(1956 c 139')
Based on the novel by Jessamyn West, a family of Quakers has their beliefs challenged by a Confederate invasion of their home during the Civil War.
In southern Indiana in 1862 the boy Little Jess (Richard Eyer) has his best clothes on and looks for the goose Samantha, who bites him in the leg. His mother Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire) comes out and tells him to fetch Mattie and Josh. He finds Mattie Birdwell (Phyllis Love) pretending she is talking to a boy. She asks Josh if he thinks she is pretty. Little Jess and Josh Birdwell (Anthony Perkins) pretend to shoot each other like General Stonewall Jackson. Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) has a horse he wishes could run faster. Professor Waldo Quigley (Walter Catlett) drives up in a buggy and asks directions to town. Jess explains that Quakers talk differently than others by using thee and thou. The Professor sells organs and wants to sell one to the Quaker preacher. He drives off. Jess tells his horse to win the race. Eliza comes out and asks what he is doing. Mattie comes, and Samantha chases Little Jess into the surrey. Enoch (Joel Fluellen) wishes Jess good luck, and Eliza asks why.
Jess drives the buggy and sees Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton) coming up from behind. Jess uses the whip on his horse, and they go through a wooden bridge. Sam’s buggy tries to pass them, and they race. Sam’s buggy goes ahead, and Jess slows down. Little Jess says that Gard winked at Mattie. Eliza says she wants to go to meeting with only peace and love in her heart.
They go into the meeting house and sit in silence with others. The men sit on one side, and the women sit on the other. In a nearby church people sing a hymn. In the Friends meeting a lady says she celebrated her 80th birthday, and she reads from the Bible. A young woman asks to be less worldly. Mattie stands and shares her happiness. Little Jess says, “God is love.” Major Harvey (Theodore Newton) comes into the hall, walking with a cane. Eliza invites him to come in and affirms that she is one of the ministers. Major Harvey says he wants to talk about the war. He says thousands have given their lives to end slavery. Eliza says they are against slavery, but they do not believe in killing people. He says it is a question of protecting our homes from attack. He asks the men if they would stand by while others die protecting them. Caleb Cope (John Smith) admits he has a tendency to get into a scrap and has to be careful. Major Harvey asks Josh if he is afraid to fight, and he says he does not know. Major Harvey asks them if they are hiding behind their church to save themselves. He asks them to speak up, and Purdy (Richard Hale) says he will not become violent. Jess says he is not sure what he would do if he saw his family in danger. Major Harvey says that test is coming. Jess asks that the will of God be revealed to them and that they have the strength to follow his will. Eliza prays that they not meet evil with evil but learn the ways of peace.
Jess picks corn in his field and hears the bell to come in. They wash up, and Gard Jordan (Mark Richman) arrives and apologizes for the horse racing. Eliza says that Jess is going to get a horse that does not race. Gard asks if they are going to the fair. Eliza says no and that they have dancing. Mattie asks if her mother danced, and Jess says she did twenty years ago when he was courting her. Eliza says they should not put temptation in the children’s path. Mattie wants to go, and Jess offers to help.
They attend the fair and see a man swallowing a knife. Jess suggests they meet in one hour. Gard challenges Jess at the shooting gallery. Gard goes looking for Mattie, and Eliza leaves Mattie to look for Little Jess. Mattie goes with Gard. Jess is given a garter for his shooting prize. Sam asks Professor Waldo Quigley for a demonstration, and he shows them an organ. Little Jess with eyes even with the table watches the man with the shell game and wins. The man tells him to go away. Jess asks about the organ but says Quakers are against music. Gard gets Mattie to dance with him. The Professor plays the organ and sings with Jess and Sam. Eliza finds Little Jess and takes him away from the shell game. The Professor shows Jess how to play the organ. Eliza and Little Jess drink punch, and she sees Mattie dancing. Mattie sees her mother and stops. Gard says he was to blame. Eliza tells Gard he is a soldier and that Mattie is a Quaker. She takes Mattie with her.
Caleb is asked to wrestle, and Josh says he should not fight. Caleb says it is friendly wrestling and defeats a bigger man. Caleb is afraid he hurt him and stops. Some call him a quitter. A man complains that he lost his bet, and two people hit Josh. Caleb tells them to hit him instead, and they do. Jess intervenes and dumps an aggressor in a barrel of water. Eliza objects to his fighting. Jess says the garters he is wearing are “sleeve-holders.”
