Friday, November 24, 2006

Friendly Persuasion, d. Wyler 1956

After being intrigued by a review by Tim over at Xanadu I moved Friendly Persuasion a bit further up into my Netflix Queue. It finally came to the top, I watched it last week and I loved it. It's a film that will stick with me for a long time.

Like Tim, I was taken back by the first scence of the film. A goose prances around to lighthearted music while a young Amish child gives a voiceover about how much he hates the goose. Soon, the goose bites the child in the back of the leg and of course the child seeks out revenge on the goose. I was taken back by the tone of the scene and the music that accompinied it, but figured I may as well stick with the film. Two hours later I was looking back at the movie and questioning if one had trouble living a pacifistic lifestyle even back in civil war times, how can one try to go about living such a lifestyle now?

Friendly Persuasion tells the story of a Amish family in Southern Indiana at the time of the civil war. The family is devout in their faith and then is faced with challenges to their beliefs in pacifism when the Civil War reaches close to their farm, and then even more so when their son decides that he must fight on the side of the North.

The scene with the goose I mentioned earlier along with many others throoughout the first hour of the film point towards the more violent conflict of the civil war ahead. Whether it be a buggy race on the way to meeting, the chasing of the goose, a wrestling match at a state fair, or the purchase of an organ for a house who does not even believe in music in their religious meetings, the scenes seem incidental or inconsequential at the time. But when viewed as part of the larger whole of the movie it seems obvious that Wyler was showing us each different conflict, and their subsequent effect on the family as small act of violence. When the mother (Dorothy Maguire) reads the Bible to her son and prays asks him to pray about his decision the morning before he sets off to fight, it is the clearly the harshest confict and challenge to their faith the family had to deal with. But, it can also in hinsight be seen coming.

Gary Cooper plays the father, Jess, and has an extremely powerful scene when he is searching for his son and faced with teh opportunity to kill a confederate soldier. The Mother is faced with teh rebel yell of Confederate soldiers while her husband is gone and faces a greater challenge than she could have imagined, which also puts the first scene of the film in better perspective. And let's not forget the daughter who has fallen madly in love with a soldier fighting for the North from their community of faith.

In the end, the family is not ever going to be the same after all these events. And at once their is the feeling that Wyler is presenting the neccesisity of a pacifistic life and the impossibility of one and 50 years after it's initial release and in our current political climate, the film truly remains timeless. Not only are the questions posed pertinent today, the performances (by Cooper and Maguire especially) and comic moments still work well and do not feel dated at all.


Kevin said...

According to the book, the family is Quaker, not Amish.

The book was on Indy's "one book, one city" list a few years ago. It was the first book selected I think. I read the book but haven't seen the movie yet. When reading the book, I found myself bored at first, then ended up enjoying it.

scot said...

You are right. I don't know why I wrote amish. Posting in a rush I guess.

The film was sorta the same way, the first half hour or so I was just shrugging unsure of where it was going, then I really started to enjoy it.

Tim said...

Glad you decided to watch the film. Indeed, Wyler was one of Hollywood's greatest craftsmen although one of its most often ignored (along with Michael Curtiz and Frank Borzage), probably because he appears to lack a definitive visual style. Nevertheless, Friendly Persuasion is, I find, cinema's greatest meditation on the impossibility of pacifism, and I really like what you said about how the scenes culminate with the literal violence of the Civil War.

If you haven't seen other Wyler films, his masterpieces Dodsworth and The Best Years of Our Lives are great places to start. I really wish you could see Counsellor at Law, which is also an absolute gem, but it's unfortunately unavailable on DVD.

scot said...

I got Best Years of Our Lives and Dodsworth both somewhere in my queue. I shoulda moved em up instead of being saddled with Bergman this weekend.

Did Curtiz do a few noirs, is that why I recognize his name? I will need to check out him and Borzage for sure.

Tim said...

Curtiz' most famous noirish film is Mildred Pierce, which is a really kooky, baroque, incestuous knockout of a film (with Joan Crawford). It's worth checking out.

Unfortunately, none of Borzage's films are currently available on DVD (much like Ophuls' Hollywood films) in Region 1 (if anywhere). Man's Castle, Mortal Storm, and Moonrise are all masterpieces.