Jessamyn West's 1946 novel was the inspiration for William Wyler's film about an Indiana Quaker family during the Civil War. Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire star as Jess and Eliza Birdwell, whose austere way of life and commitment to pacifism are tested by the encroachments of mainstream society and the violence of war. Each member of the family has a unique test to face. Jess' love of buggy racing and music bring him into conflict not only with the Quaker elders but with his headstrong wife. Eliza, who is a Quaker minister, is terrified not only of what people will think but of her own human weakness. The oldest son, Josh (Anthony Perkins) is not certain whether his commitment to pacifism is sincere or whether he is just afraid to fight. Maddie, the grown daughter, finds herself in love with a Union officer, whose ways are not the ways of the Quakers. Even the youngest, Little Jess, has his conflict with his mother's pet goose, with whom he absolutely does not want to get along.
The film is fraught with humor which lends poignancy to the serious questions the characters must face. What I always liked the best was the often playful, sometimes stormy but always loving relationship of the parents, Jess and Eliza. Their commitment to each other and to the proper raising of their children were aspects of life once taken for granted but now regarded as high virtue, and inspiring to watch. All of this is expressed in the theme song which Pat Boone croons at the beginning of film. (Yes, it is pure 1950's sentimentality but sweet.)
Thee is mine, though I don't know many words of praiseSteve Greydanus has some insightful reflections on Friendly Persuasion:
Thee pleasures me in a hundred ways
Put on your bonnet, your cape, and your glove
And come with me, for thee I love.
I agree. The film explores the fact that in a time of crisis, not even the most committed Christian knows for certain how they will respond when their principles are tested. Humility, and trust in God rather than in self, are necessary before stepping into the fray.
Friendly Persuasion, William Wyler’s popular adaptation of Jessamyn West’s tales of Quaker life, is a warm, gently satiric portrait of a family of the "Friendly Persuasion" living in the shadow of the Civil War. Gary Cooper plays Jess Birdwell, a less than entirely devout Quaker farmer whose pious wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) is a minister at their local "meeting house."
Scenes of silent, unstructured Quaker meetings are contrasted without comment or judgment to the boisterous singing of the local Methodist church, but — despite Eliza’s best efforts — the film is largely an account of the compromises the Birdwells are and aren’t willing to make. Their principles are repeatedly put to the test, at the local fair, on the Sunday morning ride to the meeting house as a smug neighbor blows past Jess’s slow horse every week, and so on. One of the best vignettes concerns an impasse between Jess and Eliza over the shocking purchase of an organ, and the delightful way the conflict is finally resolved.
The film’s main weakness is the way it handles the theme that most interested the director, the conflict between Quaker pacifism and nonviolence and the practical necessities of wartime. Here the film becomes muddled, and does justice neither to Quakerism nor to just-war principles. A truly thoughtful Hollywood look at religious nonviolence would have to wait until Peter Weir’s Witness, starring Harrison Ford.
In spite of this, Friendly Persuasion’s warm affection for its subjects makes it worthwhile viewing.