Plot: This is the story of the Birdwells, a loving Quaker family in the midst of the Civil War. Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), a devout woman, is the moral center of the family. Jess (Gary Cooper) is a thoughtful man, not as strict as Eliza on prohibitions like music and racing his horse, but with a strong commitment to his principles. Their children are Joshua (Anthony Perkins), a sensitive young man who opposes violence but feels that he must join the soldiers; Mattie (Phyllis Love), who falls in love with Gord, a neighbor who is a Union soldier; and Young Jess, a boy who is fascinated with the talk of war and battles.
A Union soldier comes to the Quaker prayer meeting to ask the men to join the army. They tell him that they cannot engage in violence under any circumstances. “We are opposed to slavery, but do not think it right to kill one man to free another.” Even when the soldier points out that this means others will be dying to protect their lives and property, no one will support him.
The Confederate army approaches, and Joshua and Enoch, a freed slave who works on the Birdwell’s farm, decide to join the Union. Eliza does everything she can to keep Joshua from going, even telling him that in doing so he will not only reject what he has learned in church but he will reject her, too. Jess says that Joshua has to make up his own mind. “I’m just his father, Eliza. I’m not his conscience. A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans unless he lives up to his own conscience. I’ve got to give Josh that chance.” Joshua prays for guidance, and leaves to join the army the next morning. At first Eliza won’t respond, but then she runs after him to wish him well.
As the war gets closer, Jess and Eliza refuse to run away from their farm as others are doing. When Josh’s horse comes back without him, Jess goes looking for him. He finds his good friend Sam mortally wounded by a sniper. When the sniper shoots at Jess, too, Jess takes his gun away, but will not harm him; he tells the sniper, “Go on, get! I’ll not harm thee.” Josh is wounded, and deeply upset because he killed a Confederate soldier. Jess brings him home.
In the meantime, the Confederates ride into the farm, and in keeping with her faith, Eliza welcomes them and gives them all her food. But when one of the soldiers goes after her beloved pet goose, she whacks him with the broom, amusing her children and leaving herself disconcerted and embarassed. Jess and Josh return, and the family goes off to church together, to continue to do their best to match their faith to their times.
Discussion: This is an exceptional depiction of a loving family, particularly for the way that Jess and Eliza work together on resolving their conflicts. They listen to each other with enormous respect and deep affection. Jess does his best to go along with Eliza’s stricter views on observance, because in his heart he believes she is right. Nevertheless, he cannot keep himself from trying to have his horse beat Sam’s as they go to church on Sunday, and he decides to buy an organ knowing that she will object. In fact, he doesn’t even tell her about it. She is shocked when it arrives and says that she forbids it, to which he replies mildly, “When thee asks or suggests, I am like putty in thy hands, but when thee forbids, thee is barking up the wrong tree.” Having said that if the organ goes into the house, she will not stay there, she goes off to sleep in the barn. He does not object — but he goes out there to spend the night with her, and they reconcile and find a way to compromise.
All of this provides a counterpoint to more serious questions of faith and conscience. In the beginning, when the Union soldier asks the Quakers if any of them will join him, one man stands up to say that nothing could ever make him fight. Later, when his barn is burned, he is the first to take up a gun. Even Eliza, able to offer hospitality to the same men who may have just been shooting at her son, finds herself overcome when one of them captures her beloved pet goose.
Jess is willing to admit that the answer is not so simple. All he asks is that “the will of God be revealed to us and we be given the strength to follow his will.” He understands the difficulty of finding the right answer for himself and for Joshua. He resolves it for himself in his treatment of the sniper, and he respects Joshua and the issues involved enough to let Joshua make his own choice.
The movie is a rare one in which someone makes a moral choice through prayer, which many families will find worth emphasizing. Josh, who was able to respond without violence to the thugs at the fair, decides that he cannot benefit from risks taken by others unless he is willing to take them, too. He cries in battle, but he shoots.
The issue of how someone committed to non-violence responds to a violent world is thoughtfully raised by this movie.
Questions for Kids:
· How is the religious service in the movie similar or different from what you have experienced?
· How was the faith of the characters tested in this movie? What did they learn from the test?
· How should people who are opposed to violence respond to violence when it is directed against them? When it is directed against others?
Connections: The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson, who received no screen credit because he was blacklisted during the Red Scare. His involvement makes the issues of conscience raised in the book even more poignant. The book on which the movie is based, by Jessamyn West (a Quaker, and a cousin of Richard Nixon) is well worth reading. Cooper faces some of the same issues (and has a Society of Friends bride) in “High Noon.” “Shenandoah,” with Jimmy Stewart as the father of a large family who tries to keep his sons out of the Civil War, raises some of the same themes without the religious context. It later became a successful Broadway musical.