Sunday, December 5, 2021

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

 


                  I ended a string of Macaroni Combat movies by watching the exact opposite – “Friendly Persuasion”.  It is based on the novel The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West.  West, a Quaker, based the novel on her Quaker experiences and family tales from the 19th Century.  The novel covers forty years in the lives of the family, but her treatment narrowed it down to a year during the Civil War.  She served as the technical adviser.  It was directed by William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives”).  The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Anthony Perkins), Song (“Friendly Persuasion – Thee I Love”), Art Direction, and Sound Recording.  It famously was also nominated for Adapted Screenplay, but was disqualified because it had no screen credit for the screenplay because it was written by the blacklisted Michael Wilson.  It was a moderate hit.  It was originally supposed to be a Frank Capra film starring Bing Crosby and Jean Arthur

                “Friendly Persuasion” is a comedy/drama set in southern Indiana in 1862.  The Birdwells are a Quaker family who live an bucolic farm life.  The movie immediately establishes that Quakers use the words thy, thee, and thou a Hades of a lot.  The biggest conflict for these Quakers during the Civil War is Jess’ (Gary Cooper) Sunday buggy races with his frenemy Sam (Robert Middleton).  The duels occur every Sunday as the neighbors go to their churches.  In an effective intercutting, Sam’s Methodist service is hymnful and takes advantage of Technicolor, whereas the Quaker meeting is virtually black and white and silent other than the occasional testimony by a Friend.  One young lady gets the courage to stand up and asks God to give her the courage to not wear earrings.  The pin-drop proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of a wounded veteran who urges the congregation to support the war effort.  He emphasizes that they should not let others do their fighting for them and they should defend their homes.  Those pesky Rebels might someday be on their doorsteps.  The Quakers greet the call to patriotism and self-survival stonily.  Having established the situation and dynamic, the movie proceeds to character development.

                Jess is a believer, but his wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) is a true believer and a minister to boot.  Their daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) is focused on one thing -  a marriage to Sam’s hunky soldier son Gard (Peter Mark Richman).  Their oldest son Josh (Anthony Perkins in his second role) is not rebellious and does not chafe at his parents’ pacifism.  And then they have a Disneyesque tyke named little Jess whose job is to be a pest. He has a running war with the family goose (another Disney nod).  They also have a runaway slave named Purdy (Richard Hale) who is like a member of the family.  For most of the movie, the war has little impact on them, other than the occasional sneer from locals.  For instance, a trip to the county fair is used not only to give us an excellent and witty taste of Americana, but to check off some of the temptations Quakers had to avoid (gambling, dancing, music, wrestling) and so Josh can be bullied by belligerents.  At the shooting gallery, the elder Jess proves that if humans were squirrels, the Rebels would be in trouble.  He also proves to be a closet culture-lover by purchasing an organ unbeknownst to his holier than thou spouse.  Where he has been able to hide his passion-filled races on Sunday, he finds it impossible to hide an organ.  This leads to a marriage crisis that is not exactly an allegory of the war between the states.  It’s in this atmosphere of a 1950’s sitcom that the war finally intrudes in the form of a raid by Rebel cavalry.  Josh will have to decide whether to defy his parents and bow to peer pressure (and the smoke from nearby farms).  Will big Jess drop his plow under extreme provocation?  Will little Jess donate the goose to the Rebels?

                I was skeptical about this movie as a war movie and it does start with one of the least war movie songs ever.  However, it turned out to clearly be in the genre and although predominantly a home front tale, it does have a nifty, if brief, battle scene.  It can best be described as a family drama with some humor thrown in.  You would expect the humor to be trite, but the film actually has a quite a few grins and no groans.  It does tend to be groaningly saccharine.  There are no villains.  The local Protestants may be blunt and a bit bullying, but they do have a leg to stand on and could easily represent a mid-50s majority of Americans with regards to the Cold War.  With that analogy established, the movie does not mean to present the Quakers as the equivalent of communist sympathizers.  The Birdwells are positively portrayed.  Even Eliza, who starts off as an insufferable Jesus freak, warms up a bit.  Her husband goes from being hen-pecked to a traditional 50s dad.  He choses music over momma knowing full well that no female is going to stay in the barn when Gary Cooper is in the house (or chopping wood barechested).  This leads to a humorous exchange with Sam where Sam figures some canoodling in the hay restored their relationship.  That’s about as PG as the film gets.

