A 24-minute, color film produced in 1958, presents the position of the conscientious objector to young people facing selective service. Actor Don Murray—a member of the Brethren Church who was a CO during the Korean War—narrates both live-action and illustrated sequences. Murray is able to speak powerfully in the first person, saying, “We are pacifists.” In his on-camera introduction, Murray explains that COs want to do more than just “other service,” rather they seek to find a peaceful way to solve world’s problems.
AFSC produced “Alternatives” jointly with more than 40 religious and peace organizations. Both the script and the casting of Murray—a successful Oscar nominee who had co-starred with actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Eva Marie Saint— strive to undo myths and misunderstandings about pacifists, countering the notion that they are “crackpots or cowards.”
With Murray’s narration over black-and-white illustrations, the film differentiates those who serve in the army medical corps from those whose convictions do not allow them to serve in any branch of the military, and it emphasizes the Congressional role in defining all the options available to COs. It describes CPS assignments as “civilian work that Congress has defined as contributing to the national health, safety or interest.”
“Alternatives” forcefully points out that “There is a third group who, on conscientious grounds, object to any service according to a conscription law.” These “non-registrants” are not draft dodgers. They make their positions clear to their draft board and the government and they make no efforts to hide. In a drawing, this kind of CO is depicted reading a bible in a prison cell. The narration states, “He may be Catholic, Protestant, or Jew” and relates the freedom of COs to that of the early settlers in the U.S. Such freedom is “woven into the fabric” of our government, law, and culture,” says Murray.
The film goes on to explain various kinds of work COs may do and how they are compensated. Murray points out that work begun during World War II continues, especially in mental hospitals and other types of medical research. Public-welfare work also goes on, in migrant-worker camps, areas blighted with poverty, reservations with first Americans, and overseas in post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation.
“Alternatives” normalizes the idea of the conscientious objector. Almost all of the CO illustrations show the men wearing suits and ties, except where a work environment requires different clothing. A film montage of actual COs at the start and end of the film shows men in activities such as research in a greenhouse, or overseas meeting with other men of good will.
The last CO in “Alternatives” is a young man lying on a stretcher with a physician inserting a syringe into his arm and a screen behind him. He states that he is—at that moment—receiving a continuous cross-circulation of blood with a severely schizophrenic man whom he does not see (the other man is hidden to him and to the audience behind the screen). Today, it may be hard to imagine how men proudly allowed themselves to be used as “guinea pigs” (this term shows up frequently in CPS documents and publicity). However, in the 1940s and ‘50s, some men who wanted to serve their country, without harming others, felt pushed to extremes to prove their patriotism.