From A Friendly Letter, #122, 1991

FILMING THE REPUTATION OF TRUTH:
QUAKERS IN THE MOVIES

It is easy to get entirely too highfalutin about the cultural significance of movies. Here, after all, is one consumer business among others, relentlessly probing and pandering to the popular moods and images of the moment, perhaps illuminating them, but perhaps merely exploiting them. Does it really, for instance, signify anything more profound than a youthful appreciation for whimsy that the top cinematic heroes of American children in 1991 are turtles, rather than, say, iguanas? I'm dubious.

On the other hand, the persistence of certain images and themes in many successful films, as well as the occasional success of movies with countering images, might be able to tell us something about the culture which produces them, as well as the place of these films' persisting elements in the culture.

THE HERO AND THE CANON

In this hermeneutic effort, the weight of mythic meaning has been loaded particularly heavily onto that indigenous American film genre, the western. At least, the Western is a favorite with male critics. Bosley Crowther, formerly film critic for the New York Times, pointed out in The Great Films that Westerns above all are about a hero "...this man with the gun and the impulse to use it rightly is the crux of the genre. Set against some form of evil, he is the central figure in the vast mythology built up and perpetuated in almost all western films. And it is a mythology, as powerful and indigenous as that which the Greeks clarified in dramatic poetry 2500 years ago."

Maybe so; we shall see. And we'll examine this heroic notion by means of a consideration of Quakers in the movies, beginning with one of the most revered of all Westerns, High Noon.

Starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, High Noon has attained an almost legendary status in the American cinema. An unexpected hit in 1952, it raked in four Academy Awards and loads of critical acclaim; and ever since, as Larry Swindell notes in his biography of Gary Cooper, The Last Hero, "its reputation has followed a similar curve...and is building still." Last year, in fact, High Noon was granted something like canonical status, when the Library of Congress included it among the first twenty-five films to be officially designated as national landmarks, or some such thing.

Why all the fanfare? Besides the undeniable facts that it is well made, and Cooper is in top form as Will Kane, the retiring marshal of Hadleyville, film pundits have found in High Noon all sorts of American archetypes: above all, Cooper, the world-weary, solitary hero who stands up to the bad guys when no one else in Hadleyville will--when all the locals chicken out, and even his new young wife, Amy (Kelly), threatens to leave him over it.

SEEKING A QUAKER HEROINE

It is with Amy that Friends come into this perhaps seminal American myth-drama, because the fresh-faced Amy is a Quaker. Moreover, she is a Quaker who is determined, in the beginning, to stick to her pacifist principles even at the cost of her marriage. But Kelly eventually, you should pardon the expression, sees the light, in a confrontation with the worldly, foreign Helen Ramirez, a former lover of both the marshal and one of the outlaws, who tells her that it is her duty to stand by her man.

Thus persuaded, Kelly proves her born-again priorities by picking up a pistol and shooting one of the outlaws in the back; so much for Quakerism. When the requisite bloodshed is all over, she rides off with Cooper in a wagon for their only slightly delayed honeymoon--but not before he, in a gesture controversial among many viewers, contemptuously throws his marshal's badge into the dirt of Hadleyville's main street.

Undeniably, many still find this tableau inspiring.

Donald Spoto, in his biography of the film's director, Stanley Kramer, says "High Noon has lost little of its power to intrigue the viewer, to suggest directly the spiritual issues which in fact the Western genre has always had at its root...: Love, implies the script, does not in fact conquer all." Or, as he also puts it, "The issue is...no citizen is worthy of liberty who is not willing to fight to preserve it."

But with this comment we can also bring into focus two--no, three --Quakerly quarrels with this film, among which the straw-woman treatment of the Peace Testimony only merits second place. First up should be unease at the depiction of femininity, particularly Quaker femininity. That's because as portrayed in High Noon, Amy the Quaker is a first-class, simpering dweeb, about the sorriest, phoniest caricature of a Friend I ever hope to see. A feminist film scholar, Joan Mellen, whose book Big Bad Wolves, tracks and analyzes male values and images in American films, describes Amy with accurate scorn as "passive and cloying", "a weak and stupid woman...prissy, colorless Grace Kelly, the 'good' woman, unassertive and slightly cowardly."