                 The movie is not aiming for a realistic depiction of the Civil War in a border state.  It is not the tearjerker that the similar “Shenandoah” is.  The skirmish near the end can be likened to an incident where the Indiana Home Guard attempted to block a raid by the infamous Confederate John Hunt Morgan.  Morgan’s much larger force of seasoned warriors brushed the militia aside and occupied the local town with looting ensuing.  Undoubtedly, some heavy-handed foraging also occurred on any farms the unit passed through.  The movie has a rabble of rebels taking advantage of Eliza’s hospitality, but the Johnny Rebs are gentlemen.  I doubt Morgan’s boys could be described that way.

                The movie is nicely entertaining and holds up well for a movie that is firmly of its time.  Wyler traded humor for tension.  Some of the humor is of the running gag variety.  There are three races to church and there is the running battle between ‘lil Jess and the goose.  Throw in big Jess’ attempts to salvage something of his lay pleasures while being married to Mother Theresa.  Cooper is fine in a role that he did not enjoy.  He did not want to play the father of adult children and was upset that his character was not a man of action.  He also was opposed to playing opposite McGuire who he considered to be an inferior actor.  He may have been right about that because her Eliza is wooden.  Perkins is a revelation, however.  He became the successor to James Dean because of this movie.  He has a show-stealing skirmish scene that involves the 6th Commandment.  It being a Wyler film, the movie is very well made.  It was Wyler’s first color feature film and the movie is vibrant. It is a beautiful film.  The soundtrack matches the mood well.  Unfortunately, the movie does not reach the heights of “The Best Years of Our Lives” because of its unrealistic depiction of life in a border state during a civil conflict.  It is marred by a simplistic ending.  Disney today.  It is a must-see if you want to see an honest to goodness movie about pacifism that is not anti-war.  That must have been hard to pull off and still be entertaining.

 

GRADE  =  B

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Other "Last of the Mohicans" Movies


 

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1920) -  The 1920 version is closer to the novel than 1992.  The main characters are Magua (Wallace Beery, who is top-billed) and Uncas.  Hawkeye is older and ugly.  Duncan is in love with Alice and a Capt. Randolph (who does not appear in the book) is wooing Cora.  She prefers Uncas.  Munro surrenders the fort after Randolph turns traitor and informs Montcalm of the fort’s main weakness.  The massacre is hard-core with the Indians killing babies.  Cora, Alice, and Gamut walk through the chaos, but are captured by Magua.  They are taken to the Delaware camp.  At a council meeting, Uncas makes his case and is given Cora, but she insists on going with Magua instead of her sister.  Cora tries to escape, but is trapped on a precipice by Magua.  She eventually goes over the cliff.  Uncas squares off with Magua in a fight that goes cross country before Magua prevails.  Hawkeye shoots Magua.  Uncas dies holding hands with Cora.  The dual funerals end the movie.

                        This silent movie is surprisingly good.  The acting is free from the usual histrionics.  It is unpredictable, if you are not familiar with the novel.  The cinematography is eye-opening at times.  Hawkeye shoots an Indian who is hanging from a tree-limb.  The big fight between Uncas and Magua has them silhouetted on the cliff from a far distance.  There are many shots through doorways.  The violence is graphic for an early feature film.  On the other hand, the depiction of the Indians is of its time.  Other than Uncas and Chingachgook, they are savages who sneak up on you with knives between their teeth.

                        Although closer to the novel, this version jettisons some of the more ridiculous parts of the book.  Hawkeye does not dress up as a bear, for instance.  There is only one village.  There is no colonial militia subplot. 

