Friendly Persuasion (1956)

poster_-_friendly_persuasion_01I grew up watching movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s so the back-to-back decades typically dominates my favorites list. Two I often associate with growing up are 1965’s Shenandoah and 1956’s Friendly Persuasion, two like-minded stories about families in the Civil War. I watched Shenandoah a few years ago, and it more than held up. ‘Persuasion’ is generally held in higher regard, but it’d been years since I’d seen it. What’s the verdict? Nothing to worry about!

It’s 1862 in southern Indiana, and the Civil War is in its second year of fighting. For the Birdwell family, including patriarch Jess (Gary Coooper) and Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), the War is a sore subject and one generally ignored with the fighting so far away. The Birdwells are a Quaker family, preaching peace and forgiveness, not death and violence. That peaceful mindset and ideal is being put to the test though as the war moves north, including rumors of a Confederate raid marching into Indiana. Jess and Eliza vow to stay free of the fighting, but their oldest son, Joshua (Anthony Perkins), feels conflicted. He believes in the Quaker ideal, but he also feels that he should do what he believes, do his duty, and protect his family, their land and well-being. If the raiding party is legit, that decision may come up quicker than anticipated.

It’s always a mixed bag revisiting movies you haven’t seen in years, movies you grew up loving. Watching ‘Persuasion’ had none of those worries. It’s a classic, standing the test of time. Director William Wyler‘s film earned six Oscar nominations, surprisingly winning exactly zero. I think one of the biggest compliments you can give a movie is that it is simply put…charming. ‘Persuasion’ is a wonderfully acted, well-told story with strong direction, cinematography and soundtrack. It is charming, likable, and enjoyable, all with a story that has a message that doesn’t go overboard or try too hard.

Gary Cooper doesn’t always come to mind as one of my favorites. He doesn’t have that one movie I just out of this world love. As I’ve watched more of his performances though, I’m continually impressed. His Jess Birdwell is a gem, a Quaker father with a wife and 3 kids who strongly believes in his religion…but not obsessively. He likes to play music, likes to race his horse to church, and isn’t above tweaking a rule here and there. McGuire as his wife, Eliza, is the polar opposite. She’s rigid in her beliefs as a Quaker minister and intends to live by those beliefs. Somewhere in between, they’re perfect together as a very believable couple. Two pros nailing their lead performances.

In just his second film role, Perkins is a strong supporting player as Joshua, the 17/18(?) year old Birdwell son. He’s trying to grow up, find himself, discover who he is, all amidst one of the most turbulent times in American history. Quiet, understated and a little twitchy at times, it’s an excellent part. Phyllis Love rises above a limiting part as Mattie, the Birdwells’ daughter and middle child, love struck by a young Union officer, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), from the area. One of the more prolific child actors working in the 1950’s, 11-year old Richard Eyer is a scene-stealer as Little Jess, the youngest Birdwell child, alway questioning, always a bit of trouble and a frequent target of the family’s goose’s attacks. Three strong parts to round out the Birdwells.

Also look for Robert Middleton as Sam Jordan, the Birdwells’ Methodist neighbor and Jess’ close friend and a bit of a friendly rivalry, especially when it comes to horse races. Joel Fluellen also has a memorable, if smallish, part as Enoch, an escaped slave who works on the Birdwells’ farm.

If ‘Persuasion’ has a weakness, I’d say it concerns the running time, a somewhat leisurely 139 minutes. An episodic storyline early on introduces the family, the setting and some other necessary background. A trip to the county fair sets the stage for much of what we’re to see, but some other coming ventures wander a little bit too much. The biggest culprit is Jess and Joshua on the road visiting a widower’s farm and her three man-starved daughters. A little much, a little overdone in the comedy department.