Monday, May 25, 2009
Friendly Persuasion - 1956
On this Memorial Day here in the US, we turn to a unique kind of war movie.
“Friendly Persuasion” (1956) shows the face of war, in the face of the quest for peace. It gently manages to be an in-your-face kind of movie. Last year our Memorial Day post discussed Hollywood’s treatment of the American Civil War on this day when so many World War II movies are shown on television (see here). Today we return again to the Civil War, to have an about-face look at Hollywood’s version of war. It was the Civil War, after all, that gave us Memorial Day.
The plot of the movie is taken from Jessamyn West’s “The Friendly Persuasion”, a novel made up of a collection of vignettes or short stories about one Quaker family in Indiana around the time of the Civil War, and afterward. The characters actually age quite a bit as individual scenes from a span of decades are depicted. At the heart of the book is the strong marriage between two compatible if very different individuals, Jess and Eliza Birdwell. Played by Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire in the film, the actors seem to capture really pretty much how the characters are described in the book.
One chapter in the book that is not depicted in the movie is called “The Vase” and illustrates the flow of their marriage through the years bumping along against their individual personalities, told through a vase Eliza has made from an old broken glass oil lamp chimney. It covers everything from the deeply personal sorrow of failing to be understood, to the most joyful gratitude of shared experience in such deft strokes that it’s no wonder that it’s not in the movie because I don’t think anything this subtle and deep could be transferred to screen. It’s not visual; it’s ethereal, and it is one of the most lovely pieces of writing I’ve ever read.
I refer to the book because in descriptions I’ve read of the movie many seem to fault director William Wyler for somehow sugarcoating the pacifist Quaker experience to produce a blithe family film, or somehow failing to resolve the quandary between fighting for one’s beliefs and very freedom, and refusing to fight from principle. I would suggest Wyler finds no solution because there is no solution.
Wyler is neither preaching nor damning; he’s telling a story. Even the author of the novel, a Quaker herself, does not preach or damn. She just tells a story. Interestingly, the warlike expressions of the Quaker couple’s teenage son who longs to fight are much stronger in the book. In the movie, Anthony Perkins is very moving as the young man torn between his Quaker upbringing and his desire to be a soldier. He is torn and anguished, taking a stand against his parents and ultimately joining the fight. In the novel, he speaks much more harshly to his mother, throwing the Bible right back in her face with the comment,
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’…my town is Vernon. The Governor said to defend it. My body is my country’s.”
“Thy soul, son, is God’s,” she counters. They debate not just about his being too young to fight, or that he might get hurt, but on the very nature of man’s responsibility to his fellow man versus is responsibility to obeying the sixth commandment. It might look more like teenage rebellion in the movie, but the issues discussed in the book cut to the core of what has troubled human beings for thousands of years.
When finally faced with the enemy, the novel describes the boy’s mindset in wonderful clarity about killing, “My God, Josh thought or prayed -- he didn’t know which -- I hope it’s no boy nor old man. I hope it’s some hard slave-driving bugger.” Josh needs his enemy to be evil. The thought of killing somebody just like him makes him sick.
Part of the impetus of going to war is needing to be the hero. We must imagine our enemy as evil, or we do not have the drive necessary to fight. If we do not believe our cause is right, we cannot defend it, and if we are right, our enemy must be wrong. The commitment it takes to lose our lives depends on that simple logic.
Out of this logic we created propaganda posters in World War II showing the enemy, usually Japanese, with hideously exaggerated features to depict them as monster-like. Perhaps if we had a poster hanging up in the factory break room of a happy Japanese family featuring mother, father and children sitting down to breakfast, we might have wondered why we were fighting. Propaganda is so insidious because it exploits this human quality.
President Abraham Lincoln once remarked to author Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” inflamed the abolitionist movement in the North, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote that book that started this great war.” For many, her book about evil slave masters was their propaganda poster.
Not that Josh needs a book or a poster to tell him slavery is wrong. He has two examples leading him to that conclusion. First, the longstanding Quaker conviction against slavery upheld by his family for generations. Secondly, the presence of Enoch, their hired hand.
Enoch, played by Joel Fluellen, has escaped slavery in the South and lost his family. When their town is threatened by a Confederate raid, Enoch, like Josh, joins the Home Guard. Unlike Josh, Enoch fights less for altruistic reasons; simply because if he is caught, he will either be dragged back into slavery, or murdered. Fighting for one’s beliefs is sometimes difficult. Fighting for one’s life makes things pretty clear cut.
William Wyler does not expend much on Enoch’s story. It needs no explanation. He focuses on the Birdwell family’s constant tightrope walk of maintaining their convictions and their lifestyle in a world fast changing around them. Every scene, even the silly and heartwarming, builds up to the final horrific struggle of what to do if people from the “other side” want to kill you.
