • Fun with Foreign Languages: The nuns' unfamiliarity with English and their struggles to master it is a Running Gag. Another comic moment comes when the interaction between the German-speaking nuns and the Spanish-speaking Mexican laborers dissolves in mutual incomprehension.
    "I speak English not so good."
  • Growling Gut: Homer suffers from this while the nuns are praying.
  • Handy Man: Homer, which naturally turns out to be quite providential for the nuns.
  • Language Barrier: When Homer briefly quits, the project goes astray, and the German nuns get into a small fit trying to direct the Mexican laborers.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Matthew 6:28-29:
    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.
  • Nuns Are Funny: A lot of comic business with the wacky nuns and their interaction with Homer, like their squealing joy when Homer brings back lollipops from the grocery store, or how they segue from Latin chanting to enthusiastically joining Homer for the gospel song "Amen".
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Homer driving away into the desert, the chapel having been completed.
  • Pride:
    • The conflict between Homer and Mother Maria has its basis in their refusal to appreciate one another; Homer thinks of her as another Funny Foreigner (at one point comparing the Mother Superior, who crossed the Berlin Wall to emigrate to America, to Hitler himself) while suffering from a case of Dude, Where's My Respect?.
    • After returning from his three-week hiatus, Homer insists on doing the whole job of building the chapel himself. It only ends up leading him to work himself half to death and make a fool of himself in front of others.
      Homer: You prayed up a lotta bricks, Mama. But you only prayed for one man to build your chapel.
    • After laughing at him for nearly killing himself, Juan and the Mexican workers try to do it their way, but rush through it while lacking clear direction, which ends up upsetting the nuns. Homer, meanwhile, sits off to the side, doing nothing but watching the whole effort crumble until Juan joins him and appeals to him for help.
    • It's implied that Mother Superior tends to disdain Homer's concerns because she regards them as insignificant compared to her own experiences. Finally being tricked into saying "Thank you" in the final scene startles her.
    • A local priest admits to having selfishly and vainly prayed early in his priesthood for a large congregation and church to preach in, and considers it fitting punishment for him to preach to small gatherings who don't even have a church. Homer's chapel stuns him beyond words.
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation: The short-lived 1970 Broadway musical Look to the Lilies.
  • Sequel: The 1979 NBC Made-for-TV Movie Christmas Lilies of the Field, in which Homer (Billy Dee Williams) returns to the chapel years later and is convinced by Mother Maria (Maria Schell) to build an orphanage and schoolhouse for a group of orphans and runaways that the nuns have taken in.
  • Shout-Out: The Mexican workers and the German nuns are unable to communicate over the matter of a buiding? Sounds like the Tower of Babel.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: Homer isn't Russian but he still manages to bust this out as the men are partying after having successfully raised the roof on the chapel.
  • Title Drop: Mother Maria quotes from Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount (see Literary Allusion Title above) when talking Homer into sticking around and building the chapel.
  • Video Credits: Including a panning shot of the nuns standing in line, as the name of each actress pops up in turn.
  • White Male Lead: Inverted with Poitier, the only black person in the cast, playing the lead character.
  • Women Are Wiser: After the roof is raised, the men wind up in a drunken revelry while the wives and Mother Superior look on with much disapproval.