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In 1856, settlers in the Kansas Territory face an election to determine if Kansas will join the Union as a slave or a free state. To help ensure its entry as a free state, abolitionist John Brown has come from Ohio with his sons, John, Jr., Frederick, Salmon and Jason. Later, Brown's sons Owen and Oliver travel to join the others. On the train to Kansas, Owen meets Elizabeth Clark, who expresses her belief that his notorious father is a dangerous man. Some time later, Rev. White, the leader of opposition forces known as the Border Ruffians, approaches Brown's settlement and orders the black and white settlers to leave the territory in forty-eight hours. During a raid by the Ruffians on the town of Lawrence, Elizabeth's father, along with four others, is killed. Proclaiming that "the war has begun," Brown marshals his men. After kidnapping some of the men who have been identified as participating in the raid, Brown summarily executes five of them, citing the biblical command to exact "an eye for an eye." His actions sicken John, Jr., and fearing for his sanity, Jason decides to turn himself and his brother over to the Union army. Later Frederick, horrified by the morning's events, also decides to leave. Owen, however, remains despite Elizabeth's accusation that he has become a murderer like his father. Frederick is later killed at his campsite, and the Ruffians attack and burn the settlement. After Owen is seriously wounded during the attack, Elizabeth overcomes Brown's disapproval to nurse him back to health. In the meantime, Brown orders the discouraged settlers to rebuild the settlement, so that they will be able to vote in the statehood election. When Owen recovers, he tells Elizabeth that he loves her, and she admits that she returns his affection, although she still dislikes his values. Brown's other two sons return to Ohio, leaving only Owen to support his father. On the day the voting takes place, Elizabeth speculates bitterly that even if the vote goes his way, Brown will not be satisfied but will continue his fight elsewhere. Owen does not believe her, but promises that no matter what, he will return to Ohio to continue farming. Elizabeth then accepts his marriage proposal. Elizabeth proves to be prophetic, however, and after the family is reunited in Ohio, Brown announces that his work is not finished. Only Oliver and Brown's youngest son Watson are willing to follow him, but then, despite his promise to Elizabeth, Owen vows to join his father. In 1858, Brown raises money from Boston intellectuals, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. With the money, he buys guns and ships them to Harpers Ferry in Virginia, where he expects slaves to escape and join him in a revolt. While Owen and two other men wait in a nearby schoolhouse for the escaping slaves, Brown leads the rest of the men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. When Brown tells the black guard that he has come to free the slaves, the man responds that he has been free for eight years and does not step aside. After he has secured some hostages, Brown, who intends to exchange them for the freedom of the slaves, sends a soldier to inform the Army of his actions. To Brown's mortification, the expected revolt does not take place, and Watson and Oliver are killed in the ensuing fight with the Army, led by Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. At the schoolhouse, Ned Green, a freed slave, prevents Owen from joining Brown, pointing out that his father's efforts have failed. Later, Brown is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging. Owen attempts to gain his father's release, but Brown states his belief that it is his duty to be martyred. In 1859, Brown is hanged.