At home Jess says he has to go see his customers. Josh is excited to go and kisses his mother goodbye. Eliza kisses Jess and asks him to take good care of Josh. They drive off on a wagon. Jess sells nursery stock, and they call on the Hudspeth family of women. Widow Hudspeth (Marjorie Main) introduces her three daughters, and they surround Josh. Jess says he is a Quaker, and the widow likes the way he talks. She asks Jess if he saw any rebel raiders, and he says no. The widow tells Opal to hitch up their horse Lady. The widow offers to bed them down for the night. Pearl Hudspeth (Marjorie Durant) locks Josh in and grabs him.
Widow Hudspeth takes Jess for a ride and says her horse won’t be passed. She has daughters who need courting, and she wants a horse that can be passed. They see another buggy and race. The widow puts on the brakes and tries to slow her horse. Jess takes over and enjoys winning the race. Afterward Jess apologizes, but she says it is appropriate for a man to win. Jess asks if she would like a more maidenly horse. Jess says his horse has no stomach for racing, and she suggests a trade. He agrees, and they shake on it. In the house the three daughters play music and sing “Marry Me.”
Jess and Josh return home, and Little Jess announces their coming. Eliza embraces Josh and Jess. Enoch and Little Jess notice the new horse. Eliza is happy for a plain animal that will not race. The Professor drives up and delivers the organ that Jess bought. Eliza is upset and tries to stop them for taking it in the house. She forbids, and Jess says she may suggest but not forbid. She warns him that he can have that instrument in the house or his wife. She says she will go to the barn. Jess and the Professor carry it in, and she goes out.
Later Eliza spreads a blanket on the hay and reads. Mattie plays the organ, and Jess sends Josh out to see if his mother needs anything. Sam knocks, comes in, and asks Jess about his new horse. Sam asks about Eliza. Josh comes back and says mother needs another comforter because of the straw. Jess says Eliza is living in the barn because of a difference of opinion. Little Jess says papa bought something, and mama won’t stay in the house with it. Sam offers to help, but Jess says he can handle it. Sam laughs and leaves. Jess sends the children to bed. Jess takes a comforter and a pillow to the barn.
In the morning Jess and Eliza walk back into the house. She makes sure he will put the organ in the attic. She sees Sam and rushes into the house. Jess asks why he is there so early, and Sam says it is 6:30. Sam asks if she is still in the barn or whether he got rid of the organ. Jess says he reasoned with her. Jess shows him his new mare. Sam finds Jess’s watch in the barn and laughs. Sam also laughs at the horse.
Jess tells Eliza they are not taking the surrey, and the children will have to stay home. Enoch wishes Jess God’s speed. Jess and Eliza leave in the buggy. Jess stops by the bridge and waits while he looks at the horse. He sees Sam coming and continues on. Sam tries to pass Jess, but Lady speeds up. Eliza tells Jess to slow down. Sam pulls even and tips his hat. Then Jess pulls away and leaves Sam in the dust. Jess tries to get the other horse to pass, but Jess stays ahead. Jess is happy, but Eliza is upset.
At night at home Gard comes in, and Mattie notices his arm is wounded. Gard says it was a rebel bullet. Eliza sees the elders coming, and she sends the children out of the room with Gard. Three elders come in and look at pictures. On the porch Josh asks Gard if he killed anybody. Gard says he is organizing the home guard there, and Josh asks if could be in it. Josh goes off, and Mattie tells Gard they got an organ. An elder suggests they begin by praying. Mattie and Gard go up in the attic, and she begins to play. The elders try to figure out what the sound is. Jess starts praying out loud. Little Jess wakes up and listens as Jess keeps praying. An elder thanks him for his prayer. Another says his spirit is as strong as his voice. The three elders says goodnight and leave. Gard and Mattie start playing the organ, and Jess says it is a duet. He and Eliza listen, and the playing stops. Gard kisses Mattie. Eliza wonders what they are doing, and Jess suggests silent prayer and kisses Eliza. Mattie comes down and reminds them they have company. Jess tells Eliza they should go to bed and let the young people have the parlor. In the barn Josh and Enoch admire a calf that was just born. Josh wonders what it feels like to die and asks if it is like sleep.
Jess is in the field with his scythe, and he sees smoke nearby. Eliza sees it from the porch. Gard arrives and says he is reporting to the home guard and came to say goodbye. Mattie is on the swing where she is pretending to talk to Gard. She says he is so brave, and Little Jess asks why he did not win any medals. Gard finds them and offers Little Jess the bullet taken from his arm. Little Jess says it is wrong to take bribes but leaves anyway. Mattie is standing in the water and refuses to come out. He says he has eyes the color of the sky. She realizes he heard her and gets angry and runs off. Jess tells Mattie to come back down, and Gard says he hurt her feelings. Jess says with women it is hard not to be clumsy sometimes. Josh comes back and says the rebels are coming. He says the militia is going to make a stand, and their house will be overrun. Gard advises them to leave. Jess says he is staying. Eliza says they will accept the Lord’s will. Josh says he can do something. Enoch asks Gard if they have an extra gun. Enoch says he will not be caught without fighting. Jess says he can take a horse. Gard says that Josh can come in the morning. Gard says to say goodbye to Mattie and leaves. Mattie runs after him on the road shouting. He hears her and goes back, and they embrace. They say they love each other and kiss. He asks her if she will marry him, and she says she will. They kiss again, and he leaves.
