Cross of Fire (1989)




Director:     Paul Wendkos. 

Starring:     John Heard (David 'D.C.' Stephenson),  Mel Harris (Madge Oberholtzer'),  David Morse,  George Dzundza,  Donald Moffat,  Kim Hunter,  Caroline Kava,  Keith Szarabajka,  Ed Wiley,  Dakin Matthews (Hiram Evans),  Douglas Roberts,  William Schallert,  Dion Anderson (Sen. Monroe).

story of the rise and fall of 1920s' Ku Klux Klan leader D.C. Stephenson

TV miniseries.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

The film opens with war scenes from World War I and then scenes from the Prohibition Era and the subsequent flourishing of the gangsters.

A young man, David "Steve" Stephenson, comes into a store. He tells the proprietor that he is down from Indianapolis and in the coal business. He also says he was at Bella Wood in the Great War. He starts complaining about immigrants taking all the veteransí jobs and overwhelming their schools. He says thereís something wrong with America. The values the men fought and died for in the war are all disappearing. But there is something they can do before it is too late.

A white school teacher Miss Oprah "Madge" Oberholtzer and another woman speak with young black children about going to school. She asks if anyone has been to school. A small boy asks what is school? One of the mothers says they ainít got time for school. They move from town to town for work.

Madge meets Clell Henry. He is the assistant prosecutor for the county. She asks him if he has heard of the Young Peopleís Reading Circle? Itís part of the State Department of Education. She runs the program and works to provide books for itinerant farm children. She asks him to look at what she has written to make sure it is within state guidelines.

She goes before the Ways and Means Subcomittee, as suggested by Clell. One senator says that it sounds expensive. Madge says if we donít support the children now, they will have to support them later. The senators say that they have never heard such a good proposal, especially from a young lady. But then again, theyíve never heard a proposal from a lady.

Steve speaks before a KKK rally that he organized. He speaks against the Robber Barons, but also against immigrants and liquor. Madge can see the rally from her office window. Her dad comes to take her out for lunch, but she has to decline because she is swamped with work.

Steveís partners go through the crowd signing up men for the KKK to "bring America back to Americans". Quite a bit of noise comes from the rally and Madge and her secretary Martha look out the window at the meeting. The crowd is quite enthusiastic.

Madge sees Clell. They approved her project and are going to put it on the budget agenda before the next session of the legislature. She invites him to a party given by some bigwig (namely Steve). Clell says he should be the one asking and she apologizes for being a bit forward. But he agrees to go.

At the party State Senator Monroe and his wife take a swig of liquor from a small case. Steveís assistant asks the senator if he could put the liquor away in a closet until after the party. The senator meekly hands it over. Next the fellow goes over to a reporter, Grady Sims, and tells him that the press has not been invited and escorts him to the door.

Ed Jackson introduces himself and his wife to Steve saying he is running for governor and that he and Steve have a lot of views in common: Christianity, a strong America, morality. But Steveís attention wavers as he sees Madge across the room and goes to speak with her. He flatters her about her looks and says they will talk again soon. The incident makes Clell feel a little awkward.

The next day so many rose flower arrangements are sent to Madgeís office that they cover all the desks and cabinets. Steve calls her and tells her that he sent her the roses. He asks if he can see her on Thursday night. At first she says no because she doesnít even know him, but Steve is a fast talker and gets her to say yes. He also says he wasnít sure if she liked roses, so he has sent her daisies too. Just then men start bringing in large daisy flower arrangements.

On Thursday Steve takes her to a basketball game. He says you have to be a fan if youíre from Indiana. There are signs of "KKK" around the gymnasium. (Steve is like the future David Duke trying to sell the Klan as the new, kinder KKK. Heís a little too smooth for comfort.) He says he is smitten with her, that she is the most beautiful and intelligent woman he has ever met in his life. She says he is making her blush.

Before the game starts, Steve is introduced as the man who made the evening possible. Steve grabs Marge and goes with her to center court. He says: "Donít you think this is the most beautiful lady you have ever seen?!"

