Unrated. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.
Our content rating (0-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God…
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…
Matthew 5:9, 38-39
William Wyler’s 1956 adaptation of Jessamyn West’s 1945 novel is an enjoyable family movie that does more than just entertain. Starring Gary Cooper as Quaker farmer Jess Birdwell, the hero is quite a contrast to Marshall Will Kane, whom the actor portrayed four years earlier in High Noon. Indeed, the actor had doubts about taking the part, but was persuaded to do so (in a friendly way, I trust). The story deals with the ethical dilemma that faced all Quakers during the Civil War: they were opposed to slavery, but should they participate in the war to abolish it, thus violating their pacifist principles? The dilemma takes on a sense of urgency because the Birdwells live in southern Indiana, and there are reports that Morgan’s Raiders, a band of over 2400 Confederates, are headed their way.
It is 1862, and in the little Quaker community Jess Birdwell’s wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) is a principle leader of the small congregation. Jess himself is less pious. He looks forward to driving the family to church each Sunday, not just to attend the quite service, but so he can race his buggy against that of Methodist neighbor Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton), much to the consternation of Eliza. The Birdwells have three children, Josh (Anthony Perkins), Mattie (Phyllis Love), and little Jess (Richard Eyer). The family also has a goose named Samantha that seems to have it in for little Jess, thus providing several moments of humor.
Early on we see a Union officer come to the Quaker meetinghouse and plead with the men to join the Union Army in its fight against slavery. Teenaged Josh is torn between his pacifist upbringing and his desire to do what he now sees his duty. Eliza is disturbed at the thought that their son might become a soldier. When she urges Jess to do something, he replies, “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.” Thus another important theme is brought in, that of integrity, of following one’s conscience. The title captures well the Quaker ethic that is opposed to coercion of any kind—and as we see in the film, even to coercing one’s child to accept the ethic of “friendly persuasion.”
Another scene reminds me of Jesus’ Parableof the Obedient and Disobedient Sons (This comes to mind because I am now studying Matthew 21:23-32, the Lectionary Gospel Lesson for the last Sunday in September, 2014)). Instead of two sons in the parable, one who refuses his father’s request, but then does it, and the other who says yes, but does not do his father’s bidding, it is two church members, Jess and a church elder named Purdy. When news of Southern troops reaches the community, the Quakers’ ethic of “friendly persuasion” is heatedly discussed and debated right in church. Eliza adheres to Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” belief. Purdy boldly proclaims that he also will stand by the tenants of their beliefs. Jess has remained silent during the discussion, so when he is asked what he would do if the Confederate raiders threaten their farms, Jess admits that he does not know for sure. Purdy is so upset by this that he condemns Jess for his lack of commitment.
Later, when a nearby settlement is torched by the Southern raiders, son Josh does join with a party in pursuit of the raiders. So does Purdy, upset by his enemies’ ruthless tactics. He now apparently has forgotten all about his loud affirmation of nonviolence and his condemnation of Jess and others who do not live by it. Jess also takes up his hunting rifle, upset when his best friend Sam is shot by a Rebel. It is quite a tense moment when Jess catches up with and struggles with the shooter.
Adding to the dramatics is the lovely score by veteran Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin, whose original song (with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) “Friendly Persuasion (Thee I Love)” was sung by Pat Boone in the opening and closing credits and became a major hit. Also of interest is the fact that the name of the screenwriter did not appear in the credits, even though it was nominated for an Oscar. The reason for this was Michael Wilson had such integrity that he refused to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, so they proclaimed him to be an “unfriendly witness,” which led to his being blacklisted. Even though he had won an Oscar for co-writing A Place in the Sun in 1952, he could not find work in Hollywood, at least under his own name. In copies of the film made after 1996 Wilson’s name was restored to the credits.
Those looking for a family film with no elements unfit for children, and yet which raises the ethical issues of participating in war and following one’s conscience, need look no further.