WILLIAM WYLER FOR FRIENDLY PERSUASION
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
George Stevens for Giant
Michael Anderson for Around the World in Eighty Days
Walter Lang for The King and I
King Vidor for War and Peace
NOTE: henceforth, dark blue text will denote individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue will indicate those who were nominated.
Politics sweeps up films in the strangest ways. I talked earlier about how a biopic of Woodrow Wilson could harbor the crusading anti-Nazi sentiments of the war years, and now I come across a film whose pacifist politics embroiled it in a world of controversy. William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, a sustained exercise in homespun Americana, seems at first blush like the director’s most innocuous film. And in many ways, it is: a rustic kindred spirit to Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and Clarence Brown’s The Yearling from a decade earlier (when Jessamyn West’s source novel was first published), Wyler’s film tells that tale of the Birdwells, a humble Quaker family living in rural Indiana on the far fringe of the Civil War.
However, this idyllic onscreen story belies a tortuous behind-the-scenes saga of Cold War politics. Screenwriter Michael Wilson began his adaptation of West’s novel after World War II as a project for Frank Capra, who abandoned the project and later named Wilson and the script at a HUAC hearing as evidence of communist influence in Hollywood. When the blacklisted Wilson’s script was eventually taken up by William Wyler (who had worked with blacklisted writers before), screenwriting credit was withheld from the opening credits, and when the Writers Branch nominated the *authorless* work for Best Adapted Screenplay anyway, the Academy instructed Price Waterhouse to remove the nomination from the official ballot (restored in 2002, eighteen years after also bestowing him with the Oscar he deserved for the following year’s The Bridge on the River Kwai). As a strange coda, by the 1980s Ronald Reagan, apparently oblivious to the film’s McCarthy-era associations, or perhaps because of them for all I know, entrusted a VHS copy of the film to Mikhail Gorbachev, calling it his favorite film. Whew, someone should make a screenplay about that!
So what was all of this fuss about? Beyond all of this incredible political ado, it is possible to see both the Capraesque hoke and Wilson’s sincere discourse on the morality of violence in this narrative, which Wyler reconciles tonally over the course of the narrative. The movie forms an interesting companion piece to his wartime melodrama Mrs. Miniver, similarly enmeshing the audience in a family’s quaint domestic life while war slowly but surely encroaches on them. Wyler complements the 1942 film’s focus on the physical cost of war with an emphasis here on its spiritual stakes, as the family’s deeply held pacifist ideology is challenged by the call to protect home and country. The story devotes its first two hours (or eight, depending on whether you’re going by movie time or my perception of its passage) to the family’s various daily goings-on, from the teenage daughter’s courtship to the youngest son’s terrorization by the family’s ornery pet goose. The best scenes revolve around the family’s subtly rambunctious patriarch Jess (Gary Cooper), engaging in friendly carriage rides with the neighbors en route to church and impulsively buying a reed organ for the family, both to the disapproval of his devout wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), and it’s these scenes that Wyler most delights in directing, punctuating the race with the dark passage under a covered bridge or using the organ’s emanations from the attic to comically interrupt a visit by the church elders, who are oblivious to the sinful source of the strange noises.
As indicated by recurring shots of the farmhouse reflected in a brook (the same image that accompanies Wyler’s title card), these scenes serve as a peaceful prelude and counterpoint to the kinetic third act, which brings the Civil War crashing onto to the Birdwells’ doorstep. The tension between the call to battle and faith in pacifism, is now embodied on the one side by the passionate oldest son Josh—a practically pubescent Anthony Perkins in his only nominated performance—and his determination to serve his country, and on the other by Eliza’s unshakable anti-violence convictions, with Jess mediating between the two, encompassing both the need to protect his family and his moral reservations about taking another life (presaged in a beautiful testament in church earlier in the film). All three characters separately face tests of their belief: Josh’s coming in a beautifully gripping Union ambush, Jess’ in a fit of Sergeant York-ian cunning at gunpoint, and Eliza’s in a surprising moment that reclaims the comic tone of the earlier part of the film and reopens the possibility of a return to normality after the conflict is ended. This final half-hour contains the most compelling footage in the movie, and some of the best acting, particularly on Perkins’ part. I don’t think it outweighs the corny tedium of the preceding film, but at least it shows Wyler attempting to thoughtfully situate the family’s wartime episode within an ongoing chronicle of the family’s life.
Wyler’s all-time success at the Oscars (3 wins out of an unmatched 11 nominations) provides everlasting fuel for debate over his auteur status. While I adore his edgier work from early (Counsellor-at-Law, Dodsworth) and later (The Collector) in his career, he was best known for exemplifying the few-frills ideal of classical filmmaking, and this film is one of his more lackluster entries in that mode. My vote for 1956 cannot be finalized until I’ve seen the three-and-a-half hour War and Peace by King vidor, a great favorite of mine, but for now Wyler falls well short of Walter Lang for the elegantly charming The King and I.