Copyright © 2008 Ed Bagley
Friendly Persuasion – 3 Stars (Good)
If “Friendly Persuasion” was produced 52 years after its original release in 1956, it might have won some of the 6 Oscar nominations it received, such as Best Sound and Best Writing, not to mention Best Picture and Best Director.
The technical advancements in moviemaking today are light years ahead of where they were when William Wyler directed this simple film about a simple family in a very complicated situation.
The Birdwell family members are Quakers by faith, farmers by profession and clearly in the wrong place in Indiana in 1862 when Confederate soldiers are marching north in the Civil War, looking for food and using a scorched Earth strategy by destroying everything in their path.
Father Jess (Gary Cooper), mother Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), son Josh (Anthony Perkins) and daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) are not just Quakers, they are practicing Quakers who are pacifists and dead set against committing any act of violence, and especially war against another person.
Well, all except Josh who, when he learns that the Southern forces are marching toward his farm with destruction on their mind and his family members are in danger of losing their life, decides to fight.
“I don’t want to die,” laments Josh. “I don’t think I could kill anyone if I tried. But I have to try, so long as other people have to.” His mother Eliza is distraught and urges Josh to pray on his decision before he acts.
When prayer does not get the result Eliza wants, she looks to his father for help in convincing Josh to not go and fight. Jess counters with this bit of thought, “I’m just his father, Eliza, not his conscience. A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”
Josh goes and what happens to him as the Confederate forces attack the farm, well, that is why you need to see this film. There are a number of reasons why this movie was nominated for Oscars as the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Writing, Best Music (Dimitri Tiomkin, music, and Paul Francis Webster, lyrics) and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Perkins, who would gain more fame 4 years later with Janet Leigh in “Psycho”).
Friendly Persuasion was originally released without a screenwriting credit due to the blacklisting of Michael Wilson, whose credit as the screenwriter was restored 40 years later in 1996. Despite Michael Wilson’s work, his screenplay was not better than the book it was based on by Jessamyn West.
The official name of the Quaker religion is the Society of Friends. Jessamyn West’s book is named “The Friendly Persuasion” which refers to the Quaker faith. The movie is titled “Friendly Persuasion” which refers to how Quakers communicate with others.
The film begs the question of just how far someone will go to stand by his or her religious beliefs in a life-threatening crisis. History is filled with martyrs who were killed or died because of their religious beliefs.
Gary Cooper initially turned down his lead role because he did not believe the American public would accept him as a devout Quaker father. Cooper was wrong.
Director William Wyler went to the bank on this film. He was the director but also the producer with his brother Robert Wyler as an associate producer. Wyler is considered by many to be second only to John Ford as a master craftsman of cinema. He was nominated a record 12 times for an Academy Award as Best Director, and won three Oscars for “Mrs. Miner”, “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Ben Hour”.
While Wyler’s directing style was demanding (he was nicknamed “40-take Wyler”), more actors won Academy Awards in Wyler movies (14 Oscars in 36 nominations) than with any other director in history.
Wyler also directed Wuthering Heights, Jezebel, Roman Holiday, The Collector and Funny Girl during his 45-year career. He died in 1981 as one of America’s two greatest film directors.