Perhaps one of the best ways to attract
the attention of both the public and the media in America is to try to
avoid it. People who hide from photographers, deny interviews, or attempt
to live private lives often arouse our curiosity. Since we know so little
about them, they seem mysterious and we want to know more. The
Amish are a good case in point.
Every year there is a steady stream of
books and articles, both popular and academic, about the Amish. And few
sub-cultures in America are as photographed by both professionals and
tourists as are the Amish. The Amish have been a popular subject for TV
shows and movies precisely because they are so different from
Unfortunately for many people, their
"knowledge" of the Amish comes almost entirely from TV
and movies. A columnist for the NEW YORK POST wrote late last year
that "Everything I know about the Amish, I learned from the old
Harrison Ford movie, WITNESS." While undoubtedly an
exaggeration, this is a bit like watching a Tarzan movie in order to learn
about African culture, or "The Sopranos" to gain insight
into the lives of average Italian-Americans today. While such shows may be
entertaining, they also stereotype and make it difficult to separate fact
One: Singing, Dancing Amish
Two: WITNESS, A Worldwide Hit
Three: Amish Comedies
Four: Amish on TV
Five: Based on a True Story
Six: Recommended Viewing
Seven: The Amish & the FBI
1: SINGING, DANCING AMISH
In 1955, both a film and a Broadway show prominently featured Amish
characters. Interestingly enough, while Witness celebrates its 20th
anniversary in 2005, these two productions celebrate their 50th.
The film Violent Saturday, directed by Richard Fleischer, was
about people in a small town who become involved with a bank robbery gone
wrong. One of the local residents is an Amish farmer, played by Ernest
Borgnine. In a plot twist similar to the original script of Witness,
which had Kelly McGillis use a gun to save Harrison Ford’s life, the Amish
farmer is forced to resort to violence to save his family. The theme of
peaceful Amish and a violent modern society have since become standard fare
in many films and TV shows.
But the production that helped spark the beginning of tourism in
Lancaster County was the musical Plain & Fancy, which ran on Broadway
from January 27, 1955 to March 3, 1956 for 461 performances at the Mark
Hellinger Theater. Another production opened January 25, 1956 in London at
the Theatre Royal for 315 performances. The same year a production was even
mounted in Buenos Aires (in Spanish). It is still performed today by high
schools, theater companies, and in repertory at Amish Acres in Nappanee,
Indiana. The original Broadway cast album was first released as an LP,
followed by two recent re-issues on CD by the Angel and DRG labels.
The show opened with a large map of
Lancaster County pinpointing its unusual town names, like Bird-in-Hand and
Intercourse. A sophisticated New York couple comes to Lancaster to
sell a farm they have inherited. The big opening number has them lost and
asking locals for directions, "Where the heck is Bird-in-Hand?" Romances,
misunderstandings, and family differences carry the story along through
various humorous and dramatic incidents, contrasting the big city couple and
the simple Amish farmers. For example, one song is titled "City Mouse,
According to the CD booklet, "Late in
rehearsals, an Amish couple… was invited to attend a run-through and
offer advice on the show's authenticity. Because the Amish were forbidden
to enter a theatre, the run-through was held in a warehouse."
Apparently, the couple were photographed against their wishes, and had
problems when they returned home. Much of their advice, if they offered
any, was obviously not followed.
Some of the situations are stretched
beyond belief, but the musical makes fun of both the Amish and the city
folk. (One of the New Yorkers hides in the Amish house under the stairs to
smoke cigarettes and drink scotch!) Shunning is treated in an
entirely erroneous manner, arranged marriages are incorrectly part of the
story, and there is much made about "hexes" when a barn burns down. (The
Amish don't even put hex signs on their barns, but a barn-raising is almost
obligatory in such a show.) Nevertheless, the tuneful music has a certain
old-fashioned charm, and one song titled "Plain We Live," sums up the Amish
"Strangers look on us and call us strange,
But lie, we don't; and cheat, we don't;
And wars we don't arrange...
