Friendly Persuasion: Gary Cooper is a non-violent hero in William Wyler’s big, warm, colorful and charming slice of Americana that takes a sensitive look at war and religion

Friendly Persuasion(1956), directed by William Wyler and starring Gary Cooper, Anthony Perkins and Dorothy McGuire is a wholesome family entertainer set during the American civil war and tells the story of a pacifist Quaker family, and how their religious beliefs are tested by the onset of war.

Gary Cooper started out in the movies in the 1920s as a stuntman and extra. His skilled horsemanship and all-American good looks soon landed him in leading roles in silent Westerns. Cooper was one of the very few stars to successfully make the transition from silent films to talkies; not just that, for almost two decades he remained in the top-tier of stars. The screen persona he developed and sustained throughout his career represented the ideal American hero—a tall, handsome, and sincere man of steadfast integrity who emphasized action over intellect, and combined the heroic qualities of the romantic lover, the adventurer, and the common man. As an actor he was renown for his purely cinematic acting style that emphasized understatement, naturalness, authenticity and refinement over and above any theatrical effects or overtly histrionic pyrotechnics, thus making him, along with the likes of Spencer Tracy and John Wayne, the first of the purely cinematic actors of the times; who subtly transported their own persona to the characters they were playing. It meant that an illusion was created that he (and other actors of his ilk) were just playing themselves in film after films, thereby which they created a unique screen presence and style that made them big movie stars, but were considered inferior in comparison to actors who created a different ‘performance’ for each of the characters they played. But nothing would be further from the truth; all these actors, whether it’s Wayne, Cooper, Tracy, Bogart, they all worked as hard as their more theatrically inclined peers, and their acting style possessed a Pre-method ‘method’ acting quality, where the actors were reacting to what the characters were going through as they themselves would react if they faced the same circumstances in their personal life. Also, their naturalistic and unique acting style\persona was exactly what the classical Hollywood cinema of yore needed; those days cinema had not developed much technologically and the stars were the special effects; audiences went to watch the film for their favorite stars, and they were defined by their looks, persona and their acting style which was unique to each one of them. So it’s no wonder that Cooper prospered during that period; apart from remaining one of cinema’s biggest stars for almost 30 years, Cooper was also nominated 5 times for Oscars for his acting and won the trophy twice: for Sergeant York and High Noon.

If Gary Cooper was one of the bright shining lights of classical Hollywood cinema, then so was William Wyler, albeit as a director. Wyler too started out in Hollywood in the 1920s as a prop man and wrangler. He also graduated to become one of the great directors of the period; perhaps the greatest; he’s unquestionably the true exponent of classical Hollywood cinema along with the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra etc. He is the most Oscar nominated director in film history with 12 Oscar nominations, and winning three Oscars for Mrs. Miniver, Best Years of our Lives and Ben-Hur. He was also a die-hard perfectionist; in an age when the studio moguls controlled every aspect of production that speaks volumes of his clout and bankability during the period; he was nicknamed ’40 take Wyler’ for the innumerable takes he used to subject his actors to, but the results spoke for themselves: he has the distinction of having directed more actors to Oscar-nominated performances than any other director in history: thirty-six. Out of these nominees, fourteen went on to win Oscars, also a record. The term that can be used to describe his kind of cinema is ‘classy’; and sophisticated, refined, adult and also intense. He was considered a man of impeccable taste and was really good at adapting classy literary material to screen. His filmmaking was stately, graceful and often poetic; and like all great filmmakers of classic Hollywood, he successfully made movies in almost all the genres- Dramas, film noir, Westerns, Biblical epics, thrillers, capers, musicals. It’s hard to believe that the man who made “Wuthering heights” also made “Roman Holiday”; and the same man would make “Ben-Hur” and then “How to Steal a Million and “Funny Girl.” But that was how versatile Wyler was and he had the acumen and filmmaking style that allowed him to flit through genres effortlessly.

