Friendly Persuasion (1956): William Wyler’s Oscar Nominated Western, Starring Gary Cooper and Anthony Perkins

Set at the start of the Civil War, William Wyler’s “Friendly Persuasion,” based on Jessamyn West’s novel, was Cooper’s most popular film of the 1950s.

Cooper plays Jess Bidwell, the head of a Quaker family in Southern Indiana, who is initially opposed to the use of violence, disapproving of the wish of his son Josh (Anthony Perkins) to defend the community with force.

However, holding that, in the final account, every man should be guided by his own conscience, Jess lends sympathy after his son is wounded in action. What makes Cooper’s dilemmas more dramatic is that, just as in “The Virginian” and “High Noon,” two defining (and excellent films), Cooper has to make crucial decisions at a crucial time-here after the village’s attack.

Gary Cooper’s heroes think and debate with themselves before deciding to act. Cooper, like John Wayne, is forceful, but he is more vulnerable and less assured. Whereas Cooper’s heroes ponder and torture their souls before choosing action, Wayne’s heroes seldom experience–and seldom show–such inner turmoil. The Wayne hero is unabashedly committed to action–at all times and all costs, which is why it’s hard to imagine him philosophizing about his lot the way Cooper does in his movies.

Though “Friendly Persuasion” was more modest than the other Oscar nominees, it still boasted a running time of 140 minutes.  Its stellar cast, Gary Cooper in top form and Dorothy McGuire as his wife, added cache to the homespun Quaker melodrama. (McGuire won the Best Actress kudo from the National Board of Review).

In later years, some critics have compared Peter Weir’s 1985 rural saga “Witness,” which also was nominated for Best Picture Oscar, to “Friendly Persuasion,” due to the Quaker setting and its commentary on the legitimate and illegitimate use of physical force.

Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by William Wyler
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay (Adapted): Michael Wilson (nomination was later withdrawn)
Supporting Actor: Anthony Perkins
Sound Recording: Gordon R. Glennan and Gordon Sawyer, sound directors
Song: “Friendly Persuasion,” music by Dimitri Tiomkin, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1956, “Friendly Persuasion” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with
Two bloated epic-adventures, “Around the World in 80 Days,” which won, and Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical saga, “The Ten Commandments.” The other two nominees were George Stevens’ modern Western “Giant,” and the musical “The King and I.”

Tiomkin and Webster’s song became a big hit, when Pat Boone, then at the height of his popularity, recorded it.

The winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Anthony Quinn for Minnelli’s biopic of Van Gogh, “Lust for Life.” The Sound award went to the musical, “The King and I,” and the Song Oscar to Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for “Que Sera, Sera” (Whatever Will Be, Will Be”), from Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Anthony Perkins’ Career

After making an impressive debut in George Cukor’s The Actress (1953), Perkins played a troubled youth, baseball player Jimmy Piersall, who suffered a mental illness, in Fear Strikes Out” (1956). The high-profile and commercially popular “Friendly Persuasion,” Perkins’ third film, placed him in the forefront of young American actors. However, all that changed a few years later, after his appearance in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” a movie that forever typecast Perkins as a disturbed man.