Friendly Persuasion (1956)

Dir. William Wyler. Starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins

One walks away from Friendly Persuasion wishing that the film had been more serious about its characters’ beliefs. It has the seeds of a good movie in it, even an unusual one. Friendly Persuasion is episodic and tranquil in a way that mainstream American movies rarely are anymore. Would any studio keep the movie’s scenes of comic relief, in which Jess (Cooper) and Josh (Perkins) fight off the amorous singing of a widow woman and her three desperate daughters? (Watching Perkins squirm while three women nuzzle and caress him is what I think the universities call “subtext.”) There are long stretches of the movie which are pure agrarian verisimilitude, i.e. not much happens but everyone seems okay with it onscreen so we gamely follow behind. And for the most part, the people do appear happy enough. Jess and Eliza (McGuire) quarrel frequently, but they are minor squabbles which can be mended with an adequately romantic gesture on Jess’ part; or, perhaps, they require Jess to begin praying with such verve and volume that it drowns out the sounds of illicit music creaking down from the attic. The men are men, the women are women, they sit on separate sides of the church, the valleys stretch on forever through endless fields of corn, and somewhere even Norman Rockwell needs a minute to get his bearings. In Gary Cooper, whose amiably ironic performance anchors the film, there’s hardly a trace of the man who could be charmed by Dietrich in Morocco. Tom Brown, the Legionnaire who was titillated by one woman kissing another, has been replaced by the small farmer Jess Birdwell. Friendly Persuasion is the picture of a man who’s been married for twenty years and says cute things like, “Gosh, isn’t that swell!” and “Sorry, pal, I think I need to talk to the ol’ ball and chain first.”

Probably the worst take on a character in the movie comes fairly near the end. There is no possible way to read Eliza’s defense of her pet goose Samantha as anything other than a “gotcha!” moment, not after she’s spent the whole movie being her husband’s conscience. Eliza is, for better than two hours, scrupulously knowledgeable of her duty as a Quaker minister. Sometimes this presents itself as “Thou shalt not,” such as when she forbids a little organ come into the house because good Quakers don’t make music. (Whether the movie is trying to make her the Strictest Quaker or doesn’t understand the difference between organized church music and private expression is not flattering on either account.) Or, in one chapter of the movie, she has to corral her entire family at the fair. Jess and Josh get into a scrap with some men not entirely of their own making, but Eliza scolds Jess for it all the same. Little Jess (Richard Eyer) she finds at eye-level to a game of chance, winning every time and making himself very popular with the gamblers behind him. Mattie (Phyllis Love) she finds dancing with a beau. Even on the way to church she is meticulous with what is right. Jess and a neighbor, Sam (Robert Middleton) like to race to church; Jess inevitably loses these contests, and his suffering is doubled because of how Eliza nags at him. If she comes off as shrewish, it’s for the reason many women do: the man she is forced to appeal to is inadequate in his duties. When she takes up a broom in defense of Samantha against Confederate raiders, even after she has been accommodating to the point of collaborationist with them, we are meant to note her imperfection. Even this one who follows the rules can fall short, and with a fairly simple provocation at that. Friendly Persuasion is about the inevitability of sin, or at least of religious rule-breaking, and instead of finding the far more reasonable answer within itself—all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, maybe?—the movie decides to condemn the most devout and praise the ones who break the faith. It’s a common trend, and a disquieting one. How thoroughly American filmmakers assume that pacifism, particularly the pacifism of small denominations, is a personality quirk which can be overcome with the clatter of musketry or the sound of bugles.

The most famous Quaker in American movies is Amy Kane, who marries the town marshal and in a few moments is forced between maintaining the letter of her faith and saving her husband from certain death; in doing the latter she kills. There are other conscientious objectors in movies predating Friendly Persuasion, such as Sergeant York, which relates the story of a Medal of Honor winner who puts down his objections to violence in order to fight in World War I. It’s quite interesting to find Gary Cooper, whose characters are immune to inaction, at the center of both films. Without Amy, Will is shot down in the street the way everyone in town knew he would be; Alvin York is convinced that killing Germans saves Americans, and goes on to, er, save many Americans. In the lead-up to and the aftermath of World War II, individuals set down their morals for what is perceived as a greater good. A movie like High Noon, which is famous for its lefty lessons, cannot stop itself from making Amy’s heretical decision into the movie’s emotional fulcrum. Friendly Persuasion, another child of the blacklist, has much the same perspective. Perhaps this movie could exist if the Birdwells were Baptists or Methodists, but it would be largely devoid of the moral turmoil it rakes up for each and every bit of drama it possesses.

The film all but predicts that the Quakers of this little slice of Heaven Indiana will be extinct soon because the people who live there cannot stand up against the tide of violent times. Josh picks up a gun because he cannot bear to stay at home while his family and his home are endangered by the Confederates. (There is no option, as there is in Hacksaw Ridge, for him to help the home guard without bearing arms; nor is there an option, as in Witness, for many community members to come together to protect one another. What’s distressing about Friendly Persuasion is not that it places Quakers in difficult situations, but that it takes a middle schooler’s pleasure in imagining scenarios which allow no recourse to what are, even in wartime, possible preferences.) Mattie falls in love with a soldier, and it’s difficult to believe that her children would grow up outside her husband’s more traditional church. Little Jess is probably the most bellicose member of the family, and his tattling tantrums make him an even more annoying movie kid than Joey from Shane. Is he temperamentally suited to calm his nerves and live a Quaker life? Virtually all of the Quakers ultimately do something or say something which blow a hole in their beliefs. Only Jess survives the battle with the Rebs morally unscathed, for he does little more than keep himself from being killed by a Confederate soldier with a gun. He wrestles the gun from the man with the bad luck of fighting Gary Cooper and tells him to get out. It is no small feat for him to restrict his strength—this is the same man who mortally wounded Sam before Jess could arrive on the scene—but even this victory requires him to exert enough violence to defend himself. Earlier in the film, one of Josh’s friends wrestles a big fella at the fair and eventually demurs when he recognizes that what he’s doing is not about competition or challenge but inflicting hurt on another man. Jess does no less.

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