"Lilies of the Field" (1963), Blu-ray. A Twilight Time release from 2016.
Video on this one is 1080p/24, Black & White, presented in original, 1.66:1 Aspect Ratio. Audio is DTS-HD MA Mono 48kHz.
Extras include a Commentary track from Twilight Time's film historians. This one can be skipped.
Also included is an "Isolated Music" audio track -- presented as DTS-HD MA 2.0 48kHz. Despite the Stereo track, it sounds to me like this is still dual channel Mono. Unusual for this type of track from Twilight Time is that sound effects are also included. You can also catch brief ends of dialog where the editing didn't cut it off fast enough. Quality is good, and Jerry Goldsmith's musical score is interesting enough to be worth the effort.
The only HD Extra is the Theatrical Trailer.
Won the Oscar for Best Actor (Sidney Poitier). Oscar Nominations for Best Picture (losing out to "Tom Jones"), Best Supporting Actress (Lilia Skala), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Cinematography.
There have ALWAYS been "independent" films of course. But with the gradual breakdown of the Hollywood Studio System in the 50s and early 60s, independent filmmaking really came into its own. Shooting for just 14 days, and with only $400K to spend, Director Ralph Nelson ended up Producing THIS flick all on his own, when no major studio wanted to take on the project!
The result (Distributed by United Artists) garnered an Oscar Nomination for Best Picture (losing out to "Tom Jones")!
It also got Oscar Nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Lilia Skala), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Cinematography.
But of course what everyone remembers is that this is the film that got Sidney Poitier his only acting Oscar.
James Poe adapted the script from William Edmund Barrett's 1962 novella, "The Lilies of the Field". Barrett's story was based loosely on the trials of the Sisters of Walburga, who escaped Nazi Germany in the late 30s, and ended up in Colorado, where, despite having no resources to draw on, they established a Convent.
Barrett (and Poe) move this parable forward in time to the 60s. In the course of the film, we learn the 5 German nuns who seem so out of their depth have escaped from East Germany -- over the Berlin wall -- and crossed thousands of miles to the desert Southwest to claim an inheritance -- a farm deeded to their order by a feisty, hard scrabble farmer who knew the knack of growing potatoes from rock. The nuns do NOT have that knack. Nor do they have any fluency in either English or Spanish. But given what they've already been through, this is just another challenge.
To attend Mass, they walk miles each way on a dirt road to a small town where Father Murphy (Dan Frazer) performs open air services -- out of the back of his station wagon -- for a devout, and almost entirely Hispanic, congregation. Murphy is clearly struggling through his disillusionment. This is just one of 6 such towns he serves -- a 400 mile weekly loop. It's assumed that he's taken to drink. (He's Irish, you know.)
Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) now understands why she has been called to this place. She and her small group of nuns must build a chapel! A place where proper Mass can be celebrated. All of their other struggles are secondary. But with no money and no benefactors to draw on, HOW?
All of the above is backstory -- revealed during the film. The film actually STARTS with the arrival of Homer Smith (Poitier), a black man driving rather aimlessly through the desert Southwest, living out of his car, and supporting himself by taking on handyman jobs or operating heavy construction machinery. Barrett's novella -- and even the trailer for the film -- make it a point to note that Smith is an ex-GI. But for some reason the screenplay itself skips over that detail.
Stopping to get some water for his car, Smith encounters the nuns. It's obvious to him that their farm needs repairs, and since he needs cash he offers himself up for a day or two of handyman services.
Mother Maria takes one look at him and says to herself, "God has sent us a strong, young man!" Homer Smith, she decides, will build their chapel!
Smith, of course, has no such intention. But Maria is as shrewd as she is determined, and step by step Smith finds himself cajoled into taking on the project.
Smith actually rather likes the nuns, except for that woman. And it turns out he's always had a hankering to build something lasting. So when he commits himself to the task of building the adobe-walled chapel, it's with the intention that he will build it ALL -- just by himself! In the evenings he takes to teaching them English, and they teach each other songs.