Plain we are, for plain is good,
And plain is how we want to live.
We pray to God each day to keep us plain."
According to Ken Mandelbaum (www.Broadway.com), the producers and authors
of Plain & Fancy were “sued by the writers of a 1952 play about the
Amish called Wonderful Good that had been transformed into a musical,
By Hex, produced in 1953 in summer stock in Lancaster, where the show
took place.” This intimate little musical opened off-Broadway at the Tempo
Playhouse on June 13, 1956, but only lasted for 40 performances.
Interestingly enough, non-Amish characters were not featured in the main
story. Rather the focus was on two rebellious Amish young people who are
shunned for their ways, but eventually repent, marry, and rejoin the church.
Says Mandelbaum, “Where Plain & Fancy was a sophisticated
entertainment, By Hex is a serious, simplistic, primitive piece that
reads like a solemn tract promoting and justifying a way of life. Plain &
Fancy’s score is delightful 50’s Broadway, one of the most enjoyable of
its time. By Hex is sung to the sole, church-like accompaniment of an
organ. As heard on a scratchy LP, the score is gloomy and plodding.”
the show business world had had enough of the Amish. Except for the
occasional book or magazine article, the Amish were not the focus of
national attention over the next 50 years until the movie Witness was
2: WITNESS, A WORLDWIDE HIT
“A man of force, a woman of faith, worlds
After the 1955 Broadway musical PLAIN
& FANCY, there were various local shows and musicals about the
"plain people" produced in the Lancaster area for visitors. But
nothing much happened on a national scale until 1985 and the movie WITNESS,
which became a worldwide hit. Just last year, a columnist for the NEW
YORK POST wrote that "everything I know about the Amish, I
learned from the old Harrison Ford movie, WITNESS. " While
undoubtedly an exaggeration, this statement probably holds true for many
people even today.
As an indicator of how Witness
is part of our popular consciousness, let it be noted that Mad
magazine did a parody of the movie Witness and called it “Witless.”
And when director Rob Reiner made the disastrous 1994 film comedy NORTH,
he cast Kelly McGillis and Alexander Godunov (her Amish suitor), as an
Amish mom and dad. Obviously, nearly ten years later, he believed the
audience would still remember them from their original roles.
WITNESS was, of course, a serious
film, which contrasted a violent modern world with the peaceful Amish, and
turned it into a romantic thriller… "A big city cop. A small
country boy. They have nothing in common…but a murder." Helping to
add to the film’s success was actor Harrison Ford, fresh from starring
roles in STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES, who played
Philadelphia police detective, John Book. The movie is undeniably well
made, acted, and directed (by Australian Peter Weir), and many Lancaster
hotels have it available on video or DVD for their guests.
The film opens at an Amish funeral for the
husband of Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis). Soon she and her little boy
Samuel (Lukas Haas) are on a train trip to visit her sister. This is
Samuel’s first big trip to the "outside world" and, at the
Philadelphia train station, he mistakes a Hassidic Jewish man as Amish.
The drama begins when Samuel witnesses a
murder and John Book (Ford) takes mother and son in for questioning. In a
famous scene, Samuel is looking at newspaper clippings in a trophy case at
the police station and points at one of the men in the picture. Book now
knows the three men involved in the murder are fellow policemen. Wounded
in an attack, Book flees the city, taking Rachel and Samuel to their farm
in Lancaster County.
The Amish elders permit the injured
Book to stay on the farm to recuperate, unaware that the murderers are
looking for him. When Samuel discovers Book’s gun in a drawer, grandfather
(Jan Rubes) gives the boy a lecture on violence and the value of life. He
tells Samuel that when you take a gun in your hand, you bring violence
into your heart.
Soon Book is helping to milk the cows and putting his carpentry skills
to use during the spectacular barn-raising scene, now recognized as a
classic blending of music and visual imagery.
