In 1957, William Wyler's comedy-drama FRIENDLY PERSUASION won the Palm d'Or, one of those inexplicable lapses of judgement that help to demonstrate the true worthlessness of movie awards. (That it beat out Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL only helps to make this point starker still.) It's a film that I'm fascinated with in large part because of my undying love of its star, Gary Cooper, but the film itself is a muddled mess. It is of interest today to Cooper fans like myself, but in most other respects it has aged poorly. For its director, it is a long, long way from the triumph of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES in 1946.
Watching it again recently (because it was included in a new set of Cooper films I got for Christmas), I'm struck by the film's lack of a point-of-view. The film tells the story of the Birdwell family, a 1800s Indiana Quaker clan led by a stern-if-loving mother, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) and a taciturn-if-mischievous father, Jess, played by Cooper. They have three children, the eldest of which is a son, Josh (Anthony Perkins) who longs to go fight in the Civil War. Eventually, the war comes to Indiana and the Birdwells have to decide what to do.
I use the word "eventually" advisedly because FRIENDLY PERSUASION takes a long leisurely amble to get to its central conflict. The war doesn't come home to the Birdwells until the final thirty minutes of the film, which means that the better part of an hour and a half is spent focusing on things like the light comedy of Cooper's attempt to get to church faster than his neighbor and an uninvolving romance for the Birdwells' teenaged daughter. These scenes are meant to establish the Quaker idyll that will soon (or eventually) be shattered by the war.
Here's the problem, though: even in these scenes of gentle pastoral comedy, Wyler and his writer Michael Wilson (whose name was taken off the picture after he was blacklisted) struggle to figure out how to present the Birdwells. The problem, as one might expect, is religious. Wyler and Wilson just don't know what to do with Quakerism. For example, one subplot involves Jess buying an organ to play in the house despite Eliza's stern opposition, in keeping with the doctrine of their faith, to the instrument. After much to do, the Birdwells end up keeping the organ, and then have to hide it in the attic to keep it from the eyes of their church. At the end of the film, the organ's been moved downstairs. What are we to make of this? Are the Birdwells ready to tell the church that the doctrine is wrong? If so, why? The truth is that the filmmakers don't care about the religious implications. The whole subplot is one extended joke, a comedy that springs from the bemusement of the filmmakers.
This disconnect carries over to the main conflict of the film once it finally arrives. Perkins wants to go fight, though his reasons for wanting to fight and the way he relates to the conflict don't seem to have any practical foundation in the life the character would have lived up to that point. Likewise, his younger brother regards the war the way a kid who's seen a lot of TV westerns might regard the war. Neither of them seem to have grown up in Quaker house their whole lives.
FRIENDLY PERSUASION is an excellent example of what we mean when we say a film is dated. Though it purports to unfold in 1862, it feels always and in all ways like something created in 1956. It's reflexively pro-war despite the fact it takes place among lifelong pacifists. Perkins goes to war, his little brother is casually bloodthirsty, and Cooper rides off with a gun to save his son -- all against Eliza's wishes and reprimands. By the end of the film, in fact, the concept of pacifism seems like little more than Eliza's annoying pet project. Eventually, she rejects it herself when she beats a rebel soldier for trying to kill the family goose, a moment that is played for laughs. The staunchest pacifist portrayed in the picture is a member of their church who is presented as a self-righteous hypocrite who throws off the constraints of his faith as soon as the Confederates show up.
I've been interested in how religion is portrayed onscreen for a long time, and it's been on my mind even more of late. FRIENDLY PERSUASION is something of a companion piece to 1941's SERGEANT YORK, which also presented Cooper as pacifist during a time of war. YORK is pure war propaganda with even less real respect for the religious ideals of its characters than this film, but at least YORK goes about its task more or less directly. FRIENDLY PERSUASION, on the other hand, wants to have things both ways. It is a film of gentle contempt for its subject.
PS: A quick word about Coop. He's easily the best thing about the picture. While Perkins (in his first leading role in a movie) is too Method for his own good here, Cooper controls the screen with quiet authority. The film came at an odd time in his career when, despite the fact he was in his mid-fifties, he was still resistant to, you know, acting like it. He didn't want to play a father onscreen, and although McGuire was 15 years his junior, by this point he was used to playing with even younger leading ladies. (His next film was the romance LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in which he played opposite Audrey Hepburn, who was 30 years his junior--younger than the actress who played his daughter in FRIENDLY PERSUASION.) He also didn't like that his character wasn't roused to action sooner, and roused to much more forceful action. Despite all of this, the film gives us an unmistakable hint at the kind of performance Cooper could have given in a good movie dealing with the same subject matter. He's not dated so much as he seems to have come from a previous era, which, indeed, he had.