Hiram Evans comes to speak to Steve. He is the Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The secretary doesnít know much about the Klan, but one of Steveís assistants sure knows and he immediately escorts the imperial wizard into Steveís office. The wizard is impressed with how Steve in nine months has quintupled the Indiana Klan membership. No one else has even come close to such an increase. The wizard asks Steve to be membership director for the entire Midwest, which includes twenty-two states. With Steve he believes the Klan can become the most politically powerful organization in America. They have to do something before the coloreds, the Catholics and the Jews start taking over. The Jews run Wall Street, the coloreds are taking their jobs and the Catholics will be putting a Pope in the White House. Steve takes the job.

Steve starts getting the Klan name out there. He has food baskets delivered to the white poor with a note saying that the KKK cares. The Klan advertises on screens in the movie theaters. News reel footage show the Imperial Wizard with a plaque on his new home saying: "This home presented to Col. William Joseph Simmons Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan on May 6, 1921 as a token of love and devotion by members of the invisible empire." The Klan starts a milk program in Bloomington, Indiana.

Steve drives out in a fancy car to see Madge. She is talking with the mayor about her book program. He expressed doubts about the local council approving her school sites. But when the mayor sees that Steve is a close friend of Margeís, he changes his tune and tells her to use his name to help her get what she wants from a list of local politicians he gives Madge. Steve invites Madge and her assistant Barbara Evers out for a picnic. Driving out to the picnic area they drive right under a huge cloth banner across the entire streets that says: "Niggers and Catholics stay out of our country. By order of the KKK." Steve is angry about the sign. He gets out and takes the banner down. Marge says it seems like his Klan still has some bigots. Steve says these are Night Riders that only pretend to be members of the KKK for their own purposes. He apologizes to the ladies.

Ed Jackson and a man named John pay a visit to Steveís place. Ed Jackson wants Steve to endorse John for mayor of Indianapolis. Steve says he will give his support but only in return for John signing a statement saying that he will not appoint anyone to public works jobs without the approval of D.C. Stephenson. John is shocked, but Steve says he will go a lot farther in politics with the help of the Klan than without it.

The strength of the Klan starts to effect the local paper, The Indianapolis Times. The Klan wrote in fifty letters to the editor, Boyd Gurley. The owner says to the editor that two years ago there werenít 500 members of the Klan in the whole country and now there are almost 200,000 members just here in Indiana. The editor will alienate the membership if he insists on attacking the Klan. And they will start losing revenue if they refuse to run the KKK copy. The editor refuses to buckle under. In fact, he tells his two assistants to dig more into this D.C. Stephenson. They already know that Stephensonís "coal business" doesnít make any money.

Steve takes Madge out for dinner and dancing. Meanwhile, Klan members attack a black home. They lash a black man, who uncovers the head of one of his attackers and recognizes him as one of D.C. Stephensís men.   Driving around the countryside looking for school sites, Barbara asks Madge when she is going to marry Steve. She laughs and says sheís only known him for three weeks. The attention of the women is caught by smoke coming from one of the black farms. Barbara says she knows those people. They drive in to talk with them. Itís the woman who told Madge that school canít be done because the children move around too often. The raid was carried out as payback for her husband trying to register to vote.

Madge says that it was the Night Riders, who pretend to be members of the KKK. The farmer sets her straight about that falsehood. He tells Madge that he recognized one of the raiders as a man who worked the rally down town in the village square.

Stephenson tells his staff that they now have 320,000 dues paying members of the Klan here in Indiana and almost a million have joined throughout the Midwest. But Stevenson wants more. He is establishing an organization for the kids and one for the women to get them to sign up and pay dues to the Klan. It will be $1 dollar for the kids and $5 dollars for the women. He also creates a security group to handle their enemies. He wants to establish their own detective agency staffed with their own men. It will be like having their own army, says Steve.