So what happens when these two leading lights- Cooper and Wyler- of classic Hollywood come together?, The 1956 film, Friendly persuasion, is the answer. Technically, this is not their first film together; it would be the 1940 Western, The Westerner, but there Walter Brennan had the lead role and Wyler was just coming into his own as a top class filmmaker. Friendly persuasion, for me, epitomizes the Cooper-Wyler collaboration at their best with the perfect mixing of their signature styles. Plot wise, the film evolves thus: the year is 1862, and the civil war has engulfed America. In South Indiana, a Quaker family named ‘Birdwell’, oblivious to the chaos in the world outside and comfortable inside their small, tightly- knit community, carry on with their thoroughly established idyll. The family consists of father, Jess (Gary Cooper), mother, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), sons, Joshua (Anthony Perkins) and ‘little Jess’ (Richard Eyer), and daughter, Mattie (Phyllis Love). Eliza is a minster of their congregation, and hence the toughest and uncompromising of the family regarding adherence to their religious beliefs. Jess, who works on the family’s farm, loves music and horse racing, which is in direct conflict with the Quaker religious beliefs. This create some tension in the Birdwell marriage now and then, but the deep love that exist between Jess and Eliza seem to somehow overcome all this. But their pacifist beliefs is soon going to tested as the civil war reaches their door. Initially, it comes in the form of a handicapped Union Major who passionately addresses their congregation about joining in the noble fight to end slavery; as it so happens, slavery is something the Quakers are vehemently opposed to, but they are also opposed to fighting wars or indulging in any form of violence. As Eliza spiritedly replies to the soldier: “We’re opposed to slavery, but we are also against killing men to free others.” The Major is not convinced by this argument and questions Josh whether he’s willing to fight, and Josh, who is a conflicted soul, answers: “I don’t know”; much to the dismay of his parents and to utter wrath of a fellow Quaker named, Purdy, who chastises Josh for his lack of conviction. Seeing the attitude of the Quakers, the major leaves the meetinghouse knowing well that he will not be able to recruit anyone.

After this seemingly minor disturbance, the Birdwell family, and the rest of the Quakers, get on with their routine; but the more they interact with the outside world the more they find their ideals and beliefs at odds with them. A visit to a state fair brings them face to face with bullying and harassment, as both Josh and Jess finds their “Turn their other cheek” philosophy mocked and tested by a group of bullies. It’s only a level headed approach by Jess that saves the day, though the event shows that there is dormant aggression in both of them that is waiting to explode at an opportune moment; we see Jess winning shooting competitions and also his love for music surfacing again. Soon enough, Jess purchases a musical Organ, and despite Eliza’s vehement protestations, has it installed in the house; forcing Eliza to leave the house and take residence in the barn, but not for long, as Jess manages to placate her and bring her back and a compromise is reached to put the organ in the attic. Even as the Birdwells are engaging in this sort of love quarrels and charming ideological conflicts, the civil war is getting closer and closer. To make matters worse, Mattie falls in love with a union cavalry officer, Gard Jordan (Peter Mark Richman); a love that is against her mother’s wishes. Eliza does her best to break up the alliance, but when Gard returns home injured in the war, the Gard-Mattie relationship deepens, and Jess and Eliza has to finally come around and accept this relationship.

