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Despite worthier competition, a Hollywood film won the Palme in 1957

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Friendly Persuasion (1957)

Big-budget American movies almost never win at the Cannes Film Festival, and for good reason: Handing the Palme D’Or to a major studio, instead of some visionary of the vanguard, defeats the entire purpose of the award. That’s not a slam on Hollywood. Fine studio movies get made every year, and plenty are as worthy of recognition as their independent counterparts. (For a random example, I’d much rather watch Die Hard or Beetlejuice or Who Framed Roger Rabbit than the 1988 Palme winner, Pelle The Conqueror.) But at the world’s most prestigious film festival, the focus should almost always be on movies that push the medium in bold new directions—the kind the Dream Factory, for whatever else it’s good for, usually doesn’t provide.

There were certainly plenty of radical, worthy options to choose from in 1957, a watershed year for the Cannes competition lineup. A closer look at the selections the programmers lined up reveals how many of them have achieved classic status in the decades since. Ingmar Bergman was there with what would become his most iconic film, The Seventh Seal, while Nights Of Cabiria brought fellow world-cinema heavyweight Federico Fellini to the French Riviera. Robert Bresson offered his timeless prison-break parable A Man Escaped, Jules Dassin staged a passion play with He Who Must Die, and Andrzej Wajda sent desperate men scrambling through the sewer systems of Warsaw in his devastating Kanal. All of these movies, largely beloved today, earned major prizes at Cannes. But none took top honors, which the jury perplexingly bestowed instead upon an American alternative: Friendly Persuasion, the seriocomic saga of a Quaker family examining its values during the Civil War.

To be clear, there’s nothing especially embarrassing about Friendly Persuasion, excepting perhaps its cornball humor (and tastes will vary on that subject). The film’s an amiable Golden Age entertainment, blessed with strong performances, a few intelligent ideas, and the steady hand of its director, reliable hit-maker and jack-of-all-genres, William Wyler. But how could the jurors, led by French author André Maurois, have preferred this comparably featherweight production to its stiff competition? Confronted with the canon fodder listed above, they played it strangely safe and honored a platonic ideal of tasteful Tinseltown craftsmanship.

Hell, Friendly Persuasion wasn’t even the best Hollywood movie in the lineup—not with Funny Face, that effervescent Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn vehicle, also dancing its way onto the list. Nor did Wyler’s work require some sort of rescue or rehabilitation effort: Having opened the previous November in the States, the film had grossed a very healthy $8 million and scored a whopping six Oscar nominations. (To be fair, it lost every race, including Best Picture—a prize that went instead to Around The World In 80 Days, which also screened at Cannes, as the festival’s out-of-competition opener). So why did Maurois and company feel inclined to reward a film that had already reaped plenty of rewards, especially when they had an embarrassment of other riches from which to select?

Maybe the answer lies with what the selection represented. When an American film wins the Palme, it’s often because it has something to say about America—and frequently, about America’s relationship to violence. (From Apocalypse Now to Elephant, from Taxi Driver to Wild At Heart, Cannes has long been fascinated by our homemade examinations of homegrown bloodlust.) Friendly Persuasion, which is at least partially about the morality of taking up arms, belongs firmly to that tradition. The question of whether to fight or not—to “kill a man to free another,” as one character puts it—provides a dramatic center, offering what the predominately Gallic jury might have felt was a close reading of the nation’s character. At the same time, the film is also steeped in colorfully romantic Americana, in “thees” and “thys” and horses and buggies. For cinephiles of a certain predilection, there’s a big draw to historical mythology that questions its own ideals.

If Wyler, a dependable purveyor of upscale moneymakers, was responsible for the mythology, it was his blacklisted screenwriter, Michael Wilson, who provided the questioning. Wilson, whose name was removed from the film because of his testimony as an “unfriendly witness” during the HUAC trials, started working on the script as early as 1947, when Frank Capra was still interested in directing it. The writer condensed his source material, a quasi-plotless 1945 novel by Quaker author Jessamyn West, into a 137-minute family drama. While the book spans four decades in the lives of its devout characters, Friendly Persuasion zeroes in on a single calendar year, 1862, with the Civil War serving as a dramatic backdrop to its loose assemblage of incidents.

Much of the film simply concerns the daily obstacles faced by its characters, the Birdwells, who live on a farm in Indiana. The clan’s patriarch, Jess (Gary Cooper), has music in his heart, but his wife, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), won’t allow instruments in their house, as it supposedly goes against the Quaker code. She also disapproves of the very tentative courtship between her daughter (Phyllis Love) and a young soldier (Peter Mark Richman), and is wary of her eldest son, Josh (Anthony Perkins), abandoning his pacifist ethos. For dopey comic relief, there’s also youngest son “Little” Jess (Richard Eyer), and his slapstick battles with his mother’s curiously malicious pet goose. So lighthearted, and even frivolous, does the film’s opening passage seem that its first “serious” scene—a Union soldier interrupting Sunday Mass to pitch the war to these peace-lovers—arrives like a lightning bolt of immediacy.