Madge comes to see Steve. She tells him about the barn burning. Steve says itís just the Night Riders. Madge tells him no. A man was recognized and he works for Steve. Madge wants him to find the man and press charges. Steve says he canít do that. The accused has the right to confront his accuser. She says: "You mean you wonít,"  He asks her not to let this come between them. He needs her. She says: "I donít know. I just donít know anymore."

Steve joins with other Klan members to attend the Democratic Party National Convention. The Klan wants their man, Macadoo, instead of Al Smith. The KKK stone walls the convention. So far they have had eighty-seven ballots. Clell tries to ask Madge out, but a woman teases her about Stephenson and she walks out.

Williams Jennings Bryan, one of the big shots of the Democratic Party, speaks with the KKK and tells them they have to stop tearing this Democratic national convention apart. Theyíve been at this for six days. The American people will not elect Bill Macadoo. The Imperial Wizard tells Bryan to name a compromise candidate. Bill Davis. The wizard says: "Davis it is." He says next time, in 1928, it will be the Klanís convention and the Klanís candidate. Bryan does not reply.

The editor of the paper comes to see Stephenson. Stephenson is just finishing a call from President Calvin Coolidge. He tells Boyd that the president calls when he needs some advice or just to chat. He has a "direct line" to the president. The editor wants confirmation that Ed Jackson is the Klanís candidate. He asks how much money has the Klan given Ed Jackson? Stephenson says everything is on the up and up. But not Stevensonís own car, say the editor. Stevenson replies that the car is a loan from a personal friend. He tells the editor goodbye.

At home Madge and Clell work together on her project. A friend in the house receives a phone call from Steve for Madge. Madge tells her to tell Steve that she is not at home.

Steve is drinking liquor and getting drunk despite his so-called commitment to Prohibition. His aide tells him that "they" got hold of the KKKís books and found out that Ed Jackson is a member. Steve is not worried.

The Klan tries to gain sympathy by fire bombing a Klan meeting and saying it was done by the Catholics. Boyd is informed that in the election almost every candidate Stephenson supported won. They took key positions in at least twelve states. Boyd is disgusted. He says: "Somebodyís got to stop this guy."

Madge goes to the church to pray. She says that she is so confused. Her reverend speaks with her and says Stevenson is a very good man. He says itís a new Klan. They support the church and in this age of Godless socialism thatís good for the country.

Stephenson has targeted Madgeís program for elimination, along with many other programs the Klan doesnít like. Madge is deeply saddened.

The wizard says the Klan now has 5 million members, nearly 10% percent of all registered voters. He now wants to crown Stevenson as the Grand Dragon of the Realm of Indiana.

Stevenson comes to visit Madge, catching her outside with her father raking leaves. She introduces her father to Stephenson. Dad goes into the house. Steve nearly begs her to take a ride with him. He takes her to a "crumby" building. He plans to turn the loft there into a school for Madge. He says this is what the Klan can do. He says heís a good and caring man. A man who wants to make a better country. He tells her he misses her. He kisses her and she does not pull back, but she doesnít reciprocate either.

At a KKK rally Boyd learns from one of his men that Stephenson claims to be a war veteran but has never left the country. The wizard is upset because Stephenson is running late for the rally and is keeping him and everybody else waiting. Madge and her parents are there. She laughs and tells them that Steve told her it was supposed to be a picnic.

Clell is in the library whittling down a pencil with his pocketknife. He hears an airplane overhead and looks out the window to see it. The plane buzzes the rally twice and then lands. The crowd goes wild. He is greeted as some kind of conquering hero. He is escorted to the rally platform by a bunch of uniformed police officers. From the platform he belts out his speech: America for Americans. Steve just ignores the wizard. He tells the wizard that he is going to be president in 1928 and no one can stop him.

Madge is out to dinner and dance with Steve again. He asks her to go to Chicago with him tonight. She says she has a lot to do to save the program. Steve says he can arrange a meeting for her with the state legislators. He will give a party and invite her and the legislators. She accepts.  at the party Madge speaks with State Senator Monroe and his wife Harriet about her program. Harriet bitterly says that Madge will not be able to pin her husband down because he hasnít been told what to think yet. The senator tells his wife to be quiet. She leaves. Madge follows her and pleads her case. Harriet tells her: "There isnít a politician in that room that doesnít wet his pants when David Stephenson speaks. Think about that."

