“Friendly Persuasion” (1956)

Directed by William Wyler
Allied Artists (Warner Bros.)
US, 137 minutes
Starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins

How exciting can a two-hour-plus film about a Quaker family refusing to fight in the Civil War be? The answer is not very.

Friendly Persuasion is about the Birdwell family, headed by Jess, played by Gary Cooper, and Eliza, played by Dorothy McGuire. The plot of the film is that the Birdwells refuse to fight in the war, even though the Confederacy is right on the fringes of their little Indiana town. Incredibly, though, the audience is forced to slog through over an hour-and-three-quarters of just watching this family live. We go through a series of funny little episodes that test their faith, but none of them have anything to do with the Civil War. There is a fair at the town, where all five members of the family have to face their personal vices. Jess takes his eldest son, Josh, played by Anthony Perkins in his first film, to a farm full of women, where the younger daughters throw themselves at him. Sure, this is funny…if we’re watching a 1950’s sitcom. But we’re not. We’re watching a film made by one of Hollywood’s esteemed directors.

This horrifically boring story only allows Wyler to flex his muscles for a half-an-hour, when the Confederacy finally arrives. Josh wants to fight, but everyone wants to stay home and be pacifists. However, Jess is finally forced to do something when their horse returns without Josh riding it. When he leaves, the ‘Rebels’ arrive at the home, where Eliza thinks the best thing to do is offer them a hot meal. Then, the only thing that forces her to strike them is when one attacks the family’s beloved swan!

Of course, Josh survives the fight and the film ends with them going back to the “meeting house.” So, did the family actually learn anything? Did they learn that they have to make compromises? Who knows. All I know is that I’m happy I’m not the one who shelled out the money for this film.

The only reason to watch this film today is for Anthony Perkins. He gives a pretty good performance for his first film. Everybody else though is doing run-of-the-mill work. Gary Cooper is as good as the story allows him to be, playing a character he refused to do in 1947 because the character wasn’t strong enough. Considering how Jess acts in the film, I can only wonder how weak he was in that early script.  Then, there’s Dorothy McGuire. Don’t get me started on her. I couldn’t stand her pale, cardboard performance in Gentleman’s Agreement and she was only marginally better as the uptight, spiritual center of the family.

Warner released the film on DVD back in 2001, with just an old 1955 TV spot on the film and text screen notes. The transfer looked pretty well, considering the materials. Although, strange flashes of color and scratches pop every now and then.

The Verdict: I’m not a Quaker. Maybe that’s my problem. I need some drama. Give me a reason to watch this family go about their business. I need more than some good acting by Perkins and Cooper to get me through a 137 minute film.

If you’re still interested in seeing the film for yourself, you will have to pay through the nose to get it. Warner has kept it out of print for years, having never updated the packaging to a regular keep-case. The prices on Amazon are amazing, with a used copy going for an average of $35! If TCM ever plays it (I’ve never seen it on there), then you should check it out…otherwise, you’re not missing anything.

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