Is it honorable to resist violence at all costs, even when others are fighting to protect your way of life? Or are there causes so important, so morally urgent, that they require a suspension of personal ethics in the name of a greater good? Is it ever right to take a life, regardless of the reason? Friendly Persuasion is at its best when engaging with these heavy quandaries, and when pitting its characters’ more primal desires against the sacred codes to which they’ve committed. (A scene at the local fair, in which a young Quaker gets in touch with his inner brute, speaks powerfully to the allure of, well, power.) These fundamental conflicts seemed to extend beyond the frame lines: Gary Cooper, who often played men’s men, was reluctant to take on the role of a character who left the fighting to others; in a sense, he identified more with the visiting Union soldier and his arguments for action, though the actor also vainly assumed that he was too young to play a father of three. Cooper supposedly never watched the finished film, so vehemently did he despise what he saw of his performance—and the protagonist he played—in the dailies. That’s a shame, as he exudes a real nobility and levelheadedness here, proving himself the perfect choice to play a father grappling with his warring responsibilities to God and country.

Far too often, however, does Friendly Persuasion stray into less thoughtful territory, killing time with sitcom-ish silliness. The purchase of an organ, against the protests of Eliza, leads to a scene in which Jess attempts to distract the Quaker elders from the sound of his daughter playing it in the attic. Earlier on, the father and his eldest son pay a visit to some neighbors, and find their resolve tested by a trio of flirtatious, singing daughters. (The broad sequence grinds the movie to a halt.) And the less said about that mischievous fowl, the better. These scenes aren’t inherently awful; they just feel at odds with the richer, more complicated film Friendly Persuasion otherwise aspires to be. What looks sometimes like a serious examination of moral struggle too often settles for lower aims, foundering as a portrait of a strictly religious family learning to let its collective hair down.

Even at its most disposable, however, Friendly Persuasion looks great. Moving into color filmmaking for the first time, Wyler uses deep focus photography to turn the family farm—California standing in for the Midwest—into an immersive setting. There are several gorgeous shots of characters moving from a position in the foreground to a barn or field in the background, the detail of the whole environment remaining visible during their long treks. The thematic relevance of this approach is clear: The war looms large in the periphery of the characters’ lives, inching closer and closer to the edges of their peaceful existence. As much as the Birdwells would like to ignore the approach of enemy troops—and, by extension, keep the modern world from penetrating their bubble of tradition—a violent future is as visible to them as the outer reaches of the farm are to us. This becomes explicit when Jess spots a billowing cloud of smoke in the distance, undisputable proof that the war has arrived.

From here, Friendly Persuasion relocates its gravity, especially once Josh makes up his mind to join the fight against the marauding Confederates. The film climaxes with a spectacular battle scene at a creek, its young hero forced to violate his belief system and take a life. Perkins, in only his second movie role, gives that choice a queasy, soul-shaking intensity. This scene is the terrible culmination of everything he’s been conveying throughout—the sickly mixture of excitement, dread, and duty that’s informed the character’s thought process. (In playing a shy young man drawn inexorably into violence, Perkins offers faint glimmers of the quintessential psycho he’d portray three years later.)

Powerful as it is, the scene is not what Wilson envisioned: His original draft had Josh unable to pull the trigger, his aversion to killing proving stronger than the obligation to protect his community. Friendly Persuasion would be, if he could help it, fundamentally pacifist; it’s one reason, beyond Wilson’s refusal to testify, that Capra distanced himself from the man and the project. (“It would be a bad time to produce a picture that might be construed as being antiwar,” the director remarked.) But once Wyler got his hands on the film, the scene was rewritten; Josh does have the stomach to fight, and though doing so is difficult, he returns to the farm knowing that he’s done his part.

Broken down to its thematic essence, Friendly Persuasion is really about the importance of being true to one’s conscience, even when that seems to conflict with one’s dogma. Jess approves of Josh’s decision to fight because his boy is listening to his gut and doing what he knows, deep down, is right. Whether that means that the film itself has condoned his decision, landing on the “ends justify the means” side of the debate, is itself up for debate. But there’s bitter significance to Wilson writing a film about sticking to your gun-averse guns that was transformed, in the Cold War climate of 1950s Hollywood, into one about violating convictions for the sake of security. If the movie has a villain, beyond the faceless Confederates who invade its third act, it’s the scolding Quaker elder Purdy (Richard Hale), whose bullying treatment of “dissenters” makes him a (accidental?) surrogate for McCarthy and his cooperators.

There often seems to be a socio-political angle to the choices made at Cannes, where an award can carry the implicit weight of a message. Perhaps in the minds of the jurors, a win for Friendly Persuasion was a sympathy salute to Wilson, who they couldn’t honor with a proper screenplay prize. (The award was briefly retired, from 1953 until 1957, and then again from 1959 to 1962.) Of course, the logic of such a rationale would be a bit suspect, as Wilson’s name had been harshly excised from the movie; an award for Friendly Persuasion would also be an award for the studio that made that cowardly decision. Perhaps the jurors really did just prefer this solid, less-than-groundbreaking Hollywood blockbuster to the smaller, more daring features it conquered. Yet to hand it the Palme in a year that also saw Max Von Sydow face down death in a chess match—for just one example—is to display a failure of imagination. Hollywood didn’t earn this one.

Did it deserve to win? No. Friendly Persuasion is a fine film, but any of the other movies mentioned throughout this piece would have made a more suitable winner. Had I some sort of retroactive input, it would have come down to two films about plights for freedom: either the magnificent A Man Escaped, one of Bresson’s most cathartic visions of moral dilemma, or the harrowing Kanal, a pitiless survival yarn for the ages.

Next up: Paris, Texas