The when is 1862. The where is Southern Indiana. We find ourselves in the throes of Quaker country as envisioned by novelist Jessamyn West and brought to the screen by his eminence, William Wyler.
What follows is a lovely opening gambit with a goose about as anthropomorphic as they come without completely shattering the sense of movie realism. He nips our little narrator, a Quaker lad named Jess (Richard Eyer) in the seat of the pants to punctuate our mellow tale on a comical note.
Authenticity, historical, religious, or otherwise, is not what Friendly Persuasion is concerned with. We might call it into question on any number of accounts. Still, it is packed full with enough tweeness for every “thee” uttered by the kindly Quakers who exist within the frames.
The gentle satire is of a certain warmth and unassuming candor, we cannot help but smile at because unadulterated goodness leaves behind a luster. Indeed, it is one of the finest attributes of the picture. Their matriarch (Dorothy McGuire) is zealously religious and abhors violence, but we can hardly label her unkind. Meanwhile, the man of the house (Gary Cooper) is about as genial as they come.
As with most small-town communities, about the most exciting experience you can possibly partake in is a traveling carnival. Imagine you’re a Quaker and then every stray stimulus and forthcoming attraction becomes 10 times more novel.
The ascetic folks pushing the boundaries of their normal sensibilities is played for a bit of humor. It might be dancing a jig gaily with a handsome beau, trying a hand at a musical instrument a salesman is trying to peddle, or a young boy getting the itch for gambling in the form of the ever-dubious shell game.
Cooper winds up winning a pair of sleeve holders, which look eerily similar to a pair of garters, while a stocky Quaker boy gets caught up in a wrestling match only to back down as it begins to impinge on his beliefs. He has vowed like all his brethren never to hurt anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, it is perceived as weakness and worse yet a dereliction of duty when it comes to fighting for your country. Because the Civil War is on everyone’s mind.
Friendly Persuasion becomes a diluted effort due to its length, which, while giving adequate time for many asides and quaint observations, takes away from the import of the material. It’s not quite capable of navigating the straights between social issues and jocularity — it’s never quite assured — settling for a rocky path.
The young soldier, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), is the force tying the family to the war directly as he has eyes for their daughter, while still maintaining his duty toward the Union Army. It stays in the periphery for a time. However, it’s inevitable, with the extent the war is spreading, they must make decisions of their own. This is what is being set up for each individual character, and they must react accordingly.
However, this is not solely about a message of pacifism, but in a society split up of many religious sects and political factions, it is a film with some sense of continued relevance. It even dabbles with the same dichotomy as Sergeant York (1941), having to do with the commandment entreating the adherents not to murder. The question remains: is there a semantic difference between murder and killing? More important still, is there a difference in the hearts of men. The film has to forge its own path.
Separately, Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire appear suited for the material as they both bring a certain sensibility and ingrained honesty to nearly every part. Side by side, the chemistry between the two of them seems relatively absent and not simply because of their mundane temperaments. It could do with the fact Coop never wanted the actress to play opposite him, to begin with. Ingrid Bergman was his choice, but she passed on it.
Anthony Perkins’ role is slight in the way all his performances seem to be, and yet their unassuming skittishness somehow imbues them with their own brand of resonance. It’s true, after only his second film, the writing on the wall said he was destined to be a great star. They weren’t wrong; his career just didn’t end up quite as people might have expected. Of course, Norman Bates was a jarring subversion of his image, simultaneously redefining (and typecasting) it for all posterity.
While it’s easy enough to think of them as being on different strata, Perkins feels like he could easily be an earlier version of Tommy Kirk from Old Yeller (1957). Where a boy is put through the gauntlet and must come to terms with harsh realities of life. Of course, McGuire would again play the maternal figure in the latter Disney production.
In this picture, she gets her moment with the homestead being overrun with Rebs. Doing her best to keep her composure through hospitality, she nevertheless lets one of them have it over the head with a broom for going after the family goose. Cooper’s own confrontation with a Rebel soldier occurs in an open clearing, serving as his final test and a bit of a case study the film puts in front of us.
He passes, and it’s not what we usually expect from Cooper. Not only were audience expectations undone, but Cooper himself seemed to think the hero he was, and played on-screen, would have normally acted differently. We can make a judgment call on whether or not he was right.
One is reminded High Noon (1952) succeeded in its storytelling with a lean running time featuring a very concrete progression of scenes. Coop was an archetypal hero, even one of the western greats in Will Kane, but we also know where we will be going when the clock strikes 12. There is not the same urgency to Friendly Persuasion — it’s much looser — ultimately too good-natured to hammer home its themes with any amount of authority. There’s no fault in a lighter tone per se, but it could have amounted to a whole lot more providing there was tauter plotting.