Sidney Poitier marathon: Lilies of the Field (1963) – The Long Ships (1964) – The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) – The Bedford Incident (1965)

Sidney Poitier marathon: Lilies of the Field (1963) – The Long Ships (1964) – The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) – The Bedford Incident (1965) February 8, 2021

The latest in a month-long series of re-posts from my Facebook marathon in April 2020.

Sidney Poitier marathon part 8b (1963):

Poitier’s next film, Lilies of the Field (1963), was the one that won him the Oscar, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a well-executed crowd-pleaser that strikes the Academy’s sweet spot, where social uplift and breezy entertainment come together in one solid package.

In this film, Poitier plays a handyman of sorts who encounters some East German nuns while driving through Arizona and ends up building a chapel for them. At first he insists on doing all the work himself, but he’s a Baptist and many of the locals are Catholics for whom the chapel will have a deeper meaning, and so he lets them join in the work as well.

Along the way, there is plenty of ethnic humour, all of it very good-natured. Poitier teaches the nuns English, which leads to some amusing exchanges. At one point Poitier calls the head nun a “Hitler” for being so bossy, and she returns the compliment when she sees how he organizes the workers in a later scene. When one of the locals says the priest drinks too much and Poitier expresses surprise, the local replies, “He’s Irish,” and Poitier simply says, “Oh.” And the workers, who are all Hispanic, call Poitier a “gringo” at one of their parties, to which he replies, laughing, “I don’t know if that’s a step up or a step down from some things I’ve been called in my life!”

There is a bit of a serious edge to this, most notably when a local construction boss first meets Poitier and calls to him by saying, “Hey boy!” But just a minute or two later, Poitier returns that salutation, and the boss is appropriately chagrined. Is this the first time a Poitier character asserts his equality by tossing someone else’s racist gesture back at them like this? (I was instantly reminded of the slap that Poitier will give a white man who slaps him first in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night.)

In most of the other films I’ve seen so far, Poitier has either repressed or expressed his anger at being treated this way, but there is no anger here, more a sense that he just isn’t going to let the guy get away with that. And while the boss does go on to express a racist sentiment or two when Poitier isn’t around (e.g. when Poitier seems to have left the nuns for good, and the boss tells them, “He’s shiftless and irresponsible, you know the type”), he does end up supporting Poitier’s project. He might not explicitly apologize for his behaviour, but the film doesn’t treat him as a villain or anything like that.

A few other quick points:

— There is a funny bit where Poitier sits down with the head nun to discuss whether he ought to be paid for his work, and the entire conversation consists of paging through the Bible and quoting various verses. Poitier begins by saying, “Luke 10:7,” and I knew exactly what the quote was going to be. (It’s an interesting verse because I Timothy 5:18 quotes it and calls it “scripture”, which suggests all sorts of things about the development of the New Testament canon.)

— The priest, who serves multiple communities in the Arizona desert, is jaded at first and compares the services he performs to working at a gas station: “I baptize them, christen them, confirm them, hear their confessions, give absolution, last rites, bless their remains, fill the tank, check the oil and water, take off again and pray.”

— I love how the movie ends with “AMEN” instead of “THE END”.

— The score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith at a fairly early point in his career.

— This was the first of three films that Poitier made with director Ralph Nelson. Nelson had worked in TV since 1950 but this was only his second film for the big screen.

Sidney Poitier marathon part 9 (1964-1965a):

After a decade and then some of tackling American (and British, and South African) racism head-on in film after film, Sidney Poitier finally got a chance to do some mainstream genre fare for a spell — films in which the fact that he was black was not necessarily irrelevant, but was certainly not treated as an issue that the characters needed to address.

First up: The Long Ships (1964), an adventure epic released to British theatres one month before Poitier won his Oscar for 1963’s Lilies of the Field.

In this film, Poitier plays a Moorish king who competes with some Vikings to find a legendary bell made of gold — and he is actually the villain of the film, or at least the closest that Poitier had come to playing one by this point in his career. Except for one or two scenes, Poitier is also virtually absent from the film until its second half, when the Vikings — led by Richard Widmark, Poitier’s co-star in 1950’s No Way Out — are shipwrecked on the shores of Poitier’s kingdom.

The Long Ships is a largely forgettable piece of big-budget junk, but it’s got some interesting features. For example, while the film, which is set about a thousand years ago, obviously can’t tackle modern racial attitudes head-on, it is worth noting that the Vikings call the Moorish kingdom “civilization” while Poitier and his associates call the all-white Vikings “savages”, which is a reversal of the usual racial stereotype. Also, Poitier has something like 20 wives of various different races, and the main one is played by an Italian — but alas, we never see any interracial kissing, because Poitier, much to his wife’s frustration, is abstaining from sex in the hope that Allah will help him find the gold that was taken from their Muslim ancestors.

