It may be that when anti-statist individualists (e.g. libertarians and especially objectivists) think of Gary Cooper’s acting career they tend to think of The Fountainhead. This might be understandable but it alone isn’t really a representative sample of Cooper’s career which spanned several decades from the silent era into the 1960’s. If one adds Friendly Persuasion to the mix, as another great example of Cooper in a fine individualist role, one that is particularly relevant now with America’s increasing military involvement overseas, a better picture emerges.
William Wyler produced and directed this fine film production of Jessamyn West’s novel with screenplay by Michael Wilson (originally commissioned by Wyler’s Liberty Films partner Frank Capra) about Quakers during the Civil War. Jess (Gary Cooper) and Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) Birdwell are the parents of a Quaker family of five. Jess is a farmer, nurseryman and trader. Eliza is both a farmer’s wife and a preacher for a local group of “Friends.” The eldest son Josh (Anthony Perkins, in his breakthrough role) is torn over whether he should become involved in the strife of the War Between the States. Daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) is in love with “Gard” Jordan (Peter Mark Richman), a neighbor and soldier in the Union army. The youngest boy, Little Jess (Richard Eyer), begins with a short narration introducing the last “member” of the family -- his mother’s pet goose: Samantha.
From the opening credits, with the movie’s warmly beautiful theme music “Thee I Love” sung by Pat Boone, the musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin always helps to accentuate the emotional authenticity of the film. After a rivalrous journey to the meeting house on first day (Jess races with his friend, neighbor and Gard’s farther: Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton)), the meeting house of friends is addressed by a Union Major who exhorts the Quaker men to join the Union army. He has little success at the meeting, but does evoke some interesting sentiments from the men of the group.
Rural life of the period is displayed at the Jennings County fair, to which Jess brings his family. I suspect that the portrayal of the mid-19th century County fair is accurate. As I remember my last trip to a county fair, they don’t seem to have really changed that much in 150 years. When Jess and Josh venture out on a trading trip, the meeting with the Widow Hudspeth (Marjorie Main) and her girls is also very amusing.
All the period pieces in the film enhance this great movie, but the substantial theme of this film is that of non-violence and its relation to the individual conscience. It shares that issue with High Noon, another classic showcasing Grace Kelly as the Marshall’s (Gary Cooper again) new Quaker wife who faces similar dilemmas. Friendly Persuasion shares both the period and war issue with Shenandoah, a classic which stars Jimmy Stewart as a man who resists involvement in the War Between the States. But neither of these other films has the particularly fine mixture of the serious issues of war and conscience with the light heart that Friendly Persuasion shows.
There are few movies which address the issues of conscience as well as Friendly Persuasion. Conviction permeates the situations, from Josh Birdwell’s confession that he doesn’t know whether he is afraid to fight, to his father’s statement: “I'm just his father, Eliza, not his conscience. A man's life ain't worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”
Friendly Persuasion has charm, a charm that America also once had and probably could have again if most Americans had the common sense of the characters in this movie. If most Americans still had the consistent high regard for individual conscience and the great value placed on each human life that is expressed by most characters in this movie, rather than believing that they know what is best for others to do (like Brother Purdy in the film), perhaps that American charm would return. You can get a glimpse of what was and what might be again, and perhaps one of the deciding issues, by watching this fine movie.