Madge speaks with Steve. She asks if he "owns" the politicians. In a matter of speaking. She asks: "But you do believe in the program, donít you?" Oh, yes, of course. But he needs her help too. He needs her attention. He is growing tired of her being near, but never fully with him. Steve says he has waited long enough. She slaps him and he raises his right hand as if to hit her. She leaves.

At work the next day Steve goes into a rant. He becomes hysterical and starts crying. The doctor gives him a shot and tells his men to take him home, feed him plenty of oranges and keep the booze away. Home is a small mansion.

The next day Steve asks for whiskey. He says he owns the Klan and he owns Indiana. And he will be the president in 1928. And so powerful a man as that should just about get anything he wants. He calls Madge. She tells him he shouldnít have called because thereís nothing to talk about. He says he just wants to talk business. He agrees that he will support her program without obligations. But he needs information about the program because he is writing a letter in support of her program. He sends his aide to pick her up and drive her to his house.

When she arrives, Steve is already drunk. She realizes that it is a set-up. He is going to forcibly take her to Chicago. He forces her to drink a liquor drink laced with laudanum. He tells his aide to meet him at the last town in Indiana before the state border.

He has a pistol and sticks it in her side to force her to get on the train. Steve has his aide get into the top bunk in a private room. He takes her clothes off. The fellow is shocked at what Steve is doing. Madge tries to fight him off, but canít.

The next morning Steve and the aide are back home. The aide asks what does he want to do with the girl?  Steve says take her home. Earl is shocked. He and another aide virtually have to carry Madge to the car. The aide asks: "Steve, what if she dies? She looks like sheís going to die." Steve says it doesnít matter if she dies. Nothing matters buts him. Heís the law in Indiana. Heís on his way to the top and nothing can stop him, he says.

Dad is looking for his daughter. She has been missing for three days.  He calls around trying to find her. Now  Mom asks if they should start searching the morgues?

Another aide of Steveís brings Madge home. He tells the neighbor waiting in the house that she better get a doctor. The man puts her in a bed upstairs. Then he runs out of the house hiding his face with his hat.

The parents with Clell hurry home. They canít believe what they see. Her face is all bruised up, as well as her chest. She says she doesnít remember what happened. It was dark. The doctor examines her and tells her father the wounds on her body are teeth marks. Somebody has bitten her all over her body. The lacerations are becoming infected, but the pain she suffers is mostly mental. She must have been through some kind of trauma.

Dad asks Madge what happened, but she wonít say. For the doctor's information Dad asks Madge if she took any poison. He reassures that she doesnít have to feel ashamed. She starts crying and says Stephenson bit her. When he fell asleep she got up out of the bed and put on his coat. She picked up the pistol on the floor. She was about to shoot him when the aide stops her. Stephenson then slapoed her across the face three times.

Dad is angry. He wants Stephenson hanged. Clell goes with him to the police. Madge Oberholtzer was beaten and raped. The charges are: assault, aggravated assault, attempted rape with attempt to kill, aggravated rape, kidnap and mayhem. Boyd is told of the arrest of D.C. Stevenson. The doctor brings another doctor to examine Madge. He says that her body looks like itís "been chewed".  Down at the station, Stephenson plays it up as an attempt by one of his enemies to frame him. Governor Ed Jackson is there in support of Stephenson.

Newsreel footage of a massive KKK demonstration in Washington, D.C. is described as the most impressive parade since the end of the Great War. The wizard has some of his men sent to Indianapolis. They say that Stephenson is being railroaded in a political effort to destroy the cause of the KKK.

Clell tells Madgeís father that a new prosecutor is assigned to the case. He has virtually no experience in criminal cases. Clell says Stephenson is a man with a lot of power. Dad says the powers in Indiana donít want to bring down the man. Who is this new prosecutor? Itís me, says Clell. Dad tells Clell that he likes him, but he is just a sacrificial lamb and Stephenson will just chew him up.

