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Friendly Persuasion (1956 film)

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Friendly Persuasion
Directed byWilliam Wyler
Screenplay byMichael Wilson
Based onThe Friendly Persuasion
1945 novel
by Jessamyn West
Produced byWilliam Wyler
StarringGary Cooper
Dorothy McGuire
Anthony Perkins
Richard Eyer
Robert Middleton
Phyllis Love
Mark Richman
Walter Catlett
Marjorie Main
CinematographyEllsworth Fredericks
Edited byRobert Swink
Edward A. Biery
Robert Belcher
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
William Wyler Productions
Allied Artists Pictures Corporation
Distributed byAllied Artists (USA)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (foreign)
Release date
  • November 25, 1956 (1956-11-25)
Running time
137 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3 million[1][2]
Box office$8 million (as of 1960)[3]
3,051,784 admissions (France)[4]

Friendly Persuasion is a 1956 American Civil War drama film produced and directed by William Wyler. It stars Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Richard Eyer, Robert Middleton, Phyllis Love, Mark Richman, Walter Catlett and Marjorie Main. The screenplay by Michael Wilson was adapted from the 1945 novel The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West. The movie tells the story of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the American Civil War and the way the war tests their pacifist beliefs.

The film received positive reviews, praised for its performances, but faced some criticism for inaccuracies in portraying Quaker views. It earned $4 million at the box office, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and received six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Michael Wilson, the screenwriter, was initially uncredited due to being on the Hollywood blacklist but was later restored in 1996.[1]

Ronald Reagan gifted the film to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, symbolizing the pursuit of peaceful solutions to conflicts.


In Jennings County, Indiana, in 1862, Jess Birdwell is a farmer and patriarch of the Birdwell family whose Quaker religion conflicts with his love for the worldly enjoyments of music and horse racing. Jess's wife Eliza, a Quaker minister, is deeply religious and steadfast in her refusal to engage in violence. Jess's daughter Mattie wants to remain a Quaker but has fallen in love with cavalry officer Gard Jordan, a love that is against her mother's wishes. Jess's elder son Josh is torn between his hatred of violence and a conviction that to protect his family he must join the home guard and fight the invaders. The family's youngest member is "Little" Jess, who is forever at war with his mother's pet goose. Enoch, a runaway slave, is a laborer on their farm; his children are still enslaved in the South.

The story begins as a tale of Quakers trying to maintain their faith as they go to meeting on First Day (Sunday); contrasted with the Birdwells' neighbor Sam Jordan and other members of the nearby Methodist Church. The mood shifts when the meeting is interrupted by a Union officer who asks how the Quaker men can stand by when their houses will be looted and their families terrorized by approaching Confederate troops. When confronted with the question of his being afraid to fight, Josh Birdwell responds that it might be the case. His honesty provokes the wrath of Purdy, a Quaker elder who condemns people who do not believe as he does.

Meanwhile, the Quakers try to maintain their ways, despite the temptations of amusements at a county fair, and a new organ (which Jess buys over Eliza's opposition). On a business trip, Jess acquires a new horse from the widow Hudspeth, and defeats Sam in their weekly horse race. One day, Jess is cultivating his fields and notices a cloud of smoke on the horizon produced by the burning of buildings. Josh arrives and tells them the neighboring community has been reduced to ash and corpses. Josh believes that he must fight, a conviction that threatens to destroy the family. Eliza tells him that by turning his back to their religion he is turning his back on her, but Jess sees things a different way. Josh finds himself on the front line of the battle to stop the advance of the raiders, and only fires his gun when the man next to him is wounded. Meanwhile, Jess is reluctant to fight, only picking up a rifle and riding off towards the fighting when the family horse gallops back to the farm riderless.

When Confederates arrive at the farm, with only Eliza and the younger children present, the family and the farm are saved when Eliza greets them on the porch and welcomes them to take all the food and animals they want and feeds them in their kitchen. As Jess finds Sam Jordan dying he is bushwhacked by a "Reb". He plays possum and when the Confederate soldier approaches he struggles with him and takes away his gun, but ultimately lets him go free and unhurt. He then finds Josh injured and brings him home.