TRIVIA: Poitier's singing is dubbed as, his other talents notwithstanding, he's famously tone-deaf.
But the work is hard and slow, and the materials are lacking. The nuns have no money to buy more and their pleas to groups like the Lions, the Elks, the Order of the Moose, and the Kiwanis ("what kind of animal is that?") go for nothing.
But the local population comes to the rescue. Even through the mishmash of German, Spanish, and English, it's obvious that Smith needs adobe bricks. People have been building like that in this desert for hundreds of years, and individual families show up with pickup truck loads of bricks they have made themselves. Smith thanks them, but when they offer to help he declines. He wants the building of the chapel to be by his hands alone.
They hang around anyway. Watching him struggle turns out to be, "The best show in town!" -- and the exhausted Smith eventually accepts their help. And then goes off to pout!
The locals are numerous and willing, but they have no plan for what they are doing, and the work descends into chaos. Mother Maria tries to rally them, but her German is not up to the task -- nor her understanding of basic architecture. Just when things seem about to fall apart completely, Smith is cajoled into returning. Now as "boss"!
The chapel does, of course, get built. When Father Murphy gets to see it he is stunned and humbled.
TRIVIA: The tight shooting schedule put added strain on the production crew, as they had to work nights to build the desert chapel featured in the film, from scratch, in time to keep up with the scenes showing each stage of its construction. The chapel was actually built, for real, using the style of construction shown in the film, but since it was built on rented land, the crew also had to demolish it at the end of shooting.
Mother Maria is already making plans for what will follow. A school. A hospital. Local material providers, figuring to cash in on tax deductions, soon learn that once you get started with Mother Maria, it's impossible to stop!
And Homer Smith? Well, he packs up his car and drives off.
It's not clear to me why the movie ends there. Barrett's novella bookends the tale with a beginning about, "A new legend coming into being west of the mountains". And an ending about the eventual success of Mother Maria's bigger plans. Smith, by this point, has become mythical in memory. The nuns have hung an oil painting of a Saint, back by the alter. A black man who looks curiously like Homer Smith.
This is an absolutely DELIGHTFUL, small film. Think of it as a much better rendition of, say, "The Bells of Saint Mary's". Its very simplicity is what makes it so intelligent, and so powerful. There is very little treacle here, but plenty of wry humor. Race relations are part of the story, but largely as contrast to how well the partnership between Smith, the German nuns, and the Hispanic townsfolk works out.
Twilight Time's Blu-ray transfer is a cut above what I've seen from them before. With the exception of a few scenes, the black & white PQ looks pristine -- tricky indeed given the high contrast of the desert locales. A few outdoor scenes have a noticeable drop in PQ, with lower detail and blown out grain. It's quite possible this goes back to the original elements -- Nelson having basically no time to reshoot scenes given his shoestring budget.
Note that the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This means there will be narrow Pillar Box Bars padding either side of the frame. This is normal.
AQ on the Mono track is fine for the simplistic sound design of the film. Dialog, and the musical score, are well rendered.
A NOTE ON AVAILABILITY: Twilight Time specializes in producing Blu-ray releases of important, "catalog" titles which are not QUITE important enough for the owning studio to want to release on their own just yet, but are TOO important for the studio to want to simply sell off the rights! They do this by agreeing to limit their production run to just 3,000 copies. Very occasionally, Twilight Time will renew a deal for an additional production run, but USUALLY, when they sell out, that's it. And this title is sold out. However, Twilight Time titles are frequently available in the used disc market, and can also be found at better disc rental places. In that regard, I'd like to recommend an outfit in California called 3D Bluray Rental (or 3DBR for short). In addition to renting interesting discs like this one, they also rent 3D Blu-ray releases, and UHD (4K) Blu-ray releases.
It's hard to imagine ANYBODY not liking this film. And Twilight Time's transfer makes this one an easy...