But the real threat to their peaceful existence arrives in the form of a Confederate raiding party, numbering 2400, that’s fast approaching their county. The raiders are looting, burning and killing everything in their way. Gard organizes a band of home guards to defend the place. Josh decides to join the guards, much to the disapproval of Eliza, who believes he’s turning against their religion; but Josh believes that protecting their lives is more important than protecting their religion, and rides off with Gard and the others. When the raiding party arrives, the home guards makes a stand, with Josh finally finding the courage and the ability to kill. Meanwhile, fearing that Josh and the others have perished in the battle, Jess too picks up his rifle and rides out to the battlefront. In his absence, a party of confederate raiders arrive at the farm, but Eliza’s tactful handling of the situation helps to avoid violence. She gives away all her food and livestock without complaint which pleases the Rebs, who decide not to torch the place, but when one of the Reb soldiers tries to kill the family goose, Samantha, Eliza looses controls over herself and violently beats him up with a broom. She’s immediately overcome by remorse over her violent act, and make Mattie and little Jess promise that they will not tell this to anyone, even as the Reb soldiers leave the farm without any further incidents. Jess, who has now reached the battlefield, finds Josh wounded and his friend, Sam Jordan, dying. Jess and Sam always had a friendly rivalry regarding their horses, whom they used to race on their way to their respective churches- Sam is a Methodist and both the churches are close by. As Sam is talking to Jess, a Reb soldier shoots and kills Sam and takes a shot at Jess, who hits the dirt and play possum. When the Reb soldier is about to steal Sam’s horse, Jess gets up and confront him, Jess takes his gun away, but does not shoot the soldier, telling him to go away as he’s not going to harm him. Jess helps the wounded Jess, Gard and other volunteers back to their houses. In the film’s epilogue, we see the Birdwells are back to their old routine, and the family is leaving for the Sunday meeting(as we saw in the film’s beginning), but the fact that they have had a transformative experience in the interim shows in their behavior; made even more apparent when Little Jess spills the beans on Eliza’s ‘violent’ behavior with the Reb soldier. Jess gathers the family together, comically addressing themselves as ‘Veterans’, as they try to make sense of their recent actions.

Friendly persuasion was Wyler’s first color film; he has shot some war documentaries in color, but this is the first time he’s using it for a full fledged feature film, and his excitement shows. With the giddiness of a schoolkid, who up until now has been drawing with only black pencils on white canvases ,and who’s now given the full crayon set to paint with, Wyler drenches every image in vivid color. The good thing is that this is perfectly in synch with this ‘storybook’ like nature of the film. Though the film appears very realistic and naturalistic in its staging, pacing and performances, the film is actually an ode to a vanished world; a typical ‘once upon a time’ story told to children by the elders, and is filled with warmth, humor and wholesomeness. Wyler’s film begins with credits that appear to be stitched onto nineteenth-century needlepoint samplers. transitions into the film’s opening scene by dissolving the final needlepoint into the actual setting, with the Birdwell home reflected upside down in the stream in front of the house. There cannot be a better showcase for the dream-like quality of the film. The film’s also a fable, with its treatment of animals and some moral lessons along the way. The first shot is that of the family pet goose, Samantha, a darling of Eliza, but a tormenter of little Jess, playing hiding and seek with him and then finally coming and biting him on his behind. Little Jess gets his revenge later, when he hits the goose with a stone as the family’s on their way to church. In a way, the white goose is a reflection of their religion, which means the life to Eliza and torment for the rest of the family members, especially the males. Also, it’s the ill-treatment of the goose by a Reb soldier that forces Eliza to indulge in violence; which means that she’s also doing the same thing as what Joshua is doing- going against their religious principles to protect their religion.