Josh comes in the house and says he is not hungry. Jess suggests that he be calm. Josh says they have to fight. Jess says he has no sword in his heart. Eliza says Josh saw bad things. Jess tells Josh he will be asked to kill. Josh says he does not want to die, but he says he has to try as long as others are. Josh goes out. Jess tells Eliza that he is not Josh’s conscience, which he must live by. Mattie comes in and dances upstairs.
Josh is eating in his room, and Eliza comes in, removes the tray, and tucks him in. She tells him that their ways are the ways of peace. She asks him not to turn his back on what she taught him. She says God will give him strength. She prays, asking God to watch over him. She asks him to promise he will pray, and he does so. She blows out the lamp and goes out.
Early in the morning Josh comes downstairs with his rifle. Eliza asks if he prayed, and he says he did. She turns her back, and he kisses her shoulder. He says goodbye to his father and leaves. Eliza runs after him and hugs him before he goes.
Josh rides with armed men. Union officers tell them to take cover by a river for a battle. Some make preparations, and Josh is behind a big log. A soldier advises Josh to relax. They hear a rebel yell, and Josh cowers. The officer reprimands the man who gave the yell.
Jess is chopping wood. Purdy arrives with a rifle and says they burned his barn. Jess offers to help him, and Purdy asks him to fight with a gun. Jess says he is not ready to do that. Purdy asks if he will turn the cheek, and Jess says he will. Sam tells Purdy not to tell other people what is right for them to do. Purdy leaves. Jess asks Sam if his place was hit, and he says no. Sam offers to fight for both of them. He is glad to see someone hold out for a better way of settling things. Sam rides off, and Jess goes back to chopping wood.
By the river Josh sees two men on horses and says they are coming. He takes aim. One Confederate soldier rides his horse into the river and looks around. Then they go back into the woods. Soldiers on horses approach the river and begin to cross. A Union officer shouts, “Fire!” and the battle begins. Josh hesitates and then starts shooting. As he shoots, he is crying. Rebels fire a cannon at them.
A horse without a rider returns to the farm. Mattie asks if Josh is hurt. Eliza cries, and Jess tells Little Jess to bring Lady to the house. Jess goes in the house and gets his rifle. Eliza says no. He kisses her on the forehead and leaves. Little Jess asks his father to kill a Johnny Reb for him, and Jess says never to talk that way about a man’s life. Jess rides off. Mattie takes her mother’s hand.
Little Jess sees rebels coming on horses. They ride up to the house shooting, and Eliza offers them food. They begin to steal chickens and other things. She invites some into the house to eat. Jess is riding on a road. The rebels load food on a wagon. Inside men enjoy their meal. A man catches the goose Samantha, and Eliza beats him with a broom to make him let her go. She says the bird is a pet, and the men leave. Eliza says she raised her hand in anger. Little Jess was impressed, and Mattie warns him to never tell him.
Jess finds another horse without a rider and takes it with him. Jess finds Sam, who says he was bushwhacked. Jess uncovers Sam’s wounded stomach and says he can beat him any day. Sam asks him to tell Gard and dies. A shot is fired, and Jess appears to be hit and falls. The man with the rifle approaches, but Jess does not move. After he walks away, Jess gets up. The man shoots at him again but misses. Jess rushes him while he is reloading and takes the rifle away from him. He tells the man to go and says he will not harm him. The man walks away, and Jess drops the rifle. Jess sees wounded men walking. He finds Josh laying on the ground. Josh clings to the dead man next to him, but Jess takes him on his horse.
In the house Little Jess is playing the organ. Eliza says she heard him on the Lord’s day. They are dressed for meeting, and Eliza likes helping Josh. Jess asks what came over the goose Samantha. Mattie tries to restrain Little Jess, who says Mama whacked him with a broom. As Eliza comes out, Jess treats the broom as a soldier handles a rifle. Jess tells the veterans to come on. They leave in the buggy, and Mattie goes with Gard.
This drama portrays the peaceful way of life practiced by the Friends who are called Quakers. The story reflects an important tradition in American history that began with the colony William Penn founded without using violence. The need to protect themselves from an invasion by Confederate soldiers brings powerful pressure on the Quakers to fight, and some consider this a pro-war movie; but the example of Jess and Eliza show that they could love their enemies and retain the dignity of their spiritual beliefs.