Amish Country News Buggy

Amish Country News

Your Guide to Pennsylvania's Amish Country

Celebrating 21 Years!

 

 


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 "mainstream America."

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 from fiction.

Part One: Singing, Dancing Amish

Part Two: WITNESS, A Worldwide Hit

Part Three: Amish Comedies
Part Four: Amish on TV
Part Five: Based on a True Story
Part Six: Recommended Viewing
Part Seven: The Amish & the FBI

 

Part 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, Country 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 quite well…

"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.”  

It seems 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 released.

 

Part 2: WITNESS, A WORLDWIDE HIT

“A man of force, a woman of faith, worlds apart.”

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 those English."

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.

In 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.

Visit http://www.padutchcountry.com/witness/index.asp on the web for more information.

 

Part 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 modern-day America.

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 trouble.


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 judge.

 

Part 4: AMISH ON TV

"Aaron's Way"

 

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.

Bits & Pieces

Weekly television 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.”

MacGyver

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 website www.htktv.com….

“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 outside. Whew!

            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….

Part 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 19, 1981).

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 baby.

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 court.

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 actions.

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 all."

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.

Part 6: RECOMMENDED VIEWING

"Picket Fences"

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 is released.

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 police.

While the ending was contrived and melodramatic, the episode was intelligently written and thought provoking.

"Jacob's Choice"

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.

 

Part 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 lives."

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 it."

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 them.")

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 humor.

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 understand.

 

 Amish Country News Amish Series by Brad Igou (2001, 2005)

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