Wyler was one of the directors – along with John Ford, George Stevens, etc.- who served in World War II and returned a changed man; the films he made after the war represents the inherent conflict between pacifism and violence. While he was a man who valued pacifism, he knew from his experiences in war that Pacifism cannot, and should not, be used against racist and violent doctrines like Nazism and fascism. It’s easy to wax eloquent about pacifism and ones religious principles when one is insulated from the violence, but when you come face to face with violence that’s going to wipe out your existence, then it’s necessary to take it head on with the same violent methods. So contrary to popular belief, Friendly Persuasion is in no way a film that promotes pacifism: this is particularly reflected in the character of Purdy(Richard Hale), who is seen berating Joshua in the meeting for his lack of religious convictions, but at the end, when one of his friends is killed and house burnt, changes his stance and admonishes Jess for not joining the fight. This conflict between Pacifism and Violence is something Wyler would delve even more deeply into in his next two movies- The Big Country and Ben-Hur. Now continuing with the animal theme in the film, there’s a thing going on with the horses; Jess’ horse is a magnificent looking red animal, but it’s rather slow for his taste; Jess loves to race horses with his friend Sam Jordan on their way to their churches, and Jess’ horse always loose to Sam’s ‘Black Prince.’ So when Jess gets an opportunity- or rather he manipulates an opportunity- to exchange his horse for a pathetic looking, but ‘born to run’ mare named, The Lady, he quickly seizes it, and in their next Sunday race, he manages to beat Sam to the church. This shows that there’s an aggressively competitive side to the mild and gentle Jess, and his way of finding release is to indulge in this sort of playful antics. This undercurrent of aggression in Jess allows to build suspense as to whether or not he will indulge in violence when the war breaks out, but as it so happens, he’s the only one who will refrain from violence totally Wyler will use horses as a symbol again in The Big Country- the wild horse that Gregory Peck is challenged to ride- and in Ben-Hur- Charlton Heston gifts Stephen Boyd a white horse as a mark of their friendship, and when they later turn foes, Heston rides a chariot pulled by 4 white horses against Boyd’s blacks. Wyler was never considered an auteur by the French critics, who dismissed him as a craftsman, mainly because he was too classy and made films that were widely different from one another; which did not appear to be tied together thematically or stylistically, but a closer examination of his films shows that it isn’t true; there are recurring themes and motifs that can be found in his work. Even the subject of a peaceful family torn apart by violent external forces was already visited in his Oscar winning, Mrs. Miniver, as well as in Desperate Hours(1955), where Humphrey Bogart and his thugs holds a family hostage.

The film is an adaptation of Jessamyn West’s novel, The Friendly Persuasion, that consists of a series of stories, set in late-nineteenth-century Indiana, that are integrated less by plot continuity than by a pastoral mood and a cast of characters centered around the Birdwell family, and except for the Civil War, the action does not revolve around ‘big’ events, drawing instead on the routines of family life. But since this technique cannot be employed for a movie, Wyler, with the help of West and his bother, Robert Wyler, pared down the material to concentrate only on the events around the civil war. But the film still retains the plotless nature of the film, with most of the film being made up of little events and the film being episodic in nature. The film is also divided into two halves; the completely warm and humorous first half that concentrates completely around the family and religious routines, and the second half, which is much more darker and deals with the emotional conflicts and the final battle. Though Wyler was very much a director of his times, and didn’t mind painting in broad strokes as and when required, his films are more or less devoid of the broad, boorish, Irish humor that was abundant in John Ford films. But there’s one episode in the film that’s so broad and over the top that it looks out of place in the film (and Wyler’s filmography):  On a business trip, Jess and Josh runs into widow Hudspeth (Marjorie Main), who has three daughters of marriageable age. Since men are scarce in this part of the country, the girls pounce at these two gentlemen the moment they arrive. Josh is the main target of their aggressive affections, and they sing “Marry me” to him with wild abandon. The whole sequence is so broad and over the top that even John Ford would have backed off using this in his films. On its own it’s very entertaining, but it looks out of place in the film that is fast moving into intense emotional and physical conflict. By the way, West hated this scene and expected Wyler to cut it out, but Wyler found it to be hilarious and kept it.

