Friendly Persuasion, William Wyler’s popular adaptation of Jessamyn West’s tales of Quaker life, is a warm, gently satiric portrait of a family of the "Friendly persuasion" living in the shadow of the Civil War. Gary Cooper plays Jess Birdwell, a less than entirely devout Quaker farmer whose pious wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) is a minister at their local "meeting house."
Scenes of silent, unstructured Quaker meetings are contrasted without comment or judgment to the boisterous singing of the local Methodist church, but — despite Eliza’s best efforts — the film is largely an account of the compromises the Birdwells are and aren’t willing to make. Their principles are repeatedly put to the test, at the local fair, on the Sunday morning ride to the meeting house as a smug neighbor blows past Jess’s slow horse every week, and so on. One of the best vignettes concerns an impasse between Jess and Eliza over the shocking purchase of an organ, and the delightful way the conflict is finally resolved.
The film’s main weakness is the way it handles the theme that most interested the director, the conflict between Quaker pacifism and nonviolence and the practical necessities of wartime. Here the film becomes muddled, and does justice neither to Quakerism nor to just-war principles. A truly thoughtful Hollywood look at religious nonviolence would have to wait until Peter Weir’s Witness, starring Harrison Ford.
In spite of this, Friendly Persuasion’s warm affection for its subjects makes it worthwhile viewing.
On a side note, I was initially puzzled by the depiction of the Quaker dialect using "thee" but not "thou" in both the objective and nominative cases. Thus, for example, where in the King James Bible we might read "Thou art the man," the Quakers in Friendly Persuasion would say "Thee is the man." (Example: "When thee asks or suggests, I am putty in thy hands, but when thee forbids, thee is barking up the wrong tree.") I was even more puzzled to learn that this seemingly ungrammatical usage goes back to the source novel.
However, I have since learned from an online article by Cheratra Yaswen that this usage is apparently historically correct: In at least some times and places, Quakers did adopt the practice of using "thee" rather than "thou" regardless of case.
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I’ll throw my theory into the public arena for open debate. I propose that Jessamyn West’s novel, The Friendly Persuasion, was actually written based on the real life and family of my GGF, Jesse Walter Birdwell of Sullivan County, Tennessee. I am his namesake, Jesse Walter Birdwell (IV). What say you?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.