GRADE  =  B


 

1936 VERSION -  This is the Randolph Scott version.  He plays Hawkeye and this film cemented that role as the main one for future versions.  It opens in London where Heyward is sent by William Pitt to be Munro’s second in command.  Strangely, Duncan is in love with Alice, but she is the brunette and in this version is the older daughter.  Cora is the blonde and is morose because her fiancĂ© has died in a naval battle.  Hawkeye arrives at Fort Edward and argues that England’s fight with the French is not the business of the colonials.  They need to protect their families.  Alice considers him to be a traitor.  Uncas has eyes for Cora.  The girls and Duncan are saved from Magua’s trap by the trio.  They take refuge in a cave, but nothing happens.  They go to Fort William Henry.  Hawkeye helps some of the militia to escape and the trio are jailed.  Hawkeye and Alice’s love blossoms.  After Munro and Montcalm agree to terms, Magua leads the inflamed Indians in the storming of the fort. Magua kills Uncas easily on the cliff.  Cora jumps.  Chingachgook faces off with Magua in a long fight that ends with the drowning of Magua.  The funerals occur now, but the movie continues with Hawkeye winning a shooting contest with Duncan to determine which will take Alice’s place at the stake.  Chingachgook, Duncan, and Alice encounter a British column which attacks the village and rescues Hawkeye.  The movie closes with Duncan defending Hawkeye at his trial.

                        Although some scenes are copied from the 1920 version, this movie is not as good as it.   The acting is better with Scott charismatic.  He gets some snarky lines like: “Maybe I’ve got enough sense not to wear a red coat in the woods”.   Scott’s Hawkeye totally dominates the movie, with Uncas taking a back-seat.  The actor playing Magua (Bruce Cabot) is not very menacing.  There is no Randolph to hiss at and Gamut is dis-buffooned and transformed into a preacher.  Unfortunately, the action is paltry with the siege and the massacre too brief. 

GRADE  =  B-


 

1977 VERSION -  In the 1970s, someone decided it was time to revisit the classic, but in color.  It was made-for-TV and it shows in the mediocre production values.  It is Hawkeye-centric with Steve Forest taking on the role.  He was a B-list star from back then.  The kind of actor that did not mind opening the movie with the line:  “Get out of here, you varmints!”  (A 1970s movie calling Native Americans varmints and still using an all-white cast like all the previous versions!)  The trio rescues Duncan, Alice, Cora, and Gamut from the nefarious scheme of Magua (typecast tough-guy Robert Tessier).  They spend the night in the cave and there is some desultory shooting until Magua sneaks in a back way and captures all but Hawkeye and Chingachgook (who are off on an adventure).  The duo rescue them easily, but they never reach the fort (probably because it was not in the budget).  Magua reacquires the girls and they end up in the separate villages.  Duncan is tied to a tree and Gamut is killed trying to save him.  Alice is rescued easily, but Cora is in the Delaware camp.  The chief is thrilled to learn that Uncas is a Mohican, but he still determines that Cora must go with Magua.  Uncas leads the Delaware warriors after Magua and his crew and a laughably choreographed fight ensues.  Cora runs to a cliff’s edge and Uncas takes a bullet meant for her fired by Magua.  Chingachgook kills Magua.  They receive word of the fall of the fort and the massacre, but daddy Munro lives.

                        This is by far the worst version.  It might even be worse than the book.  It is poorly acted, although there is some fun watching Tessier as Magua.  The dialogue is pompous with Hawkeye spouting platitudes about the superiority of Indian culture.  (I guess this was to make up for the lack of Native Americans in the cast, but possibly to make up for the previous versions’ depictions of the Hurons.)  Oddly, it dispenses with any romance.  In fact, Alice and Cora are homely.  The action is second-rate, even though the characters are not required to reload their rifles.

