Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Friendly Persuasion (1956)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

In UA's and director William Wyler's nostalgic, western 'family' Americana drama set during the Civil War - it was based on Jessamyn West's 1945 novel The Friendly Persuasion (a series of vignettes, featuring 14 short stories originally published in the early 1940s in various popular magazines) with an adapted script written by uncredited and blacklisted writer Michael Wilson; it was Wyler's first color film for a commercial studio. At 137 minutes, the film was budgeted at $3 million and domestically-grossed $8 million.

It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and was the recipient of six Academy Awards nominations (with no wins), including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (without Wilson's name on the ballot), Best Original Song (Dimitri Tiomkin's popular "Friendly Persuasion (Thee I Love)" sung by Pat Boone), Best Sound Recording, and Best Supporting Actor (for Anthony Perkins appearing in his second film):

  • the overlong film's opening title credits were presented as gold-colored text atop 19-century needlepoint samplers of landscapes
  • in the film's beginning, a pacifist Quaker family, the Birdwells, was living on a farm in southern Indiana in the town of Vernon (Jennings County) during the Civil War (in 1862)
  • one of the recurring plot points was introduced in the opening sequence - the family's mischievous white pet goose Samantha often terrorized or warred against the youngest boy "Little" Jess (Richard Eyer) (dressed up in his "best Sunday clothes") by biting his ankles; he called the family's pet "a s-snake on stilts"
  • the family was stringently pacifist and religiously-oriented; it was composed of patriarchal father and nurseryman Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) and his devout, strait-laced and very strict Quaker minister wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) of a local fellowship; the pious sect members spoke with antique pronouns for the second person singular (i.e., thou and thee) - judged as sounding "mighty queer"; they forbid gambling, swearing, violence, and even music on Sundays
The Birdwell Family

Patriarch Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper)

Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire) - Quaker Minister

Josh Birdwell (Anthony Perkins) - Eldest Son

(l to r): "Mattie" and "Little" Jess

"Little" Jess (Richard Eyer)

"Mattie" (Phyllis Love)
  • the loving couple had three children: sensitive eldest teenaged son Joshua or "Josh" (Anthony Perkins), daughter Martha True "Mattie" (Phyllis Love), and "Little" Jess; the Birdwells employed a farmhand Enoch (Joel Fluellen), a runaway slave; Mattie was head-over-heels in love with Sam's dashing, non-Quaker son, Gardner or "Gard" Jordan (Peter Mark Richman), who was serving as a lieutenant in the Union (or Yankee) cavalry
  • in one of the earliest sequences, a weekly Sunday morning racing contest to church was enacted between Jess (on his way with the family to the Quaker meetinghouse) versus his neighboring farmer-friend Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton) (traveling to the nearby Methodist Church) with son "Gard"; it was one of Jess' sinful loves to engage in horse-racing (with his horse Red Rover) against Sam (with his horse Prince) - although he consistently lost
  • the silent church meeting (where the women sat on one side and the men on the other) was interrupted by crippled, cane-holding Union Army officer Major Harvey (Theodore Newton) who spoke of how thousands had fought and died to bring about the end of slavery in two years of Civil War; he warned of approaching Confederate troops, and he both criticized and challenged the peace-loving Quakers for not defending themselves or protecting their towns, families or homes from attack; he questioned whether their pacifist stance was because they were afraid to fight, by asking Josh : "Are you afraid to fight?" - Josh honestly answered: "I don't know"; the Major summarized: "Do you think it's right to let others do the fighting for you? To protect your lives and your property?"; Jess stood up to offer his own thoughtful answer: "I've often asked myself what I would do if I saw my family endangered"
  • temptations often arose for the inner religious convictions of the Birdwells who were continually challenged and tested by "worldly" things; Eliza worried about attending the Jennings County Fair with its "sideshows, freaks, dancing..."; however, the family attended, where Eliza quickly became upset that "Little" Jess was watching carnival-goers betting with a Shell-Game vendor (Frank Jenks) and dragged him away; she also found Mattie and Gard publically dancing in the fair's pavilion and reprimanded Gard: "Thy duties as a soldier and Mattie's as a Quaker lie far apart"
  • meanwhile, Josh's scrappy friend Caleb Cope (John Smith) eagerly entered into a bare-chested "friendly" wrestling match, but soon quit fearing he had injured the left arm of his burly opponent Billy Goat (Ivan Rasputin); as Josh and Caleb refused to hit back against those who objected and accused them being quitters, Jess intervened and threw one of the aggressive men head-first into a fire barrel filled with water ("Thee needs cooling off, friend"); Eliza was upset by the entire fair experience: "Fighting, dancing, gambling, wrestling...")
  • during an almost two-week trip across the Ohio River into Ohio to sell "first-class nursery stock" to his customers, Jess (with Josh) were forced to spend the night with Widow Abigail Hudspeth (Marjorie Main) and her three man-hungry daughters - Opal, Pearl, and Ruby: (Edna Skinner, Marjorie Durant, and Frances Farwell); the Widow tried to calm her over-eager daughters: "Menfolk's are so scarce around here, the girls get carried away at the sight of one. But I keep telling 'em, easy does it"; the three daughters comically tussled over Josh, and later sang "Marry Me" accompanied by a harp and accordion

