(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)
(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)
SW SCORE: 32
3 out of 5 🐙
The subject of this story is very serious and a matter of hundreds of thousands of lives and deaths. But the title belies a gentler theme. Somehow, the film does both. I am not sure if both are done well, but it’s a noble effort.
Friendly Persuasion follows the Birdwell Quaker family in the north on the eve of the civil war. Quakers, as you may or may not know, are pacifists and non-violent by creed. This does not make them a very likely source for Union troops. But this is the central dilemma of the film. Jess (Gary Cooper), the patriarch of the family, is a firm believer in non-violence. Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), the matriarch, enlivens the screen with her buoyant joy and strong conviction. She is the most powerful presence on screen. It’s not unusual to see younger people drift further from their parents’ traditions.
Word of the war reaches the family farm and sets the story in motion. Jess remains firm in his pacifist principles, but the younger generation, embodied by his son Josh (Anthony Perkins), is not so sure. It’s fairly blatant foreshadowing of the upcoming conflict. But the tone is so light and there is so much silly humor that it is as if the family and their friends don’t see the storm is coming. Or they think it will not be as violent as predicted. In a way, that’s exactly how most of the United States felts at the beginning of the Civil War. Most people felt the war would be over very quickly.
Here’s the vibe before things get real:
(1) “She’s a snake on stilts!”
(2) “What’s a toilet-y?” “Thee doesn’t know about it because thee doesn’t wash.”
(3) “Doest thee think I’m pretty?” “Well…thee’s not ugly.” “I guess thee’s pretty – for a girl.”
(4) “If thee talked to the almighty as often as you talked to that horse, thee might stand closer in the light.”
(5) There is a gluttonous goose that is constantly enraging the young son in the family and other miscellaneous antics and he provides more comic relief in an already light show.
But then Purdy, a Quaker who is a contemporary of Jess, arrives on his way to join the Union army. Despite his choice being contrary to his religion, he looks carefree. Jess is decidedly uncomfortable, but Josh asks Purdy if he is afraid. Purdy says he is not and replies:
“Are you afraid to fight?”
And Josh replies: “I don’t know.”
It’s one of the first moments that start the shift from their light, carefree existence, to an existence overshadowed by the cloud of the oncoming conflict. Josh, in a decision that should surprise no movie viewer, decides to join the war. This movie was released in 1956 so it seems weird to give the above spoiler alert and the next one I am about to give. But I guess I’m militant when it comes to spoiler alerts. I don’t care how old the movie is. Somebody might read this review. Ok, the chances of someone reading my reviews are pretty slim. But still, I don’t want to ruin any surprises.
2nd spoiler alert: This shouldn’t be much of a surprise either, but Josh, a lifelong Quaker, kills someone in combat and is completely devastated by his actions. Jess, also forced into combat, sticks to his principles and when faced with the opportunity to kill a man, a man who just tried to kill him, he spares his life.
My feeling about the whole effort is that the juxtaposition of the two very different tones, before and after the family’s peaceful life has been shattered, feels like too much of a tonal shift. It feels awkwardly uneven and deadens the impact of the crushing effects of violence on peaceful people.
(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.
(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)
(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so
(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)