Clell goes to see Madge. He tells her that they arrested Stephenson and heís prosecuting the case. He begs her to tell him what happened in detail. There will be a trial and she will have to describe the crime. She says to Clell: "You sure know how to show a girl a good time." She says sheís going to die. Clell insists she wonít die.

She tells Clell what happened. After the incident in the train, they take her downtown and get her some new clothes. Stephenson told her that he wants to use her a couple of more times. She gets the aide Earl to take her to a drug store. He takes her. She sees a bottle of 16 tablets of bichloride mercury. Back at the hotel she takes the tablets.

At home the doctor watches over Madge. The infection has gotten worse. She has got what they call nephritis. She wants to know what is it and is told that she is going to die. She says: "Itís a little different when you hear it."

The doctor calls Clell to rush over to the house if he wants her to sign her testimony. Boyd refuses to publish the in-detail article of one of his reporters about the case. He says if she lives, she will have enough shame to live with. If she dies, they will print it. Clell reads the testimony.

Stevenson is in jail but he holds a first class dinner with lots of politically influential guests. He says he canít believe that they are going ahead with the case and will try him.

Clell finishes the reading. Madge agrees that everything is true and accurate. Madge signs.

Madge dies. A funeral is held. Dad asks: "Who will bury us now?" (Apparently, Clell is now married, perhaps to Barbara?) Boyd asks Clell why the charge has been raised to murder? With the victim admitting she took poison by her own hand, he will have a hell of a time proving she was murdered. Clell says he can only give the jury the truth. Boyd says that is the most naive thing a lawyer could ever say.

Stephenson gets a really good lawyer. The lawyer asks right-out did he kill that girl? No. Did he rape the girl? No. He says they were lovers. The lawyer says it seems a simple case of suicide.

Clell is very nervous about the trial. In the bathroom he throws up. He goes into trial and meets the lawyer for the defense, who tells him to calm down, this wonít take long. The reporter says Clell looks scared. Boyd says scared is good. It means heís been really thinking.

The judge refuses to offer bail and the lawyer does not object. The defense lawyer shows the judge death threat letters to his client and he wants the venue moved to a small town. Clell asks to see the letters. Clell objects, but it does no good. The judge grants the motion. They will meet next in Nobelsville. Boyd believes the defense is trying to stack the jury with ultra-conservative members from a rural area.. Dad shouts to the judge that the defense themselves had the letters written.

The trial begins. This time Stephenson is there. The first potential juror says that D.C. Stevenson is about the finest man that ever walked this land. The wizard hears from his people that Stephenson has not been clean. He has been involved in drinking, with bootleggers and whoring. The wizard says what that Indiana town needs is "Klan Day".

Clell wants to tell the townspeople what really happened to Madge. He will give Madgeís death statement to Boyd and Boyd will print it. Boyd says: "Son, you learn fast."

The defense lawyer shows Stephenson the article and tells him not to worry because the judge wonít allow it to be entered into evidence. They finally get their first juror. After the jury is set and trial is about to start, Clell visits Madgeís grave. He runs into her parents. Dad tells him that he is going to do a good job for his daughter.

Clell makes a good opening statement. He admits he's scared. He attacks the idea that Madge killed herself. She only took poison after being raped and brutally beaten. After she took it, she was denied access to medical help by her captors.

The doctor describes her wounds, including the bites on the genitalia. Her flesh had been torn, gouged. And what caused that? Teeth. The jury gasps. The defense says that no one can believe what Madge said because she was on morphine (as a pain killer given by her doctor).

The black porter testifies to seeing two of the men, Gentry and Stevenson, on his train. He went in and heard the woman coughing terrifically in the bathroom. Then he saw the blood-stained sheet. He tells Stephenson that there is a doctor aboard, but Stevenson pulls out his pistol and just says: "All right nigger, come on, get your ass out of here." When they left, the porter saw blood all over the laboratory and, he says, that "trash" didnít bother to clean it up.

