The fateful enmity of the tyrant Gessler, Governor of the Swiss cantons, and William Tell, an obscure huntsman, begins during a tempest on Lake Lucerne when Tell braves the angry waves to row to safety a peasant who is pursued by the Governor's horsemen. "The lake may take pity on him; but the Governor, never," says Tell.
His opinion of the bloodthirsty Gessler is shared increasingly by the peasantry as the oppressor fills the old jails, builds a huge new prison at Altdorf for more victims, and sets his cap upon a pole before it, commanding that all who pass must bow to it or pay the penalty of death. Public anger is fanned into rebellion when Gessler blinds an aged man for a trifling misdemeanor. Tell, the individualist, holds aloof from the rebels' councils, but promises his aid when needed.
A friend of the peasants is the aged Baron of Attinghausen, but his nephew and heir, Ulrich of Rudenz, fascinated by the splendor of Gessler's court and love for Bertha, the Governor's ward, is allied with the tyrant. The Baron warns Ulrich that Bertha is being used only to bait him, and that the freedom-loving people will prevail in the end, but the youth goes to join Gessler. While they are together hunting, however, Bertha reveals that she will love him only if he joins in the fight to liberate his own people from Gessler's grip.
Tell prepares to pay a promised visit to his father-in-law, a leader of the rebels, and his wife, fearful that the Governor counts him as an enemy, asks him in vain to postpone the trip. Tell insists that he has nothing to fear, and sets off with his crossbow, accompanied by Walter, his son.
They pass the prison where Tell, failing to salute the Governor's cap, is seized by a guardsman. Several peasants are trying to rescue him when the Governor's hunting party rides up and Gessler demands an explanation from the huntsman. Tell declares his failure to salute was an oversight, and the Governor remarks that he has heard that Tell is a master of the bow. Walter boasts: "Yes, my lord! My father can hit an apple at a hundred yards!" Says Gessler: "Very well, you shall prove your skill now. Shoot an apple from the boy's head. If you miss, your own head shall pay the forfeit."
The spectators are horrified. Tell falls upon his knees, imploring Gessler to withdraw so barbarous a command. He bares his own breast, but the Governor laughs and says: "It is not your life I want, but the shot--the proof of your skill." The boy speaks up: "Shoot, Father! Don't be afraid. I promise to stand still." Tell removes two arrows from his quiver, puts one in his belt, takes aim and sends the other on its way. The boy remains standing. Walter runs to his father, crying: "Here's the apple, Father! I knew you'd never hit me!"
Tell falls upon his knees to embrace his son, but Gessler has not finished with him. "A word with you, Tell," he commands. "I saw you place a second arrow on your belt ... what was the object?" Tell answers: "If the first arrow had struck my child, the second would have gone through your heart."
Gessler orders him bound and taken to the prison at Kussnacht for his threat; but a great storm comes up which proves to be the huntsman's salvation. Since he alone can take the boat through the gale, his guards release his bonds and Tell steers to a shelving ledge, leaps out, and with his foot thrusts his captors' boat back into the waves. Now, he tells a fisherman, he is planning "a deed that will be in everybody's mouth!"
Meanwhile, Bertha has been borne off by Gessler's men. Ulrich, who earlier had condemned his master for Tell's ordeal and had declared that to keep silent longer would be treason to his country and his King, has gove over wholly to the side of his people. But he returns too late to find the old Baron of Attinghausen alive; his uncle has died with this injunction to the peasants: "The day of the nobles is passing. The new day of the people is at hand ... the flower of chivalry is cut down, but freedom waves her conquering flag on high.... Hold fast together, men--hold forever fast.... Be one--be one--be one----"
Ulrich rallies the peasants and is acclaimed their leader. He directs that they arm and wait for a fiery signal on the mountain tops, then swoop down upon the tyrant. A more ominous figure in the revolt, however, is hidden upon the brow of a hill overlooking a road--it is Tell. With his crossbow ready in his hand, he awaits Gessler who is expected to enter the pass below. Gessler soon appears with his retinue. His way is barred by Armgart, a peasant woman, and her seven children. She cries to the Governor: "Mercy, my lord! Pardon!... Pardon!... My husband lies in prison. My children cry for bread. Pity, my lord, have pity on me!"
Gessler shouts: "Step aside or, by Heaven, I'll ride you down!" Armgart throws herself and her children before the horses, crying out: "Very well, then ride us down." Gessler shouts: "I've been too mild a ruler to these people. From now on, I must change. I will proclaim a new law throughout the land. I will----"
The sentence is never finished; an arrow pierces his body. Clutching his breast, Gessler cries: "It is William Tell's work!... O Lord, have mercy on my soul!" Armgart rejoices: "Dead, dead! He reels, he falls!... Look, children! This is how a tyrant dies!"
The shaft that killed Gessler ignites the signal fires of revolution, and at daybreak peasants and workingmen are tearing down the prisons. In one they find Bertha; they rescue her just as burning timbers are about to fall on her. The liberated peasants, with Ulrich and Bertha among them, now throng Tell's home with the cry: "Long live William Tell, our shield and saviour!" Bertha, greeting the commoners as comrades, asks to be accepted into their League of Freedom. Her request is granted and she gives her hand to Ulrich. He proclaims: "And from this moment all my serfs are free!"
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