[1956] Friendly Persuasion

Without a whimper some movies – wager half or more of the 546 movies nominated so far for Best Picture – fall out of the consensus consciousness. Musicals, memorable, often last longer than say, a period piece written contemporaneously and are destined to be stuck there. Old films that strike a memorable dent in their medium, say Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey, continue so through essayists who all have a new take on it (they don’t) and families who insist they know film (more likely) needing to pass it on to their sons and daughters, lest the lore get lost. Other films, period pieces about period pieces, are destined to be buried within their own time, with neither sharp pen nor advocate to fight for it.

If Friendly Persuasion has yet to cross into the national conversation, it is unlikely to ever. Ask anyone what movie won Best Picture in 1956, let alone the other four films nominated; some might remember or guess Around the World in 80 Days. Others would guess Gigi. (Does it matter?) Counter: only the most dedicated film buff can name all 500-plus films at any given time, and even then, it is unlikely that this film comes to mind. The why is obvious, a more interesting question is the why not this one?

Friendly Persuasion is antidramatically left off best-of lists, and the web barely has a criticism of it, save for a few “Gary Cooper, listless as ever…” hot takes. Even its Wiki has gaps in its plot summary. It was neither William Wyler nor Michael Wilson’s best known or most accredited work and its permanence did not aggrandize during a period of consistent blacklisting. Despite seven nominations, it won zero. Is this what happens to a film that comes up nil – Oscar graveyard? How long after its rollover did the public lose contemporary, then historical interest in Friendly Persuasion? It is now over 60 years old and has not quite held up; we are less religious and less interested in the combination of a now-historical film about a historical age then and this combination with puritanism has not and will not continue to stand the test of Public time.

This film is, however, Good, and can flutter onto best-of spiritual film. It is at least allegorically religious in nature, but it represents the off-beat Quaker sect agnostically.  A puritanical family goes about its business among the backdrop of the Civil War; it neither treads near the racial edges upon which this war was fought nor condemns one side for righteousness or the other for rightful indignation. The Birdwell family keep to themselves and their own close congregation and they speak as though divinity from God had blessed them with a particular vocal quirk and are now unable to say you or yours and instead must say thee and thou. This is a little distracting to the reader, whose normal ear will not be used to hearing scripture-speak in normal conversation, but it is also memorable. At least for a while.

The film has a third layer, buried below the surface, that focuses on a citizen’s duty to country, or in Friendly Persuasion‘s case, faction. Against the hierarchical themes of the film, the war aspect seems first on the Importance scale, but last on the amount of screen time devoted to it. The strange pacing contradicts this movie’s ultimate message: it is too hard to be certain about anything, but it is important to do what is right. This is a noble, human truth.

Around the World in 80 Days won in 1956 with an adapted screenplay from Jules Verne’s work of the same name. People around the globe have been reading this book for, now over 140 years, and its lore is triumphant and global. People have been watching the film for, now over 60 years, and its reach is hampered only by the technology, though there’s something to be said for presenting Human without fanfare. This year was a tough year – James Dean’s third and final film (Giant), family classic The King & I, and Biblical epic The Ten Commandments crowded out an otherwise warm and thoughtful Friendly Persuasion.

 

 

 

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