G | 2h 17min | Drama | 1956
Gary Cooper’s “High Noon” (1952) merely touched on themes of Quakerism, pacifism, and fatalism, and how they relate to state-sanctioned attack or defense. Another of his movies, “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), explores these more deeply, more light-heartedly and, uniquely, from a Quaker’s perspective.
Jess Birdwell (Cooper) heads a Midwestern farming family of Quakers. His wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), adult daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love), adult son Josh (Anthony Perkins) and pre-teen son “Little” Jess (Richard Eyer) want nothing more than to continue the Indiana peace and quiet they’ve enjoyed all their lives. But America’s 19th-century Civil War has other ideas.
As the war affects their home, it challenges in different ways how each family member responds to violence, not just the idea of it. It also tests and clarifies their understanding of courage and care.
Eliza’s the sternest Quaker of the lot. Although her family teases her about her rectitude, they abide by her austerity: no fighting (let alone killing), no singing, no dancing, and no music. Not that she’s incapable of fun. She relishes dancing, but she suppresses those desires the most, while the other family members, shall we say, suppress them less.
Jess can’t wait to shoot a rifle, sing a hymn, play the organ, race horse-carriages. Mattie can’t wait to be courted by a young man; as if in response, Union officer Gard Jordan (Peter Mark Richman) obliges. Josh can’t wait to test his beliefs, if only to discover what they are. “Little” Jess can’t wait to grow up and be a man who’ll protect and provide for his family, just as he sees grown men do.
The family does all it can to avoid violence, but when it comes around, they surprise themselves, and each other. Eliza whacks a rowdy “rebel” soldier who fancies her pet goose as a roast dinner. Jess hauls a “forbidden” organ home. Timid Josh enlists. Mattie doesn’t shun her suitor who’s riding to war; she kisses him goodbye. “Little” Jess is a noisy witness to these transformations, while Gard’s father, their Methodist neighbor, Sam (Robert Middleton), teases Jess over his fun-loving ways and awkwardness around some Quaker-ish ways.
Both Sides Now
William Wyler took Jessamyn West’s book “The Friendly Persuasion” seriously enough to both produce and direct the movie adaptation, but thankfully, not too literally. Sadly, some critics accuse his film of justifying or glorifying righteous violence. It probably does the opposite.
Yes, there’s a bit of Wyler spoofing Quakers whenever the impish “Little” Jess lightens the seriousness that surrounds him. But Wyler’s message remains profound. Some Quakers struggle to stick to a path they’ve chosen or one chosen for them by elders, some happily, others less so, and still others veer from it now and then. Yes, some stand by, while others die to protect them. One Union officer, limping from war wounds, scolds a sullen Quaker church congregation: “How many of you are hiding behind your church to save your skins?”
But Wyler isn’t out to prove Quakers wrong and everyone else right. He’s showing how both sides have their merits (and faults). It’s just that each side sees too much of the other’s faults (and too little of their merits).
Both sides show resolve, restraint, even regret. The rebels gate-crashing the Birdwell farm don’t exploit Eliza’s hospitality beyond a point; history tells us what ransacking men are capable of doing in real-life to helpless women and children. Sam takes up arms so Jess won’t have to, but longs for a time when arms will be redundant. Josh impulsively volunteers to fight, but it’s Gard who counsels him to talk it over with his folks before deciding.
Jess and his Quaker family aren’t perfect, they’re human: failing, but trying all the same to live their ideals and help those who fall short. Backed to a wall, many are capable of defending themselves, or those they care about. And they acknowledge that, in an imperfect world with imperfect humans, you must fight to win peace, or stay fighting-fit to maintain it. Yet, they’re proud that they raise their fighting hands hesitatingly, rather than hurriedly.
In one poignant shot, a single camera frame portrays the entire family caught in the wake of violence. In the background, Jess rides out in search of a missing Josh; “Little” Jess is excitedly seeing him off. In the foreground, Eliza’s face contorts in fear of losing both men; Mattie comforts Eliza while worrying about Gard leading men in battle.
McGuire sensitively shows how Eliza’s faith is born of conviction, not cussedness; she genuinely feels for her husband and children. But her overprotectiveness struggles to distinguish an adolescent from an adult. It’s awhile before she realizes, with prompting from Jess, that adults must make, then face the consequences of, their decisions. Eliza emotionally blackmails Josh, hinting that if he turns his back on her rule against fighting, he turns his back on her. She pleads with Jess to use his patriarchal power to prevail over Josh, but Jess refuses, “I’m just his father Eliza, I’m not his conscience.”
This movie marks Perkins’s debut in a major Hollywood role. He’s perfect here as a tortured Josh, torn between love for his family and a duty to protect families like his from fighting alone. Some battles, he figures, aren’t offensive. They protect peace-loving folk from looting, attack, or killing.
His desperate words to his mother capture that dilemma; he hates fighting and doesn’t have a death wish: “I don’t know if I could kill anyone if I tried. But I have to try, as long as other people have to.”
Cooper, as Jess, comically mediates between his children’s desire to enjoy life beyond Quaker country, while respecting Eliza’s rejection of anything that “isn’t seemly.” Like others who must manage balancing acts, he falters but, unlike many others, he’s soon back at it, not fretting about the outcome, just enjoying the process.
More seriously, Jess provokes us with questions: If courage to defend the defenseless can feel superhuman, isn’t fatalism subhuman if it presumes that adults have no agency to take charge of their lives, or to adapt or to change their minds? If violence begets violence, what do you think non-violence begets? Do happy endings happen if you don’t stand up for yourself, or if you don’t pay a price by losing something or someone?
As Jess walks to his horse, gun in hand, heading to the war-torn zone, he affectionately tells “Little” Jess that he’s the man about the house now. The boy shouts “Kill a Johnny reb for me, papa!” Jess turns from his horse, bends down, looks him in the eye and, without raising his voice, says, “Son, never talk that way about a man’s life.”
Scenes played for laughs don’t come off as funnily as intended. But if Wyler’s touch is too farcical or idealistic in this movie, he offers sufficient hints that things are about to get serious.
This laid-back film about a farming family has as many as three horse-carriage races; watching them, if you suspect that Wyler’s onto something bigger, you’d be right, for three years after this movie, he stunned the world with the biggest horse-carriage race of all, in his masterpiece, “Ben Hur.”
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Phyllis Love, Anthony Perkins
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 25, 1956
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5