GRADE  =  D

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

BOOK/MOVIE: The Last of the Mohicans (1826/1992)

 


                

                       So, your evil English teacher has assigned James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  It’s a classic and was very popular back in the day.  The day being the 1800s.  It must be highly entertaining, like all literary classics, right?  I have some bad news.  If you fulfill the requirements of your assignment, you are in for some mind-numbing.  Oh, hell, you know you’re not going to read some dusty old novel.  Lucky for you, there are several movies.  There’s the 1920 silent movie (which there is not a chance in hell you are going to watch), the 1936 Randolph Scott version (Randolph Scott – are you your grandfather?), the 1977 Steve Forrest made-for-TV version (Steve who?), but we all know you are going to watch the 1992 version.  It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, for Christ’s sake.  And it’s rated R.  Good choice, but I have some bad news for you.  The plot of the movie is substantially different from the novel.  Not to worry, I’ll help you avoid a reaming by your teacher.  I’ve read the book for you and trust me, you owe me big time.  And I’ve seen all the movies.  No need to thank me for that.  What follows is a comparison of the book’s plot to the 1992 movie.

                        First, impress your teacher with these facts about the novel.  Its full title is The Last of the Mohicans:  A Narrative of 1757.  Cooper got the idea for the novel on a trip in the Adirondack Mountains.  One of his group suggested that the beautiful falls and caves would make a good setting for a historical romance.  Cooper decided to place his story in the French and Indian War.  Specifically, the siege of Fort William Henry.  The theme he was shooting for was the transition of the frontier from Native American control to colonial control.  The plot highlights the pressure of white expansion on the Indians.

                        The novel opens with the daughters of Col. Munro travelling to reunite with their father at Fort William Henry.   They are chaperoned by a Maj. Duncan Heyward who is interested in the younger daughter, Alice.  They are joined by a singing teacher named Gamut.  They are guided by a Huron Indian named Magua.  Along the way, they encounter Hawkeye (nee Natty Bumppo), Chingachgook, and Uncas.  Chingachgook and Uncas are father and son and the last remnants of the Mohican tribe.  They are suspicious of the motives of Magua, so he flees. 

                        In the movie, we are introduced to Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas first.  They visit a frontier family to establish that Hawkeye is caught between two worlds.  It also establishes that the frontier is an isolated and dangerous place.  This foreshadows that when the British call out the colonial militia to reinforce Ft. William Henry, this will leave the frontier families vulnerable to Indian attack.  We meet Cora and Alice as they prepare to go to meet their father, escorted by Duncan.  In this case, he is enamored with Cora.  There is no Gamut, thank God.  Magua guides them and a small detachment into an ambush.  They (not the extras) are saved by Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook.

                        In the novel, after Magua runs off, he returns with his warriors to attack Hawkeye et al in a cave they are hiding in.  When they run short of ammunition, Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook escape and the rest are captured.  Magua tells them he is motivated by revenge against Col. Munro.  Munro turned him into an alcoholic and then had him whipped for being an alcoholic.  (In the movie, Magua’s family was killed by soldiers led by Munro so he is determined to kill Munro’s family.)  He is going to force Cora into marrying him, but Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook rescue them.  They spend the night in an abandoned fort and the Hurons bypass it because there is a burial ground.  The group makes it to Ft. William Henry.  Munro sends Hawkeye with a message for the British commander at Fort Edwards, but he gets captured on the way back with a note saying no reinforcements will be coming. 

                        In the movie, after the ambush, they stay for the night in a burial ground and then sneak into the fort.  The romance of Hawkeye and Cora builds.  The French are laying siege to the fort and they are winning.  The film does an excellent job depicting siege warfare.  Hawkeye informs the militia that the Indians are on the war path and their homes and families are in danger.  He is arrested for helping some of them leave the fort and is to be executed. 

                        In both the book and movie, Munro agrees to Montcalm’s terms and surrenders the fort.  On the way out, the troops and camp followers are ambushed by Indians led by Magua.  In the book, Magua captures Alice and Cora during the ambush.  Gamut follows them.  Hawkeye, Uncas, Chingachgook, Munro, and Duncan are in hot pursuit.  In the movie, Magua kills Munro, but Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook rescue the girls.  They escape in a canoe and survive a chase.  They hide in a cave under a waterfall, but Magua finds them.  Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook escape with Hawkeye promising Cora he will rescue her.