Barbara gets on the stand and talks about the dying testimony. The defense objects that the prosecutor is trying to say that this is a dying testimony in order to get it entered as evidence.

Boyd and his reporters hear about anti-Klan incidents. The reporter says that it sounds like a full-blown rebellion against the Klan. Boyd doesnít believe it.

The judge allows the dying testimony. The defense has a doctor say that Madge died of the poisoning. Clell says that Madge threw up much of the poison. Madge testified that she told Stevenson that she had taken poison and the two accomplices heard it. On their way back to Indianapolis she screamed for a doctor but they refused to stop. Even when they got to the mansion they refused her medical help. They left her in the basement for two nights and two days. With proper medical care, and if her body had not been beaten and bitten, she would have survived. The doctor disagrees. Clell starts to prove that the doctor is a close intimate of Stephenson. Clell tells the doctor that he has two witnesses that will testify that he treated Stephenson for delirium tremors brought on by the overuse of alcohol. Did you ever treat him for alcoholism? Well, not only for alcoholism, says the doctor. You mean to tell me that the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan is a drunk?

The defense wants Stephenson to testify, but he says no. The Klan starts realizing that people are starting to turn against them. More and more newspapers are condemning the Klan. The leaders decide to separate themselves officially from the Stevenson case.

Steve has the jailer call the wizard, but the jailer comes back to tell Steve (hiding under the bottom bunk) that the wizard refuses to speak with him. The jailer tells Steve of some of the many reports of violence used against the Klan. And in the Klan newspaper there is an article against Steve. Steve continues to drink, the liquor provided by the jailer.

Mrs. Householder says that Madge was intimate with her husband. She told her to stay away from her husband. The defense says that perhaps Madge didnít have any virtue to lose. Dad gets so angry that he attacks the lawyer. And chaos reigns in court. The judge disallows character attacks on Madge.

Defense has the Deputy Sheriff of Indiana testify. He is a war hero. Madgeís testimony is that the war heroís deputy told her to tell people she was in a car accident. But the Deputy Sheriff testifies that his deputy was with him the entire day. Clell is furious with the defense.

Clell wants to counter-attack with character witnesses for Madge. They will also have to attack the Deputy Sheriff. Cllel says he has to prove the man is lying. So Clell drives out to speak with two prisoners on the chain gang. He shows the men the picture. They say there was only one guard. The two men will testify. Dad and Boyd donít want Clell to attack the war hero with two black convicts. Clellís character witness is rejected, so Clell goes with one of the convicts.

The decision of the jury is that the two accomplices are acquitted. But Stephenson is guilty in the second degree of murder with life in prison as his sentence. Stephenson tells the reporters that Governor Ed Jackson will pardon him.

In prison Stephenson tells Boyd to tell the politicians that if he doesnít get his pardon, he will blow the lid off the whole case. He still has the evidence.

The papers prints the story that Ed Jackson refuses to pardon Stephenson. Meanwhile, Boyd receives trunks filled with evidence against the Klan supplied by Stephenson. Boyd says to a jubilant newspaper staff: "We got Ďem! We got Ďem!"

In the year following the trial of D.C. Stephenson, Ku Klux Klan membership fell from over six million to under 300,000. In 1928 Boyd Gurley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting against the Klan. David Stephenson served 31 years for the murder of Madge Oberholtzer. Four years after his parole, Stephenson was convicted of assaulting a sixteen year old girl and was sent back to jail. He died in 1966.


Good movie.  You learn everything you ever wanted to know about this famous case and then some.  At places it dragged a bit, but overall a good effort.  Any decent person knows that the KKK is a racist, violent organization.  Today if something like this happened, the lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center under Morris Dees would win a judgment of millions of dollars against the Klan, but in those days we had no such options.  What is important I think about the movie is that it shows just how intimate was the relationship between the politicians, the police and the Klan.  And this certainly was true in most of the South and in rural Indiana. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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