(Interestingly, Maurice Jarre, composer of large orchestral scores for
movies like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, decided
on "electronic" synthesizer music, since there was no Amish
"folk music" that could be used.) Film critic Steven D.
Greydanus summarized it…
“The barn-raising scene particularly is both a glowing celebration
and an unanswerable challenge: This is no Hollywood fantasy, no idealized
fiction, but how the Amish actually live. We can hardly imagine living
that way ourselves, having that degree of commitment to our neighbor, to
our community — but how reassuring it would be in this lonely world to be
able to count on others in this way.”
As the story progresses, Book and the
conveniently widowed Rachel discover a mutual romantic attraction, raising
serious concern within the Amish community. But before too much can
happen, the bad guys from the city trace him to Rachel’s home. While
Book uses violence to defend himself from the thugs in the movie’s
climatic showdown at the farm, it is the Amish who save the day by not
fighting back. In a wonderful scene, the Amish, by their sheer numbers and
presence, use non-violence to end the killing. As Book leaves the farm,
grandfather offers this parting advice, "You be careful out among
The love story reminded director Weir
of Madame Butterfly, two individuals who can’t stay together
because of cultural reasons. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The love
that begins to grow between them is not made out of clichés; the cultural
gulf that separates them, is at least as important to both of them as the
feelings they have. When they finally kiss, it is a glorious sensuous
moment because this kiss is a sharing of trust and passion.”
For those visitors who have seen the film,
the local town sequences were filmed in the village of Intercourse,
particularly on the porch of Zimmerman’s Store on Main Street. Just up
Queen Street near the Best Western Inn, Ford (dressed in Amish clothes)
gave an obnoxious punk a bloody nose while a local businessman complained,
"This is not good for the tourist trade."
The "WITNESS farm"
itself, which was not Amish and owned by the Paul Krantz family Farm, was located
out of view off a backroad west of Strasburg. It is not open to the
public (except for special bus tours in 2005 in celebration of the 20th
anniversary of the film), and looks quite different from the way it did in the film. Known
as the "Willow Spring Farm," it is now Amish-owned and being preserved for
agricultural use through the preservation efforts of the Lancaster
Farmland Trust because of its connection to the film.
Because of Harrison Ford’s popularity around the world, and the
marketing of the film as a romantic thriller, millions of people from
Europe to Japan saw Witness. For many, it was an “introduction” to
Amish culture, and a visit to a locale and people that were foreign to
most people’s perceptions of America. It remains a popular film, often
shown on TV, and now to be re-released as a 20th anniversary
“Collectors Edition” DVD by Paramount Pictures in August.
Following the film’s release, a reviewer
for TIME magazine noted the movie taught a valuable lesson --- that
people of two different cultures could meet and be enriched by their
friendship, but not have to destroy or radically change the other's way of
life. Regardless of what faults you may find with the movie, it definitely
provides some food for thought.
conjunction with Paramount’s 20th Anniversary DVD release of
the movie WITNESS, there is for the first time a special
opportunity for the public to visit the “Witness farm.” Visits must be
made as part of a guided tour offered from the Pennsylvania Dutch
Convention & Visitors Bureau on Greenfield Road in Lancaster, and include
the special exhibit, “Witness to Witness,” at the Cultural History Museum
downtown. The three-hour tours depart at 9:30 am and 1:30 pm on Monday,
Fridays, and Saturdays from April 1 through November 21. Seating is
limited, so individuals must purchase tour tickets in advance by calling
1-800-PA-DUTCH and press “1.” Some “day of” tickets may be available at
the Visitors Center.
http://www.padutchcountry.com/witness/index.asp on the web for more
3: "AMISH COMEDIES"
Even though movies about the Amish may be
entertaining, they also stereotype and make it difficult to separate fact
from fiction. The problem is often compounded in comedies, where the whole
point is to exaggerate and make fun of situations and people.
