‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
It is far easier to talk about loving one’s enemies during times of peace than it is to do so amidst the passions aroused by war, as we see in writer-producer-director-editor Robby Henson’s film, set in the Cumberland Mountains during the Civil War. Sarah Anders (Patricia Clarkson) lives in one of the isolated hollows of the mountains where neighbors had taken opposing sides in the war. Sarah and her adolescent son Boy (whom we know only as “Boy,” played by Will Lucas) are alone because her husband is away fighting with the Confederate Army. She is seething with rage against the local Yankee sympathizers who have just desecrated the grave of her recently deceased daughter. Thus she is in no mood to welcome the Yankee patrol out foraging for food. During the Union patrol’s approach to her cabin, she and Boy attempt to hide the smoked ham, their cow, and the tintype photo of her soldier husband. Captain John Hull Abston (Chris Cooper), explaining to her his intention, is obviously ill at ease in the seizure of her foodstuffs, but his comrades need the food for carrying on the fight.
Abston’s short stay is prolonged when the rickety ladder, on which one of his men has climbed to search the barn loft, gives way, and the soldier falls upon a pitchfork. Sarah refuses to boil water for the wounded man’s treatment, and Abston soon finds out why when his men light the hearth fire. The ham she has hidden has blocked up the chimney. Although one of the soldiers believes that the gut wound will be fatal, and thus the party should move on, the decent Abstan insists that they stay and nurse the man until he is strong enough to travel. During the following days he, Sarah, and Boy encounter each other across a chasm of hostility.
As Abstan, a widowed farmer from Ohio, helps with the plowing and the chopping of firewood, we wonder if the story will follow the usual Hollywood arc. Also, will his men understand their officer’s seemingly fraternizing with the enemy? That events turn out differently from what we might expect (and hope) is to the film’s credit. Based on the author’s recollection of a story told about a mountain boy during the Civil War, this is no sugar-coated tale of easy reconciliation, but one in which humans, torn by conflicting loyalties and passions, make decisions that have profound consequences. However, even amidst the hostility there is a wonderful act of grace, but one that is not reciprocated, thus reminding us that Christian love must spring from other than utilitarian motives.