We see challenges to the Quaker family’s convictions all along the way, large and small. A traveling salesman offers Jess Birdwell, played by Gary Cooper, temptation in the form of a musical instrument. He sells Cooper an organ, and sensitively tries to buck the Quaker man’s faith that dispels the frivolity of music.
“I want you to know, sir, I honor your prejudices…uh, convictions.” There are several such elbow-in-the-ribs jibes about the Quakers, and I sometimes wonder if members of the Society of Friends feel resentment at being treated in Hollywood films as a cross between somewhat naïve plaster saints (no pun intended regarding a religion which does not employ icons), and rather rigid fanatics. “Friendly Persuasion” is most remarkable at showing that the plaster saints and rigid fanatics are found equally among the non-Quaker community, and shows the Birdwell family as human, with faults and with quirks.
Richard Eyer plays their son Little Jess, a small boy with Great Big Talent, who is one of most natural child actors of the day. With Wyler’s legendary difficulties communicating what he wanted from grown up actors, one wonders how he got such a terrific performance out of Master Eyer. Eyer is as rambunctious as any little boy, whether in mortal combat with Samantha, his mother’s pet goose, or foiling the shell game of a county fair huckster. One of his funniest moments is when, ants in his pants, he shouts out loud in the silent prayer session of the Quaker service “GOD IS LOVE!” and the mixture of self-satisfied pride and sheepishness crosses his face as he tries to crawl back into a hole after doing so.
Phyllis Love is their teenage daughter Mattie, in love with the neighbor’s son who is a soldier, and not a Quaker. This scenario could have been explored more as a real threat to their family’s unity and identity as Quakers, but what is touched upon, and very sweetly, is a young girl’s trying to grow up and fit in with a big world outside her family farm. Miss Love was actually about 30 years old when she appeared in this film, only some nine years younger than Dorothy McGuire who played her mother, yet she plays young very well. She is gawky and awkward, daring to dance with her young man at the county fair, daring to kiss him in the attic over the keyboard of the banished sin-tempting organ, yet hesitant to appear before him in bare feet.
Mattie is working on a cross-stitch in her room on which is embroidered “God Is Love”, her younger brother’s attention-getter slogan. Later on in the film, it is finished and hangs a bit crookedly on the wall. After her first shared declaration of love between her and her beau, after she had stood upon his soldier’s boots in her bare feet to more easily reach up to kiss him, she sprawls on her bed contentedly and nudges the framed “God Is Love” to set it straight, swinging her naked foot off the edge of her bed. A sublime moment, and perhaps Wyler cannot communicate easily with his actors because some things are just beyond words.
The three Birdwell children play well against each other, poke each other and tease each other with a naturalness that does not look rehearsed. Anthony Perkins is troubled not only by war, but bedeviled by the man-crazy Hudspeth girls and their mother, wonderfully played by Marjorie Main. Perkins’ look of horror at his father when it is suggested they stay the night among these Amazons is priceless. It’s a shame he didn’t do more comedy.
Gary Cooper’s range as a comic actor is displayed with something so simple as his repeated careful attempts to say the name “Hudspeth”. Cooper plays the gamut here, he is Longfellow Deeds, John Doe, and Marshall Will Kane all rolled into one. The war causes him just as much crisis of conscience as his son, but Cooper is not a boy who can easily rebel. He sees consequences his son does not. His son shoots wildly, without aiming, at strangers. Cooper’s best friend dies in his arms.
Dorothy McGuire plays Eliza, in one of her best roles and demonstrates once again her versatility and impeccable instinct for drawing out a character. Unlike other prim movie Quaker wives like Gail Russell (“Angel and the Badman” - 1947) and Grace Kelly of “High Noon” - 1952 (who was Wyler’s first choice for this part), Dorothy McGuire strikes a cord as honest and many-layered, without any kind of posturing. Perhaps because author Jessamyn West did not write the character Eliza as anything but real, and warm, and independent, and intelligent, and somewhat hardheaded.
In the movie, Miss McGuire’s most memorable scene involves her defense of Samantha, her pet goose. (See here for Moira Finnie’s excellent review of “Friendly Persuasion”, but I still disagree with the conjecture that there was too much of Samantha in movie. I still think Samantha should have won an Oscar. And the Nobel Prize and perhaps the Croix de Guerre.)
Eliza, beyond being the heart and conscience of her family, the maker of pies, and the tucker-in of shirttails, is also a minister in their Quaker community. Possibly more could have been explored in the movie as well on this, that the Quakers were among the first to establish equality between men and women. Dorothy McGuire’s Eliza is a wonderful example of feminine intelligence and independence of spirit. She is also a woman who displays a passion for her husband that is most ardent and very human, and unlike what other virginal movie Quaker ladies seem to have had written into their roles. The romance and intimated sexual pleasure between the long-married characters of Cooper and McGuire is another testament to the fine acting instinct and knowledge of character they both learned over their careers.