Amish Bowler Strikes Out
After a serious movie about the Amish like
WITNESS, it was only a matter of time before a goofy comedy with
Amish in the plot was made. That film was the 1996 movie KINGPIN.
As the ad for the movie proclaimed, it was "from the idiots what
brung you DUMB AND DUMBER," so you can pretty much guess what
you are in for.
Woody Harrelson is Roy Munson, a bowler
with a hook for a hand (it's a long story), who meets a young Amish man,
Ishmael Borden (Randy Quaid), whom he thinks he can groom for competitive
bowling contests. Roy disguises himself as an Amishman and visits Ishmael’s
family in an attempt to convince him to hit the road as a bowler.
Roy's time on the Amish farm has its
"funny" moments, but much of it is crass humor. Let's just say
the Amish grandmother has a beard, Roy tries to milk a bull and, when
ordered to take off a horse's shoes, he cuts off the entire hoof! The next
time we see "Buttercup," he is a much shorter horse.
The barn-raising scene is a deliberate
spoof of the same scene in WITNESS, this time with rock music in the
background. The men are putting up the final wall when the dinner bell
rings. Hungry Roy drops his pole and runs to the table. The men struggle
to get the frame into place, but without Roy the entire barn collapses.
Since the bank is about to foreclose on
the farm without the needed $500,000, Ishmael joins Ron to win the
$1,000,000 Reno Bowling Tournament. When they hit the road, there is lots
of "humor" as Ishmael discovers the many peculiarities of
In the end, Roy saves Ishmael’s farm,
and an Amish band gives a concert on an outdoor stage as the Amish line
dance into the cornfield. (You get the idea.)
Tim Allen Goes Dutch
The most recent Hollywood
"Amish" film, FOR RICHER OR POORER, starred Tim Allen and
Kirstie Alley, two very popular comedy actors. The story is about rich New
Yorkers who try to evade the IRS by taking refuge on an Amish farm. Tim
tries to pass himself off as a distant Amish relative. Many
"funny" situations follow as the city folk try to adapt to life
among the simple Amish. (Does this sound at all familiar?)
Much of the fun comes from the fact that
this wealthy, spoiled couple decide to hide in an Amish community where
their behavior and attitudes make them stick out like a sore thumb. This
only makes their attempts to "blend in" more humorous. Since the
two know virtually nothing about the Amish, they get into all kinds of
Tim has problems with the horse, getting
up early, the hard work, and the food. Poor Kirstie, on coming face to
face with a cow in a field at night, screams as if she has met Godzilla.
Then she is forced into trying to milk cows and clean house, activities
she finds disgusting, to say the least. Distraught at the drab colors and
styles of Amish clothing, she tries to convince the Amish elders that it
might be nice to wear pink. She even throws a fashion show in the barn,
with the Amish modeling her wild creations. What Amish movie would be
complete without a big barn dance?
Naturally, it's all good-natured and
there's a happy ending. When the New Yorkers confess to not really being
Amish, their new friends reveal that they had known this all along (as
they certainly would have).
In both of these films, the Amish are used
merely as a plot device, and most of the laughs are really at the expense
of the non-Amish characters. Of course, no one in his or her right mind
would go to a movie like this truly expecting to gain any real or valuable
insight into the Amish. Still, it probably reinforces a lot of stereotypes
and misconceptions about the Amish --- and New Yorkers.
Funny? Offensive? Harmless? You be the
4: AMISH ON TV
There have actually
been many more portrayals of the Amish on television than in the movies.
There was even an Amish series, "Aaron's Way" on NBC in 1988. It
starred Merlin Olsen and Belinda Montgomery as Aaron and Sarah Miller. The
storyline was a little hard to swallow…
Amish boy Noah runs
away from home. Becomes a surfer in California. Dies in surfing accident.
Leaves behind pregnant wife. His Amish family moves to California to take
care of wife and baby… and help run her family’s vineyard! (No, I did not
make this up.)
