Movie Review: “Friendly Persuasion” (1956)

My friend Patrick Prescott has recommended this movie many times. For further in-depth analysis of its themes, see his posts here and here.

Friendly Persuasion is about the Birdwells, a Quaker family living in Indiana in 1862. They are good people, though they each have their flaws. The father, Jess, (Gary Cooper) is a little too competitive when it comes to racing his friend to the meeting. The teenage daughter Mattie, (Phyllis Love) is a bit vain and boy-crazy. The youngest son, Little Jess, (Richard Eyer) is prone to anger as young boys often are, and the oldest son Joshua (Tony Perkins), too, can be tempted to fight.

And Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) the family matriarch, can if anything be a little too prim, as when she takes a hard line against her husband’s affinity for music. More about this in a moment.

In large part, it’s a family comedy-drama. The humor is not over-the-top, but in little things, as when Eliza denies to her children that she danced in her younger days–not really appropriate for a Quaker minister–but then unconsciously taps her hands and feet in time to the music when the family goes to a local fair. Or the way Jess tries to beat his friend in a race to meeting, while Eliza shoots disapproving looks at him. It makes the characters relatable. (I have friends who get much the same looks from their spouses when we get carried away talking about fantasy football.)

The film is based on a book, The Friendly Persuasion, by Jessamyn West, which is a series of vignettes from Quaker family life. It has the feel of being a loosely-connected series of episodes rather than a tightly-plotted tale. But that’s not a flaw. The Birdwells are a pleasant family to spend time with, and it’s always amusing when some element from an earlier episode comes back into play–as when some Quaker elders pay Jess and Eliza a visit while Mattie and her cavalry officer beau are playing music in the attic. (No, that’s not a euphemism!)

What I really like about this film is its portrayal of conflict, or more accurately conflict resolution. Even when it’s something as simple as Eliza and Jess’s dispute over his purchasing an organ–she says she won’t stay in the house as long as a musical instrument is there, and goes to sleep in the barn. Feeling abashed, Jess follows her out and spends the night with her, and they come to a compromise. Cooper and McGuire have great chemistry together–it’s an extremely romantic scene, and what’s more, it’s a very unusual kind of romantic. Most movie romances go for the easy stuff–the excitement of courtship and new love and so on. It’s much harder to portray a couple who have been married for a long time, been through thick and thin together, and still have an underlying affection. But that’s depicted very clearly here.

I really admire this. It would’ve been so easy to play it for cheap laughs by having Eliza seem like just a humorless goody-two-shoes, or Jess seem like just a sort of Quaker Ralph Kramden. But the script doesn’t take the easy path, and the actors play the roles with appropriate nuance.

The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson, who also co-wrote scripts for classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia–two of my favorite films. However, he didn’t receive screenwriting credit for these, or Friendly Persuasion, because he was blacklisted after he was accused of being a communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

(After some digging, I found a transcript of Wilson’s testimony before HUAC. It’s here, and I strongly recommend reading it, because it helps put Friendly Persuasion in context. I also tried, without success, to find Wilson’s speech to the Writer’s Guild of America on receiving a lifetime achievement award in 1976. Based on the part quoted here, I suspect it’s interesting reading.)

At the end of the film, the civil war begins to impact the Quaker community, and the Birdwells eventually are forced to face challenges to their pacifist ideals. Joshua goes off to fight over the objections of his parents, and when a Confederate raiding party comes to their farm, each member of the family is confronted with a choice of whether to fight or hold to their beliefs.

And this is where the film becomes more than just a family drama and something else entirely. As Pat says in his review, the film implicitly makes the audience ask if they would be able to show the same restraint that the Birdwells do. The family is tempted, yes, and they stray from the path of perfect Quaker doctrine–but not nearly as much as most people would. Watching the film, thee can’t help but ask if thee could do what Eliza or Jess do–giving food to enemy soldiers ransacking thy land, or letting a man who had just killed thy friend go free.

I know what my answer is, and I suspect it’s most people’s answer–and that is why the Birdwells’ courage is of a very different sort than the heroes of other Hollywood period films. They don’t handle things the way John Wayne or Clint Eastwood characters would, that’s for sure. (Ironically, given Wilson’s blacklisting, the film would later be used by President Reagan as a symbolic gift to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to illustrate the need for peacefully resolving conflicts.)

Not many movies can make thee ask deep, uncomfortable questions about morality while also being highly entertaining. This film manages it, and all without ever being preachy or sanctimonious. It doesn’t tell thee what to think; it just introduces thee to some characters, and asks thee to put thyself in their shoes.

Now, there are a few technical gripes I can’t resist making. This movie is over 60 years old, and it shows its age in some respects. 1950s Hollywood production designers could never seem to resist using anachronistic makeup and hair styling, and a few of the clothes look like post-1900 materials. Also, although the film is set in Indiana, it’s very obviously shot in California. Maybe most people wouldn’t notice this, but to a native Midwesterner such as myself, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But these are just nit-picks, and shouldn’t for a moment deter thee from watching it. Better to have dated production values and a timeless theme than to have a sharp-looking piece that has no heart or wit. Friendly Persuasion is a forgotten gem. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it seems to have largely faded into obscurity. That’s too bad; because it’s a really charming movie. I’m very grateful to Pat for recommending it. If thee like classic movies, and want something a little different than a typical historical-war drama, I highly recommend it.

Also, there is something interesting about the way the characters talk. See if thee can figure out what it is. 😉

6 Comments

  1. An absolutely wonderful review, Berthold. I didn’t know that Reagan gave a copy of the movie to Gorbachev. He was a good friend of Gary Cooper. Also thanks for the links to my posts. There’s a historical reason for the Society of Friends speaking in thee’s and thou’s, but that’s for another post.

    1. I rented it on Amazon Prime. I think Pat said they also show it often on classic movie channels, but I don’t have cable or satellite TV.

  2. I’ll just show my age by saying, I saw this movie when it first came out – I was 16 years old. I also saw Bridge on the River Kwai back in those days, and a few years later (I think I was probably in my mid-20s) Lawrence of Arabia (one of my favorite movies of all time – I actually saw it twice – something I almost never did) and I followed it up by reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I remember Friendly Persuasion as highly enjoyable, although I can’t say it particularly stuck with me.

    1. Lawrence of Arabia is one of my top 5 favorite films. Seven Pillars of Wisdom has been on my TBR list for a long time; I need to hurry up and read it. My mother (who also loves the movie) has read it, and says that it’s amazing how well the screenplay captures a very dense and complex book.

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