The film was in development for eight years; producer-director William Wyler brought the project to Allied Artists Pictures Corporation (formerly known as Monogram Pictures Corporation) from Paramount; Allied agreed to a $1.5 million budget for what was Wyler's first film in color for a commercial studio. Wyler had previously shot two documentaries in color in 1944, The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress and the uncredited The Fighting Lady.[5][6] In 1947, he shot the documentary, Thunderbolt, in color.[7]

The film's shooting location was moved from southern Indiana to a combination of a Republic studio and a San Fernando Valley estate,[3] The film ended up costing over $3 million.[1] The film went over budget to the point that Allied sold the foreign distribution rights to MGM to raise more funds.[8]

Jessamyn West spent a year with the production as both story writer and as technical adviser (credited). Her novel covered a forty-year span of the Birdwell family history and was essentially plotless, so to make the movie effective, she arranged the sequences selected for filming around the Civil War vignette from the novel (altering it significantly for dramatic action) and compressed the whole into a single year, 1862, using the war as the central plot conflict. She created new characters (primarily the Jordans) to fill in for others that had to be deleted, and entirely wrote out Laban, the second eldest son of the novel, substituting a new character, Josh's friend Caleb Cope (John Smith), as a two-scene surrogate. The character Mattie was a composite of the two surviving Birdwell daughters in the novel. Wyler wanted his brother, associate producer Robert Wyler, and author Jessamyn West to receive credit for rewriting the script (also including Wilson), but the WGA ruled that Wilson deserved sole credit for his screenplay.

Cooper expressed initial reservations to West about his character, noting that since in his previous roles "'action seems to come natural to me,' the father should be shown joining the fight. 'There comes a time in a picture of mine when the people watching expect me to do something,' he said. West responded he would do something: 'Refrain. You will furnish your public with the refreshing picture of a strong man refraining.'"[3] Cooper followed West's advice. He researched his role by attending West's Quaker meeting, East Whittier Friends Church. Cooper had not wanted to play the father of grown-up children, although he was 55 in real life. He supposedly disliked the finished film and his own performance.

Dorothy McGuire was cast as Cooper's wife after Wyler's choice, Katharine Hepburn, declined.[9] It was Perkins' second film, after his debut in the 1953 film The Actress; his Broadway success with Tea and Sympathy in the meantime tempted him to remain on the stage, though ultimately he decided to do the film.[3]

During production, cameras for the television documentary series Wide Wide World visited the set. According to show host Dave Garroway, it was the first live broadcast from a movie set.[10]


According to Bosley Crowther, "thee should be pleasured by this film", noting it is "loaded with sweetness and warmth and as much cracker-barrel Americana as has been spread on the screen in some time." Crowther called Cooper and McGuire "wonderfully spirited and compassionate in their finely complementary roles" and said a "great deal of admiration must go to Anthony Perkins" for making "the older son of the Birdwells a handsome, intense, and chivalrous lad."[11] Variety magazine called it "the simple story of a Quaker family in Indiana back in the 1860s" with "just about everything in the way of comedy and drama, suspense and action"; they also said "figuring importantly in the way the picture plays is Dimitri Tiomkin's conducting of his own score."[1]

The film earned $4 million at the North American box office in 1956.[12]

MGM distributed outside the US and Canada. According to their records the film made $732,000, earning the studio a profit of $582,000.[13]

The film also received mild criticism for certain inaccurate portrayals of Quaker views, such as a misunderstanding that although Quakers disliked programmed music they did value individual original expressions of it; and in meetings, Bible passages are not read verbatim but speakers recite scripture from memory and express its meaning in their own words.[14] Also, the original screenplay by Michael Wilson was changed significantly in the wake of McCarthyism (and he had taken some liberties himself with the book by Jessamyn West) (see discussion below).

Connection with House Un-American Activities Committee testimony[edit]

The movie script was discussed in 1951 by Michael Wilson in his testimony as an "unfriendly witness" at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and by director Frank Capra, who was seeking to dissociate himself from Wilson, who was ultimately placed on the Hollywood blacklist.

Capra, who had originally contracted Wilson to write the screenplay just after the war but then dropped the project, said that although he thought Wilson did "a swell job" adapting West's book, the movie was not produced because he felt "it would be a bad time to produce a picture that might be construed as being antiwar. But we let Wilson work on it until he had finished with it."[15]

Wilson told HUAC in 1951, "I feel that this committee might take the credit, or part of it at least, for the fact that The Friendly Persuasion was not produced, in view of the fact that it dealt warmly, in my opinion, with a peace-loving people."[15]