There were scenes of the Amish being frightened by
various modern appliances, including ringing telephones. Again, the idea was
that they didn't know about such things, even though the Amish do use
telephones. (Many even have cell phones now.)
There were the usual cultural clashes, both serious and
funny, with the city folk. Sometimes a story actually made an attempt to
portray an ideal of Amish life, but the show barely lasted through the first
season with 14 episodes.
series sometimes tap into the Amish for something different. Often, this is
nothing more than a mention, as when someone on “Seinfeld” talked
about going to the Amish Country to buy quilts.
The series "Lois &
Clark: The Adventures of Superman," had an interesting twist when Lex
Luther was shocked to learn that the only pocket of people in America he
could not brainwash were the Amish, because they didn't have telephones or
TV's at home!
An episode of the soap
opera "As the World Turns" involved a woman who had an accident, lost
her memory, and ended up living with the Amish until her memory was restored
after another accident. (Some TV writers really work hard to get the Amish
into a story!)
“The Ben Stiller
Show” even had a skit called “Amish Studs,” which was a spoof of “The
Dating Game.” Amish fathers stood behind their daughters as they were chosen
by Amish suitors, and the scene ended with a fistfight. After the skit, one
of the actresses was asked if she thought it was funny. Her response, “Kinda
funny, if you enjoy picking on really peace-loving, defenseless people.”
The year is 1988, season four of this popular TV series. In
Episode #67, titled “The Outsiders,” MacGyver
meets the Amish in Pennsylvania. Following is the plot summary from the
“Witness” meets the story of Baby Jessica:
MacGyver is driving through Pennsylvania when a tire blows out and his car
goes off the road. Fortunately, the injured troubleshooter is rescued and
cared for by an Amish family. Meanwhile, the Amish community is building a
well. However, this draws the ire of the Wrightman Construction company as
the Amish have been ordered off the land. MacGyver then learns from
Wrightman that the government has legally confiscated the land although
John, the leader of the Amish community, refuses to acknowledge the
"Englander" decision. Steven, a construction worker, then decides to move
the construction project along by blowing up the well. Christy, Wrightman's
daughter, runs over to help Jacob, a young Amish boy, and falls into the
well. (Jacob and Christy had been playing despite the fact that their
families have opposing philosophies.) MacGyver, with the help of both the
Amish and Wrightman's crew, manages to free Christy. (Of course, this
episode, also includes the obligatory Amish subplot about William, the
"shunned" man who redeems himself.) After the rescue, Wrightman announces
that he will recommend that the project be moved away from Amish land.
Furthermore, John decides to discuss the matter at a planning meeting.
Amish, She Wrote
The CBS-TV series "Murder,
She Wrote" had what is one of the single worst shows involving Amish
characters that I've seen. Episode #152 from season seven (1990-91)
presented a show titled “Murder, Plain and Simple.” Angela Lansberry’s
character, Jessica, is visiting Lancaster County looking for quilts with her
publisher’s assistant, Ruben Stoltz, an ex-Amishman. A near collision with a
horse and buggy results in their wrecking the car. Jessica interrupts a
Sunday Amish church service looking for help. When she walks in, an Amish
elder tells her, "Any souvenirs you want, you'll have to purchase in town."
Jessica and Ruben end
up staying overnight with Jacob Beiler. As it turns out, Jacob was
responsible for Ruben being shunned years ago, mainly so Jacob could marry
Ruben’s girlfriend, Rebecca. Ruben explains to Jessica, incorrectly, that
shunning means not looking at, talking to, or sitting near someone under the
ban. BUT…. the shunning of Ruben is “lifted” since he needs to stay in the
house overnight due to his injuries in the crash!
That evening, Jessica
sees Rebecca sneaking out to the barn. The next day Jessica finds Jacob's
dead body hung up like a scarecrow. He was stabbed with a pitchfork.
