Thursday 30 September 2021

Movie Review: Friendly Persuasion (1956)

A family drama set during the Civil War, Friendly Persuasion explores Quaker culture with beauty and patience, unencumbered by an urgent plot.

In Indiana of 1862, Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) is the head of a pacifist Quaker family consisting of his wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), son Josh (Anthony Perkins), daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) and youngest son Little Jess (Richard Eyer). They live on a farm, attend the local Quaker place of worship, and maintain friendly relations with neighbour Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton) and his son Gard (Peter Mark Richman), a Union soldier romantically pursuing Mattie during his furloughs.

Eliza is the more strict parent, while Jess tries to navigate pathways between religious beliefs and pragmatic day-to-day life. The couple gently clash over Jess's desire to buy an organ, and how much leeway to allow Mattie in her budding romance with Gard. Meanwhile the turmoil of the Civil War is getting closer, and Josh has to decide if taking up arms is ever a good thing.

An adaptation of a 1945 novel by Jessamyn West, Friendly Persuasion is a 137 minute travelogue introducing Quaker culture through a sympathetic lens. Michael Wilson (uncredited due to being blacklisted) wrote the screenplay, and William Wyler directs with an emphasis on rich colours, quaint settings, elegant rural scenery, and no intention of creating too much conflict.

Many scenes are ponderously long, and plot points are few, far-between and repetitive. A day out at the local fair seems to last for a day. Jess and Sam Jordan have an ongoing friendly rivalry about who owns the faster horse, and this eats up an inordinate amount of screen time. Jess and Josh embark on a trip to sell seeds and end-up at the farm of the widow Hudspeth (Marjorie Main) and her three unmarried daughters. They salivate over Josh in a mildly humorous but prolonged and ultimately inconsequential episode. Little Jess tangles repeatedly with the admittedly cute Samantha the Goose.

The Ellsworth Fredericks cinematography and music by Dimitri Tiomkin contribute to a languid sense of picturesque tranquillity.The low key adventures do serve to draw out the characters, Jess emerging as a mischievous renegade compared to his more buttoned-down wife Eliza. Josh and Mattie are both growing into free thinking adults willing to test the rules, their independent spirit nourished by their father. 

The final 40 minutes veer towards some actual drama: Confederate rebels close in on the area, and Josh is torn between Quaker principles of non-violence and the reality of an armed enemy almost at the door. Ultimately Jess, Eliza and Josh each confront mortal danger in their own way, with a broom taking the brunt of their war. Even in the midst of battle, Friendly Persuasion sweeps away any threats to familial serenity. 

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