"What happened to Wilson's pacifist script after Capra dropped it," notes film historian Joseph McBride, "reflected the political climate of the Cold War. When William Wyler directed the film for Allied Artists in 1956 as Friendly Persuasion, he had the story changed to make the Quaker youth (played by Anthony Perkins) become a killer. The Quakers in Wyler's version, as Pauline Kael observed, 'are there only to violate their convictions.' But some of the strength of Wilson's conception remains, as in a scene of a crippled Union Army officer respectfully challenging the steadfast Quakers about pacifism in their meeting house."[16]

Ronald Reagan[edit]

Friendly Persuasion also became a footnote to world history in the 1980s when United States President Ronald Reagan made a gift of the film to Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at one of their five summit meetings, suggesting that he view the film as symbolic of the need to find an alternative to war as a means of resolving differences between peoples. One Quaker commentator stated: "Friendly Persuasion seems to me to come about as close to truth and fairness as I expect to see Hollywood get in a treatment of Quakerism; I recommend it to every Quaker parent, as projecting images their children ought to see and imitate...I believe (critics have) woefully misjudged the film, on several counts: its place in American cinema, the characters and their roles, its historicity, and, not least, its value as an expression of the Peace Testimony. Here, for perhaps the only time, I think Ronald Reagan was closer to the truth when he commended the film to Gorbachev because it 'shows not the tragedy of war, but the problems of pacifism, the nobility of patriotism as well as the love of peace.'"[17]

Awards and honors[edit]

A week before the year's Oscar nominations were announced, the AMPAS Board of Governors introduced a rule denying an Oscar to anyone who refused to talk to a United States congressional committee. The Writers Guild of America protested the new rule and awarded Michael Wilson the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Drama.[3]

At the 29th Academy Awards, Friendly Persuasion was nominated for 6 awards. Michael Wilson's name could not appear on the ballot because he was blacklisted.[18]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[19] Best Motion Picture William Wyler Nominated
Best Director Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Anthony Perkins Nominated
Best Screenplay – Adapted Michael Wilson[1] Nominated
Best Song "Friendly Persuasion (Thee I Love)"
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin;
Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster
Best Sound Recording Gordon R. Glennan and Gordon E. Sawyer Nominated
Cannes Film Festival[20] Palme d'Or William Wyler Won
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Gary Cooper Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Marjorie Main Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer – Male Anthony Perkins Won
Best Film Promoting International Understanding Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 5th Place
Best Actress Dorothy McGuire Won
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama Michael Wilson Won

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Other adaptations[edit]

Another adaptation of the novel was made for television in 1975, starring Richard Kiley, Shirley Knight, Clifton James and Michael O'Keefe. It was adapted by William P. Wood and directed by Joseph Sargent. This version also included material from Jessamyn West's sequel novel, Except For Thee and Me.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Friendly Persuasion". Variety. 1956. Retrieved 2011-10-06.
  2. ^ Ballio, Tino (1987). United Artists: the company that changed the film industry, page 164. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin. ISBN 0-299-11440-6. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d e Nixon, Rob. "Friendly Persuasion (1956)". 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2011-10-06.
  4. ^ Box office for Anthony Perkins in France at Box Office Story
  5. ^ The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  6. ^ The Fighting Lady (1944) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  7. ^ Thunderbolt (1947) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  8. ^ Mirisch, pp. 80-81
  9. ^ Mirisch, p. 80
  10. ^ Wide Wide World, episode 4 (1955). Via Friendly Persuasion DVD, Warner Home Video (2001). Event occurs at 0:45.
  11. ^ Crowther, Bosley (November 2, 1956). "Friendly Persuasion". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-10-06.
  12. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
  13. ^ The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  14. ^ Miller, Richard B. (August 22, 2005). "Quakers/Friendly Persuasion". AllExperts. Archived from the original on 27 April 2010. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  15. ^ a b McBride, Joseph (February 2002). ""A Very Good American" The undaunted artistry of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson" (PDF). Written By Joseph McBride. Retrieved 9 February 2013.[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ McBride, Joseph (February 2002). ""A Very Good American" The undaunted artistry of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson" (PDF). Written By Joseph McBride. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-27. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  17. ^ Fager, Chuck (1991). "Filming the Reputation of Truth: Quakers in the Movies". A Friendly Letter. Archived from the original on 20 May 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  18. ^ Heldenfels, Rich (2012-05-31). "Mailbag: Screenwriting saga, Dexter's return, McCarthys mixed". Akron Beacon-Journal. Retrieved 2012-06-01.
  19. ^ "The 29th Academy Awards (1957) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-21.
  20. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Friendly Persuasion". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-02-08.
  21. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-04-17. Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  22. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-06. Retrieved 2016-08-06.

Further reading[edit]

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