Friendly Persuasion is a gem I discovered later in life, like Sweet Smell of Success, which it seemed to me belonged in the canon alongside of Casablanca and Citizen Kane but which is unknown to a lot of even fairly savvy moviegoers. It is the most sophisticated treatment of religion and dogma put to test against real world travails I’ve ever seen, outside of Israeli films (where it is a staple).
Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire are Jess and Eliza Birdwell, Quakers living in Indiana in 1862 with their three children, the teens* Josh and Mattie and their young son Little Jess, all of them struggling in their own ways to adhere to a lifestyle that, even in 1862, was sorely constraining: No music, no dancing, no fancy clothes and no fighting!
And, boy, do they struggle. The opening scene features Little Jess in a blood feud with his mother’s prize goose. Followed by Mattie primping and preening for church. The trip to church turns into a carriage race between Jess and a neighbor (which Jess blames on the horse “wanting to race”). And at their church—a meeting where they reflect quietly and make observations about what they need to get closer to God—they are interrupted by a Union General looking for soldiers. Here we get to see what each character feels about violence.
Or rather—and this is key—what they say they feel about violence.
Because this is a movie about hypocrisy. Not the way Boomer-era movies have been about hypocrisy, but the real acknowledgement that it is difficult to live by principles, not all principles are equally worthy of living by, and one doesn’t really know what one will do until confronted with a difficult choice.
The Birdwells go to the county fair, and Mattie ends up dancing, a neighbor boy ends up fighting in a contest—only to stop when winning for fear of hurting his opponent which causes more trouble, Little Jess ends up helping people win at a shell game, and so on. Mama Eliza is the spiritual taskmaster and the minister of the community, while Jess is more the sly-wink-and-a-nod who trades out the racing horse to please her—but gets an even faster horse instead. When Jess and Josh go out to visit customers, they encounter a widow and her three daughters who are far more boisterous than they’re used to, and it’s Jess who joins in their raucous singing.
When Jess buys an organ because he really loves music, Eliza goes to sleep in the barn in protest. Jess goes in later when it gets cold, and the next morning, he explains to his neighbor Sam (the great character actor Robert Middleton) that he “reasoned with her” but Sam (and the audience) have no doubt as to how things were actually resolved. The organ stays in the house, though this causes problems later because they have to hide it from the rest of the community.
In the style of From Here To Eternity, though, everything gets put to the test when WAR comes to town. Nothing quite turns out the way you expect and there’s considerable subtlety, too. The movie challenges the notion of pacifism without ridiculing it. It dares the audience to imagine themselves in those situations and what they would do without being grimly moralizing or cynical. It’s also a very fun film for the first 90 minutes, which is a big part of what lends it its ultimate power.
Directed by William Wyler, who is in the running for greatest all-time director, having given us Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday and so on. Written by Jessamyn West (based on his book) and Michael Wilson (It’s A Wonderful Life, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Planet of the Apes).
Gary Cooper is immensely charming in one of his last big roles, with Wyler insisting on him staying true to the book’s character despite Peck’s protestations. Dorothy McGuire, though she essentially plays an uptight moralist, is nonetheless warm and appealing. The supporting cast is all terrific, of course, including the aforementioned Robert Middleton and Mark Richman, and with Marjorie Main as the mother of the three wild girls.
It’s not Technicolor, but the composition is great and the DeLuxe Color holds up okay, at least on the version I have. The score is impeccable, height-of-his-talent Dmitri Tiomkin. There in an unfortunate (to my ear) pop song—”Thee I Love” sung by Pat Boone. It was actually quite hot back in ’56, my stepfather tells me: It was in heavy rotation on his college campus being used to lure co-eds into frat houses. Heh.
It’s not that it’s bad per se, but it was such a common thing of the ’50s and ’60s, to attach a very contemporaneous pop song to what otherwise feels timeless. I find the song in True Grit similarly jarring. (I don’t find it jarring in movies like Casablanca, and my only excuse is that “When Time Goes By” was already a kind of standard, not something they whipped up for the movie. I admit this is a capricious distinction.)
That aside, this is basically a perfect movie. Even at 2 hours and 17 minutes it blazes by. Each scene is meant to entertain, to charm, to teach you about the characters so that when their time in the crucible comes, you care what happens and you feel less inclined to judge them and more inclined to understand.
It’s available on the cheap from all kinds of streaming services so check it out!
*The teens are played by a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins, who was 24, and Phyllis Love, who was 31!