The scene also has Gary Cooper and Anthony Perkins at their funniest, and illustrates why these two were perfect casting for their roles. Cooper is cool and charming and totally in control of this wild situation, while Perkins’ nervous energy is all over the place. Those who expect Cooper to be the stoic American hero is in for a surprise here; he’s cast more in the mold of his Frank Capra comedies like “Mr. Deeds goes to town” and “Meet John Doe.” It’s in this episode that Jess exchanges his horse (practically steals it) for widow Hudspeth’s fast lady. The scene building up to this has ‘the lady’ racing against a fellow horse who challenges her; while Hudspeth is trying hard to hold on to the reins, Jess wants to let go the horse so that she can run at maximum speed; the scene has Cooper’s best comic acting; by doing very little: a slight tap on his thighs and clasping of his hands, he conveys much of his excitement at discovering a horse worthy of him. Another funny sequence is when Jess buys the organ and tries to move it inside the house. Every time he moves it an inch, Eliza threatens to leave the house; Jess demurs each time and feel that he’s going to back off, but no, he just keep moving it in until Eliza walks away into the barn. Cooper’s understated acting in this sequence is priceless. Cooper didn’t want to do the film, because he felt it was too passive for his image; the audience always wants him to be the ideal hero and the man of action. So author, West, assuaged his feelings by commenting that a powerful man who refrains from taking action is as heroic as the man indulging in action. This is illustrated in the final moments of the film, where we see him heroically riding into battle, rifle in hand- an image that brings back several iconic Cooper images from the Westerns of the past, from “The Virginian” onwards. But he does not kill anyone thereby managing to adhere to his Quaker principles. Also, his pacifisms does not stop him from saving lives; his act of standing up to the Reb soldier and disarming him is a heroic act in itself. Undoubtedly, this is one of Cooper’s greatest performances, and as usual, he manages to convey so much by doing so little, but it’s Anthony Perkins who steals the show in the second half as the morally conflicted Josh; Perkins is terrific in what’s just his second feature film, and in a role that was originally meant for James Dean. The scene in the final battle, when he switches from cowardice to moral confusion, and then, finally finding the courage to pull the trigger is brilliant. As for Dorothy McGuire, she looks too young to be playing Cooper’s wife, and there are times she gets too dramatic, but overall i liked her in the film. She gets a really good chemistry going with Cooper, though i wish, Ingrid Bergman who was Cooper’s choice for the role would have done it.

No civil war drama can escape comparisons with “Gone with the Wind”, and I’m sure Wyler was influenced by it, especially in the visual style and the use of color and music; though this is far too subtle a movie in front of the baroque extravagance of “Wind”. Western genre specialist, Dimitri Tiomkin, contributes a moving melodious score for the film. This is a film told from the northern perspective, so it has much more leeway in tackling issues like slavery; represented in the form of the farm laborer, Enoch(Joel Fluellen ), who’s a runaway slave, and who demands that he be given a gun to defend himself, as he will not be enslaved again and be taken back to south in chains when the southern raiders arrive. Also, as depicted in “Wind”, the civil war was a totally life-altering event for the south, where their life was never the same again, but as far as the north is concerned, it didn’t change much. This is also reflected at the end of this film, where the Birdwell family has undoubtedly gone through a transformative experience, but it’s more of a minor kind, their way of life still survives and the film does end on an optimistic note; though they’re locked in a spiritual confusion of sorts, they will be able to continue with their family and religious routine as before. The story of the Quakers have very rarely been tackled on screen, and though there were some mild criticisms about the film being too pedantic in its depiction of some of the Quaker beliefs- the language with it’s usage of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ takes a little getting used to as well, it’s widely regarded as an authentic depiction of Quaker life.

The film was released in 1956, which was a great year for American cinema- with films like The Ten Commandments, Giant, King & I, Anastasia, The Searchers etc. At the 29th Academy Awards, Friendly Persuasion was nominated for 6 awards, which included nods for Wyler and Anthony Perkins. Unfortunately, Gary Cooper’s brilliant performance was overlooked. Another interesting aspect of the film was that it was nominated for best screenplay, but it did not have a credited writer. Michael Wilson, who was the original screenwriter, was denied credit because he was blacklisted for being a communist. but in all fairness, the entire second half of the film was written by West and Robert Wyler, and William Wyler wanted to give them credit along with Wilson, to which Writer’s Guild ruled unfavorably. Wilson’s credit was restored almost half a decade later when the film was released on DVD. Though the film didn’t win any Oscars, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes film festival the next year. Even more interesting is that the film became a footnote in World history, when in the 1980s, then President Ronald Reagan made a gift of the film to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at one of their five summit meetings, suggesting that he view the film “as symbolic of the need to find an alternative to war as a means of resolving differences between peoples“.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s