It’s a long story, with
various sub-plots and suspects, but Jessica finally discovers that Jacob was
having an affair with an Amish woman. She threatened to reveal him, and he
attacked her, accidentally falling on a pitchfork she was using to defend
herself. Ruben found the body in the barn after his secret meeting with
Rebecca and, knowing he would be the prime suspect, moved Jacob’s body
By the end
of the show, Jessica has her quilt, justice is served, and an Amish elder
tells Jessica that Ruben’s shunning will be “called off when he forgives
himself.” Just a typical day in Amish Country….
5: BASED ON A TRUE STORY
Although many portrayals of the Amish have
been misguided or totally ludicrous, there have been some welcome
exceptions. As with the movie WITNESS, a common story line involves
the Amish and a crime, with the ensuing legal, moral, and cultural
clashes. This provides an "instant" dramatic situation filled
with tension and conflict.
In 1988, NBC presented a two-hour made for
TV movie called "A STONING IN FULHAM COUNTY." It was
based on the true story of the death of an Amish baby in Indiana in 1979,
retold in a compelling article in Rolling Stone Magazine (February
The movie opens with some rowdy non-Amish
boys from town who, for fun, drive around throwing stones at Amish buggies
at night. The activity is called "clape-ing," coming from a
derogatory local term for the Amish --- "clape" for clay ape, a
term that probably relates to the Amish being farmers. On this particular
night, one of the boys from town accidentally hits and kills an Amish
Some boys (including a young Brad Pitt)
are rounded up that night, but the Amish father, Jacob Shuler (Ron Perlman),
does not wish to cooperate with the police. To make matters worse, the
only person who actually saw the boys is his little girl, and Jacob doesn’t
want her questioned by the police, much less put on the witness stand in
The county prosecutor, Jim Sandler (Ken
Olin), is a big city lawyer who has moved to the rural Iowa town with his
wife (Jill Eikenberry), hoping to start up a new law practice there. He is
filling out a term as County Prosecutor, in the hopes of winning the
position in the next election.
Jim is torn by what to do in this
difficult situation. He feels the boys must be prosecuted, but the Amish
family does not wish to file charges due to their religious convictions,
and many in the non-Amish community want to cover things up, or at least
downplay the incident as an unfortunate accident. Jim decides to charge
the boys with "Reckless Homicide."
Both fathers wrestle with their
consciences and struggle with their personal feelings and the reactions of
their family members. When Jim is told the Amish turn the other cheek, he
snaps "Not a bad way to live unless you're the only ones who
do." Jacob calmly quotes the Bible to Jim, "Vengeance is mine. I
will repay, saith the Lord."
There is a good depiction of an Amish
baptism, as the family tries to deal with its loss and Jim tries to get
the elders to allow the Amish to testify. The townsfolk remind Jim he is
losing clients and possible election by pursuing the case against the
local boys. His family is harassed, and his son gets into a fight at
school. Both fathers recognize the other is paying a price for his
Without testimony by the Amish, it seems
doubtful Jim can succeed, but he takes the case to court because he thinks
it is his moral duty. The lawyer for the boys notes there is "hardly
a man in the county who didn't go out clapeing one time or another when
they were kids." Jim states the problem simply
as a "lack of concern or caring about the tolerance of people who are
different. Those who are not tolerated have shown the most tolerance of
Finally, it is the
anguish of Jacob’s little girl, who saw the boys throw the stones, that
forces Jacob to go to court. But as they arrive, with reporters and TV
cameras everywhere, the boys’ lawyer immediately changes the plea to
guilty, knowing the girl can identify his clients. For this reason, the
little girl avoids having to testify after all.
In an epilogue, the narrator says that
there have not been further incidents since the trial, and that Jim was
elected as county prosecutor. He also notes that the boys were fined
($2,000 to $5,000) for their crime, and received sentences of 3-5 years,
which were suspended.