However, being a Quaker minister puts Eliza square up against the debate about The War. She debates with her son and husband, prays and argues. But when the Confederate raiders of Brigadier General John H. Morgan cross into Indiana and overrun their farm, she displays both her Quaker resistance to fight, and her human frailty in forgetting her beliefs. This pacifist Quaker minister nearly clubs a man to death because he is about to kill and eat her beloved pet goose, Samantha.
It is one of the funniest moment in the film, and Wyler is perhaps taken to task for it too much by those who suggest that the scene either shows McGuire’s character as being hypocritical, or else that it is a watered down gesture demonstrating that pacifism is illogical and useless in the face of danger.
To be sure, if it had been McGuire’s daughter that had been taken by the Confederate soldier and not the family pet, we would have had a scene more serious and more challenging to her Quaker pacifism. She would have still committed violence against the soldier. Obviously, if one is willing to defend one’s pet, one is surely going to risk all to save a daughter.
The real difference would have been after the daughter had been saved from either being killed or raped by the soldier. Would we see the embarrassment and shame on Eliza’s face after whacking the Rebel on the head with a broom? Or would we see the intense satisfaction of having won the fight, that blood-thirst feeling of justification and victory?
That would have been an interesting scene. But that wasn’t the story of the Birdwell family of the novel, nor would it have solved the conundrum of being a pacifist during wartime.
The raid by the Confederates into Southern Indiana was an actual event. However, the movie is set in 1862, and the raid occurred the following year. That year of 1863 the South famously took the war into Northern territory, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and here in Indiana.
Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan was a daring Confederate cavalry leader who brought around two thousand soldiers across the Ohio River, pretty much on his own initiative as his orders brought him into northern Kentucky only. They spent several days raiding supplies and horses from civilians like the Birdwells, a very common military activity during that war done by both Union and Confederate armies.
A battle eventually occurred when Union forces finally caught up with Morgan’s Raiders, which, though not destroying railroads or infrastructure or anything of what might be called militarily strategic, still gave a huge fright to civilians in Southern Indiana and made many young men, like young Josh Birdwell, ready to do something which had never occurred to them before -- become soldiers. Moreover, the stripping of farms of crops and livestock was devastating to those families who had worked for a year to fill that corn crib or that smokehouse, or that shelf of preserves. What happened next after the raiding soldiers left and everything was quiet, was that they starved. Perhaps that could have been illustrated better in the film as well.
Morgan himself escaped immediate capture, but was eventually killed later in the war. Here is a view of the equestrian monument of John H. Morgan in his home state of Kentucky, a state which did not secede from the Union in a war which clearly brought a crisis of conscience to just about everybody, Quaker or not.
“Friendly Persuasion” is a film that is sometimes very funny, at other times dramatic, but always showing the whimsical side of human nature and human circumstances. It should be considered a homefront movie about a war where the homefront was for some people in this country, especially South but sometimes North, also a battlefield.
The movie ends with a happier scene of amazing compromise. The sin-tempting organ is now allowed in the front room. The daughter is allowed to ride in the buggy of her non-Quaker beau. Gary Cooper jokingly refers to both his son, wounded in battle, and his Rebel-clubbing wife as “veterans.” For these last few moments of film, we abandon the crisis, and rest our conscience.
Permit me a personal note. I wrote this essay yesterday, Sunday. The church service I attended in the morning included the passage from 1 John 4:16 as part of the second reading, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” The service ended with “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. I had to smile at the coincidence of Little Jess’ favorite Bible quote, and one of the most famous anthems to come out of the Civil War.
Afterward, I went down the street to the cemetery to visit my World War II veteran father’s grave and noted, as I knew there would be, an American flag planted by the plaque in the ground noting his rank and branch of service, put there by a local veterans organization. I pulled away clumps of clover encroaching the plaque and threatening to cover his name.
On the way to church, at only about half a mile from my house, a family of Canada geese had just finished crossing the road. The mother goose led the way, with that regal bearing Dorothy McGuire’s Eliza so admired in Samantha, and the papa brought up the rear, nudging the stragglers among their children who bumped into each other as they followed their mother.
This is why I love William Wyler’s attention to the whimsical aspects of life. They’re so simple and so true.
Note: The portrait of Brig. Gen. John H. Morgan and of his equestrian statue are from the Library of Congress. The sketch of Morgan’s raid is from Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion originally published in 1866. For more on Morgan’s Raid, have a look at this website on Ohio history, and here at Civil War Home.