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