Despite some minor flaws in the depiction
of the Amish, this is a compelling and thought-provoking story, made all
the more powerful by the fact that it actually happened. As is the case
with most crimes against religious or ethnic minorities, they are often
the result of the misunderstanding and dehumanizing of other people simply
because they are different. Over the years the media have sometimes helped
to reinforce this stereotyping, but movies and television can also open
our eyes to these problems in a dramatic way.
6: RECOMMENDED VIEWING
As with the movie WITNESS, a common
story line involves the Amish and a crime, with the ensuing legal, moral,
and cultural clashes. This provides an "instant" dramatic
situation filled with tension and conflict.
The TV series "Picket Fences,"
created by well-known David E. Kelley, had a surprisingly compelling story
concerning an Amish girl who is attacked on a trip to town, and the court
case that followed. The drama focused on "respect for religious
convictions vs. the welfare of community."
Since the Amish do not prosecute in court,
the Amish elders do not permit Hannah Beiler to testify or press charges
against her attacker. "We condemn the sin, not the sinner." The
sheriff (Tom Skerritt) ponders holding Hannah in contempt, even putting
her in jail. The Amish elders are brought to court in an effort to
pressure them, but the Amish just want to be left alone. "It is easy
to hate. We are asked to take a higher road." In the end the attacker
Unfortunately, the released man
immediately goes out and attacks another girl, who is not Amish. The girl’s
father sues the Amish elders for $300,000, claiming this is all a result
of Hannah’s not being permitted to testify. The Amish are forced to get
a lawyer, and Hannah, who is not yet baptized, clearly wants to testify.
The prosecuting attorney states that "no belief system can take
precedence over the legal system of the state."
The defending lawyer argues that the Amish
choose not to get involved in the "world," that they live their
faith, and this is not easy. "Rather than condemn or be afraid, we
should seek to learn from it."
As the jury is handing down its verdict of
"not guilty," the police are chasing the fugitive attacker
through town on foot. He comes face-to-face with Hannah as her family is
leaving court. He asks Hannah for forgiveness as he is gunned down by the
While the ending was contrived and
melodramatic, the episode was intelligently written and thought provoking.
Locally, in 1995, the Amish
Experience Theater produced an unusual "experiential
theater" presentation on the Amish titled "Jacob's Choice."
Unique to this story about an Amish family is that it focuses entirely on
the Amish. There are no non-Amish or city folk involved in the story.
Rather than being merely a plot device, the Amish are the story.
This was also the first time anyone tried
to bring in the history of the Amish, how their forefathers were put to
death in Europe, and their seeking freedom in America. These Amish
struggles with the "State" have been both a part of their past,
and the subject of many novels and movies in modern times as well. An
attempt here is to relate what has happened to the Amish in the past with
who they are today. In other words, the Amish are not cultural oddities or
eccentrics. There is a reason behind what they do.
The story is told through the eyes of a
teenage boy who must make his decision to join the Amish faith of his
parents, or lead a more modern life in the outside world. (The Amish
believe in adult baptism.) Rather than portray the Amish as saints or
curiosities, here they become real people. It is a "universal
story" told from a distinctive Amish perspective.
While special effects are used to bring
the historical scenes to life, the emphasis remains on the family, the
community, and why any young person would want to be Amish in modern-day
America. While not all Amish young people join the church, approximately
85% do, resulting in the continual growth of the Amish population.
One of the show’s producers tells the
story of a day when two ladies came to the theater. One was Amish, and the
other her sister who had chosen not to join the church. At the end of the
show, he asked them how they liked it. They answered, almost in unison,
"It was a really good story."
If you visit Lancaster, you may wish to
see "Jacob’s Choice" at the Amish Experience, on Route
340 between Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse.
7: THE AMISH & THE FBI
The 1996 Hallmark Hall of Fame drama,
"HARVEST OF FIRE," attempted to mix a sensitive portrayal
of the Amish with a detective story. "Two women, two worlds. A crime
they couldn't imagine. A friendship they never expected."
