David Hoppe

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:: Alternative Indiana

Friendly Persuasion qualifiest

by David Hoppe

Although you’d never know it from the way our Statehouse Republicans have tried to scuttle social justice efforts from health insurance to a woman’s right to choose, Indiana has an alternative history that’s worth attending to.

That history has been shaped by the likes of Eugene V. Debs, the socialist presidential candidate, who famously said: “Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

I was reminded of our alternative history while channel-surfing the other night. There, amidst numerous CSI reruns, was a screening of the 1956 film, Friendly Persuasion.

This film stopped me in my tracks for a number of reasons. It is one of the first movies I can remember seeing in a theater. My parents took me.

What really got me, though, was the film’s graceful evocation of a Quaker family living in southern Indiana during the Civil War. The Birdwells live on a picturesque farm (which, sadly, was erected on a studio backlot). In a few richly observed scenes, director William Wyler succeeds in locating us within the rhythms of the Birdwell’s daily lives, including their sense of place in a landscape that appears both prosperous and bucolic.

The Birdwells are an enviable group. The three children are lively; Jed and Eliza, their parents, still have a sexual spark. While devoted pacifists, they retain a sense of humor. Nothing, it seems, can dent their mindfully constructed world.

Until, that is, the Civil War arrives on their doorstep in the form of Morgan’s Confederate raiders. Eldest son Josh feels compelled to take up arms and join in the defense of their community. A crisis of conscience ensues, in which each member of the family must respond to the threat in his or her own way.

Friendly Persuasion was based on a novel by Jessamyn West. Though she lived most of her life in California, West’s Hoosier roots were deep; she used stories told by her grandparents and great grandparents as source material.

She also served as a consultant on the film adaptation, which almost didn’t get made because the bosses in McCarthy-era Hollywood feared its peace-loving theme might be construed as anti-American. In fact, the film was originally released with no screenwriting credit because the writer on the project, Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted for his refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The film’s star, Gary Cooper, wasn’t sure about the script, either. His career was based on action. He told West, “People watching expect me to do something.” West answered that, in fact, he would be doing something: “You will furnish your public with the refreshing picture of a strong man refraining.”

If that doesn’t describe an alternative Indiana, I don’t know what does.