Widow Abigail Hudspeth (Marjorie Main) - With Three Marriageable Daughters

Three Daughters Singing "Marry Me"
  • Jess was able to negotiate and exchange his slow-racing horse Red Rover with a faster "Narragansett pacer" mare (named Lady) from the Widow, that shortly later led to victory over Sam's carriage
  • immediately upon Jess' arrival home, there were objections and a major difference of opinion when Professor Quigley (Walter Catlett) showed up to deliver Jess' secret "unholy" purchase of a Pacemen Clark pump organ made at the fair; the Professor called it a "substitute on Earth for choiring angels"; Eliza scolded Jess' hidden desire for music by forbidding the organ's entry into the house; she made Jess choose between her and the organ: "Thee make thy choice. Thee can have that instrument or thee can have thy wife. But both, thee cannot have"; when Jess persisted, she decided to sleep in the barn; later, they were able to resolve the forbidden organ issue by bedding down together for the entire night and returning to the house at 6:30 am the next morning
  • later in a comical sequence, three stern-faced Elder Quakers (Brother Amos, Brother Cope, and Brother Griffith from the ministry and oversight committee) arrived at the Birdwell farmhouse one evening for a brief prayer meeting with Jess and Eliza; upstairs in the attic (where the organ had been relegated), Mattie and Gard (who were falling in love with each other) were playing keys on the instrument; downstairs, Jess frantically prayed with the Elders to try and drown out the sound of the offending music; at the end of Jess' fervent prayer, one Elder admitted: "Thy prayer carried me so near to Heaven's gates I thought I heard the choiring of angel voices and the playing of heavenly harps"
  • with Enoch in the barn, Josh helped in the difficult birth of a calf; Josh pondered the question of death, asking: "I wonder what it feels like to die"; Enoch answered: "Just stopping breathing, I reckon"; Josh responded: "Just going to sleep"
  • meanwhile, there were reports of increasing threats to the peaceful lives of the Birdwells by Morgan's Raiders - 1,500 rebel Confederate guerrillas and cavalry, who had now crossed the Ohio River and were conducting raids into S. Indiana, to burn barns and loot houses; they were currently only 30 miles from Vernon and would arrive soon
  • wounded and on leave from the battlefront, Gard was ordered to organize and recruit a local militia (the Home Guard) to defend against an attack; then after recovering and just before leaving to fight with the Home Guard, he came to say goodbye to Mattie; meanwhile, troubled son Josh - who was conflicted by his religious beliefs, was worried about the approach of the Raiders; he was concerned when his mother reacted passively: 'If it's the Lord's will, there's nothing we can do"; to his parents' surprise, Josh announced his reluctant, sudden decision to join Gard and the Home Guard, and that he would be leaving from Vernon the next morning
  • due to the threatening situation, Jess freed Enoch and allowed him to take a gun and saddle up a horse after Enoch expressed worry about his fate as a runaway slave: ("So if they're going to catch me, I'm goin' down fightin'")
  • as Gard rode off from the Birdwell farm, Mattie ran after him and openly told him of her love; she eagerly agreed to marry him after he proposed: ("Martha True Birdwell, when I come back, will you marry me? Will you be my wedded wife forever and ever?")
  • Josh's change in his faith caused great concern for his pacifist parents; he admitted to them what his decision to fight meant: "I'll kill if I have to... Mother, I hate fighting. I don't want to die. I don't know if I could kill anyone if I tried. But I have to try so long as other people have to"; Jess rationalized to Eliza that he was not Josh’s conscience, and that he had to let Josh make up his own mind about joining the conflict: ("I'm just his father, Eliza. I'm not his conscience. A man's life ain't worth a hill beans except he lives up to his conscience. I've got to give Josh that chance"); that night at bedtime, Eliza tucked in her grown son and prayed for him, when he told her: "I have to do what's right"; he departed the next morning with his rifle