                        In the novel, Gamut tells the trackers that the girls are being held in separate villages.  Heyward disguises himself as a French medicine man to get Alice.  Hawkeye and Uncas go after Cora, but Uncas is captured and tortured.  And then it gets bonkers.  Hawkeye disguises himself as a bear.  In a bear costume!  To rescue Uncas, Uncas puts on the bear costume, Hawkeye dresses as Gamut, and Gamut pretends to be Uncas.  At a council meeting, Uncas convinces them that he is a Mohican which makes him related to the tribe.  Everyone is set free except Cora, who has to go with Magua.

                        In the movie, Hawkeye and the Mohicans track Cora, Alice, and Duncan to the Huron village.  Duncan sacrifices his life for Cora.  Alice is awarded to Magua.  In the novel, when Magua leaves the Delaware village with Cora, the heroes and a Delaware war party give chase resulting in a big battle with Magua’s warriors.  Magua escapes with Cora and the fight moves to a cliffside.  Cora is killed by a different Huron.  Uncas go after him, but Magua shoots him in the back.  Magua leaps across a divide and clings to a bush and Hawkeye shoots him.  The book ends with a long passage on the funerals of Uncas and Cora.  Contrast that with the movie where Uncas chases Magua to get Alice.  Unfortunately, Magua kills Uncas in a fair fight.  Alice leaps to her death.  Chingachgook avenges his son by killing Magua.

                        I have done a lot of book/movie comparisons and most of the time I find that the movie plot improves upon the book’s plot.  “The Last of the Mohicans” certainly fits my theory that the movie SHOULD be better than the book because the screenwriter has the novel to work from and he/she can improve upon it.  This is true even if the novel is good.  It is especially true if the novel is bad.  So, what if the novel is terrible?  This applies to “The Last of the Mohicans”.  Any competent screenwriter could improve its plot.  It may be a classic, but it is truly terrible.  It is too long and the second half is nuts.  Hawkeye pretends to be a bear.  ‘Nuf said.  The movie is better than the book in every way.   Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe made significant changes that greatly improved the entertainment value of the story.  They gave context to the threat to the militia families.  They gave Magua better motivation.  (In fact, in a typical modern revenge flick, Magua would be the hero.)  Magua is simply a villain in the book, he is a great villain in the movie.  The whole Ft. William Henry sequence is much improved.  Cooper has Hawkeye leaving as a courier and getting captured!  In the book, Hawkeye is pretty lame.  (And he’s named Natty Bumppo – thankfully this is never mentioned in the movie.)  The book completely goes off the rails in the two Indian villages.  The movie tightens this up to get to the big payoff – the two duels.  And then it eliminates the interminable funeral scene that drags the book to the end.

                        The main improvement is the movie really bumps up the romance element.  And the changes are significant.  In the book, Duncan chooses to woo Alice.  It is implied that his choice was due to Cora being biracial!  There is a hint of Uncas and Cora being interested in each other, and Uncas does die for her, but it is not a main plot point.  Hawkeye is not involved in any romance.  He is not the dominant character like in the movie.  Clearly he is not a ladies’ man and in a bear costume, he is something of a buffoon.  Speaking of buffoons, the movie wisely eliminates Gamut.  One thing about the movie is it lacks any humor, but so does the book.  Unintentional humor, anyway.  Mann and Crowe make the romance between Hawkeye and Cora the core of the film.  Duncan is interested in Cora and is a competitor with Hawkeye for the hand.  Duncan is shifted to villain in need of redemption.  The Uncas/Alice dynamic is given some juice.   The movie kills off Munro and Duncan, which is realistic.

                        While the movie dispenses with humor, it has everything else.  Great acting, action, music, scenery.  Heroes and villains.  It is commendably true to history, although based on fiction.  Of all the war movies based on novels, I would argue that it improves on its source more than any other.  Just be aware that if you watch the magnificent movie instead of reading the tedious novel, you will get an F on your book report.  And I doubt your English teacher will appreciate the implication that you preferred a movie to a classic.

BOOK  =  D

MOVIE  =  A+