Other aspects of the film are decidedly regressive. There is one scene in which the Vikings raid Poitier’s harem and basically try to rape his wives — all of which is played for laughs, of course — and in all the mayhem, Lionel Jeffries (the grandfather in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) pops up in blackface as a swishy gay eunuch who comes on to the men and, at one point, is knocked into a pool when Colin Blakely (Jesus in 1969’s Son of Man, Dr Watson in 1970’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) hits his butt with a pelvic thrust. The film also features one of the most creatively sadistic forms of execution I have ever seen onscreen; the actual death is kept offscreen, but just the concept, of making someone slide down a giant curved blade, is cringe-inducing.

The film was directed by Jack Cardiff, who is best-known for his work as a cinematographer on Powell & Pressburger films (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, etc.). Also, one of the Vikings — who gets into a sword fight with Poitier — is played by Russ Tamblyn, who may be best-known for musicals like West Side Story and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (he also played young Saul in 1949’s Samson and Delilah).

Also, trivia note: One of the characters in this film is Harald Bluebooth, who ruled Denmark in the 10th century — and who, yes, lent his name to modern-day Bluetooth technology (the idea being that the technology will unite different devices the same way Harald united the Danes). In fact, Wikipedia says the man who gave the technology its name got the idea from reading the novel that The Long Ships is based on.

One year after this, Poitier had a cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

I have seen this film several times, and Poitier is one of the many movie stars who pop up for just one or two scenes, so I did not re-watch the entire film for this marathon, just the scene in which Poitier appears as Simon of Cyrene — and I actually noticed something I had never noticed before, which is that Poitier’s Simon turns to a woman in the crowd, who is standing with two boys, before looking back at Jesus and voluntarily helping him to carry his cross, without any prompting from the Romans. Are those two boys Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon who are mentioned only in Mark’s gospel? 2004’s The Passion of the Christ showed Simon walking with one boy before he helps Jesus carry the cross, but this film might have the most complete depiction of Simon’s family ever.

Presumably Poitier was cast as Simon of Cyrene because Cyrene is in Africa, on the Mediterranean coast in what is now called Libya. Other films since then — including The Passion of the Christ — have cast black or biracial actors as Simon too, but for what it’s worth, the historical Simon wasn’t necessarily black himself. The city of Cyrene was founded by the Greeks and had a sizable Jewish population by the first century BC; its Jewish community is mentioned or alluded to in II Maccabees and several passages in the book of Acts.

Alas, unlike John Wayne as the centurion at the crucifixion or Shelley Winters as the woman who is healed by touching Jesus in the crowd, Poitier does not have even a single line of dialogue. He just looks at people and helps Jesus carry his cross.

Poitier then reunited with Widmark again for The Bedford Incident (1965), a Cold War thriller in which Widmark plays the captain of an American destroyer that pursues a Russian submarine just a little too aggressively, while Poitier plays a journalist who happens to be visiting the ship to do a profile of the captain.

Also along for the ride: a German commodore (played by Powell & Pressburger veteran Eric Porter) whose experiences in World War II give Poitier an opportunity to compare Widmark’s actions to those of Hitler. (It was just three movies ago that Poitier compared a German nun to Hitler, in 1963’s Lilies of the Field!)

Like other films of that era, The Bedford Incident plays on the fear that America and Russia might end up fighting a nuclear war by accident. Coincidentally, I happened to watch Fail-Safe (1964) for the first time a few weeks ago, and there are some obvious similarities between that film and this one — especially when the Martin Balsam character, one of the more experienced naval officers, says Widmark’s boat is “a floating IBM machine”, which echoes the concerns that are raised in Fail-Safe about the mechanization of the military — but this film didn’t grab me the same way that one did.

Interestingly, The Bedford Incident was the first film directed by James B. Harris, who had produced a few Stanley Kubrick films (1956’s The Killing, 1957’s Paths of Glory and 1962’s Lolita) prior to this point. The first film Kubrick made after he and Harris parted ways was 1964’s Dr Strangelove, which is very, very different from The Bedford Incident in tone but has a very similar ending. (If anything, The Bedford Incident’s ending is the more formally creative one, because when the bombs go off, we see the film itself appear to burn up in the projector. Very meta.)

Incidentally, Donald Sutherland appears here in a bit part as a hospitalman (it was only his fifth film). And James MacArthur, who had appeared in a couple of Disney movies and would go on to play “Danno” in Hawaii Five-O from 1968 to 1979, also appears as a young officer who is worn down by Widmark’s constant criticisms of him, with disastrous results.

Also: while this was the third and final film that Poiter and Widmark acted in together, it was not the last film that they worked on together. Poitier would direct Widmark years later in 1982’s Hanky Panky.

The image above shows Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field.

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