The similarities to the movie WITNESS
are obvious. There is a widowed Amish lady, Annie Beiler, played by Patty
Duke. There is a detective from the outside world, in this case FBI agent
Sally Russell, played by Lolita Davidovich. And there is a shocking crime,
in this case a series of barn burnings in the Amish community. The movie
was obviously inspired by the 1992 Amish barn fires in Pennsylvania, set
by an arsonist, which really was investigated by the FBI as a hate crime.
"Can two women from such distinct
worlds overcome the barriers that separate them? They come from different
worlds. A mystery brought them together. The answer changed their
When her boss calls to inform Sally of her
assignment, he asks her what she knows about the Amish. Sally’s answer
is typical, "They dress funny, they don't drive cars or use
electricity." He then tells her "Don't forget your bonnet."
Meeting Annie’s family for the first
time after the fire, Sally's first mistake is trying to tape-record her
interview. Walking through town with Annie, a tourist rudely tries to take
their picture. Annie says what Sally already knows, "We're just a
curiosity to most people."
Slowly, Sally starts to learn more about
Amish customs. "The Amish are innocents. They need all the protection
we can give them," she intones. Sally, impressed by the closeness of
Annie’s family tells her, "I only see my family on weddings,
holidays, and funerals." Annie adds that "you pay a price for
being close, but you pay a price for being independent."
Sally suspects an Amishman is behind the
fires and asks to stay with Annie’s family to be closer to the
community. Annie expresses concern that she may be shunned for permitting
Sally to live with them, but a bond has developed and it will take time
for the elders to draw any conclusions.
This closeness results in Sally’s
discovering that Annie's daughter is seeing a boy whose father is being
shunned for building a barn with an arched roof, instead of a peaked roof!
While a pretty flimsy point to build a plot around, the script has Annie
explain the importance of customs in keeping the Amish together.
"It's not the barn that's dangerous, it's the impulse that built
In the final scene at a barn raising, also
reminiscent of WITNESS, all the Amish applaud wildly when the work
is done. The son of the shunned family arrives on horseback to make a
dramatic, tearful confession before the crowd that he is the arsonist.
As the boy is taken downtown to court, the
Amish community rallies behind him. Annie tells Sally to "Despise the
sin, not the sinner," and "We make mistakes, but when one of us
falls in his journey, we help him up."
(Interestingly, the man responsible for
the real 1992 series of fires in Pennsylvania did have an Amish
connection. According to the Associated Press, "his father was raised
Amish but never practiced as an adult." The son never joined the
Amish church but grew up in the area before moving to Florida after the
fires. When asked what penalty the arsonist should be given for burning
down the barns, a local man responded that the Amish would "like to
have him to dinner, show him how they live, and ask why he did this to
In the melodramatic ending, the Amish all
show up in town to accompany the boy to the courthouse in a most unlikely
"parade" of buggies and people down the main street!
The video version of the movie is followed
by a "Making Of" documentary, during which the narrator
annoyingly mispronounces the name Beiler. Patty Duke says of the Amish and
Mennonites, she is impressed with the "ego-less-ness and oneness with
each other, the land, and their God." Davidovich notes that "by
virtue of being an enigma, it is easy to pass judgement" on the
Amish. And they "discovered" the plain people have a sense of
In a humorous aside, we learn that while
Duke learned to drive a horse, she was lousy at quilting, so her only
"stunt double" was for the sewing scene! In a nice concluding
comment, Duke emphasizes she was impressed with learning "of knowing
that they have a choice, they have to really make a commitment." But
above all, she felt "that extraordinary sense of family, generation
after generation after generation."
Certainly, the people behind HARVEST OF
FIRE were trying to portray the Amish respectfully, even if we find
fault with much of the story itself. And so, while we are sometimes
disturbed by the stereotyping and misrepresentation of religious and
ethnic minorities in the media, at other times it is movies and television
that can actually open our eyes to peoples and problems we need to better
Country News Amish Series by Brad
Igou (2001, 2005)
Return to the Amish