Concerns About Josh's Decision to Fight

Josh's Last Night at Home

Josh With His Gun
  • confrontational neighbor Purdy (Richard Hale) rode to Jess' place and claimed his barn had been burned down and horses were stolen, he urged Jess to defend the community ("If thee wants to help, pick up a gun and fight the same as I'm doing"); Jess claimed he would not use a gun, but would turn the other cheek; Sam came to Jess' defense and vowed to fight for both of their families ("And if there's any fighting to be done I'll do it for both of us"); he also said he was glad to see someone hold out for a better way of settling things
  • various incidents brought to light the violence and horrors of war: during the fighting by the nearby river, Josh witnessed the death of one of his comrades and fired back at the Confederates, as tears streamed down his face
  • after a riderless horse appeared at the Birdwell farm, Jess feared that his son was dead, and rode off with his rifle toward the nearby warring-conflict at the river to find his son; during Jess' absence, a group of Confederates arrived to pillage the Birdwell farm
  • to spare her family, the openly-hospitable Eliza greeted and welcomed the enemy soldiers, allowed them to take all the meat, chickens and supplies they wanted, fed them in her kitchen; however, she uncharacteristically fought back with a broom when one of the soldiers grabbed the pet goose Samantha, shouting out: "She's a pure pet!"; later, she worried that Jess would find out about what she had done: "I raised my hand in anger"
Confederates Pillaging the Birdwell Farm
  • during Jess' search for his son at the river, he found Sam dying (with a stomach bullet wound after a "reb bushwhacker" tried to steal his horse) and they talked about their ritualistic horse-racing rivalry before he passed away; Jess was also ambushed by the lone Confederate "Rebel" bushwhacker (Richard Garland) and appeared to be hit, but was only slightly grazed on the forehead; he fell and pretended to be dead and then - although he had the opportunity to kill the soldier, he only disarmed him and then freed him unhurt ("Go on, get. I'll not harm thee")
  • Jess located his heart-sick, wounded (in the arm) but surviving son Josh lying on the ground amongst other bodies, and reaching out to the corpse near to him; he was distraught over having killed the young Confederate soldier; as the film was concluding, Jess brought his son back home on his horse
  • as the family prepared itself to depart to another Sunday meeting, "Little" Jess divulged the secret that Eliza had whacked a Reb with a broom

Opening Title Credits

Samantha - Pet Goose

The Birdwells

Enoch (Joel Fluellen) - Runaway Slave Farmhand

On Sunday, on the Way to the Quaker Meetinghouse: Jess & Eliza

Neighbor Friend Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton)

Union Army Lt. "Gard" Jordan (Mark Richman), Sam's Son

Major Harvey (Theodore Newton) Speaking to Quakers About Their Duty to Fight in War

Professor Waldo Quigley (Walter Catlett) - Organ Seller

Jess and Eliza Returning to the House After Sleeping in the Barn Together

Jess With New Faster Horse Lady

Racing to Church: Jess' Lady vs. Sam's Prince

The Prayer Meeting With Three Church Elders

Mattie and Gard Playing the Organ in the Attic During Prayer Meeting

Josh at the Birth of a Calf, Asking: "I wonder what it feels like to die"

Gard's Marriage Proposal to Mattie

Josh's Comrade Killed Next to Him

Josh Firing Back at the Confederates

Jess with Dying Sam

Jess Grazed on Forehead by Reb Bushwacker

Josh Wounded and Heartsick Over Killing a Confederate Soldier

The Family Preparing For Another Sunday Meeting


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