BUT THEY MEANT US NO HARM

Is this too harsh? I think not. Even Kelly, then a rookie actress, was embarrassed by her performance. As Mellen points out, "She is the kind of woman High Noon proposes to the masculine male, for she has no connection to the outside world other than through her man." Such "retrograde images of women" were, Mellen asserts, standard filmic fare in the fifties; and as one who grew up watching such movies, I think she's right. This is not a model Margaret Fell would have recognized; the film does not deal fairly with Amy as a Quaker or a woman.

Then there is the matter of nonviolence. Amy's Quakerism is patently no more than one more cardboard construction in the film's conceptual scenery; there is little serious exposition of it, and about the most profound argument she makes for it to Will is that of denial: "It's no concern of yours."

Finally, the film's cavalier, uninformed treatment of Quakerism is all too typical of the ahistorical character of Western films generally. But as James Folsom said in the book Focus on the Western, "...Western history is notable in Westerns primarily because of its absence...." The elements of the hero defending threatened values against evil with violence serve as convenient carriers for many other sorts of messages. Certainly in High Noon the writers and directors are ignorant of Quakerism, and blatantly unfair in their depiction of its convictions. But clearly too, they mean Quakerism per se no harm; it is but a rhetorical device in their script. In that case, what other message can it be carrying?

Many critics manage to see in High Noon a veiled protest against the cowardly way in which so much of the American establishment was caving in to the hysteria and witchhunts of McCarthyism, then at their peak. This notion seems to be corroborated by the fact that scriptwriter Carl Foreman had been blacklisted for declining to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

GEORGE BUSH AS GARY COOPER?

But As Mellen puts it, if so "defeat is inherent in its plot." It sneers at democracy: all the ordinary citizens of Hadleyville are cringing weaklings; only the superman--and who among us is like him?--can overcome the forces of evil, and he must use the tools of evil to do it. In the end, Mellen aptly says, "personal violence is the only means by which a man can protect what is valuable to him....We are told, unequivocally, that the real man is the one who fights." She also points out that Cooper arrogates to himself the authority to decide when and how to accord the arriving outlaws any civil rights; such is the privilege of the Western Hero.

Mellen sees in High Noon a chilling "crypto-fascist" outlook that emerged more starkly, and with wild success, in the non-western revenge films of the seventies and eighties (and now nineties...) typified by Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series. She notes a telling, probably intentional parallel, in which Harry, at the conclusion of one of his ultra-violent "thrillers", also tosses away his inspector's badge, into a quarry.

The continuing real-life power of this archetypal American scenario was shown with spectacular success only months ago, in the Gulf War. With almost cinematic skill, and aided by consummate media professionals, George Bush painted the U.S. as the reluctant marshal rallying a disorganized and previously spineless group of Hadleyville-ish governments into a posse that set out to stop the incarnation of pure evil, using violence to tame the wild (Middle Eastern) frontier, to bring it law and (new world) order. Along the way he had to overcome the doubters in his own camp, but that too was easily done: the Democrats were successfully painted as cowards and the peaceniks, like Amy the Quaker, as fools.

REAGAN'S RARE CLEARER VISION

To be sure, the movie did not fade out quite on schedule after the carefully-scripted denouement of the shootout in the Kuwait Corral, and the extemporaneous, bloodier aftermath has had a distinctly un-Western character. Still, the capacity of American media and their consumers to ignore and soon forget data that does not fit such well-worn scripts can hardly be overestimated. In a way, the U.S. marshal is once again tossing his badge in the sand and leaving town.

So perhaps High Noon deserves its place in the American filmic pantheon, as a parable of the nineties as much as of the fifties. Certainly it is a landmark in the (mis)treatment of Quakerism for a popular audience. Indeed, by itself it would be enough to make a serious Friend turn Wilburite and swear off (I mean, affirm off) movies for good.

But that would be a mistake, not least because then you'd miss out on one of the great ironic twists of cinema history, namely that only four years later, the same Gary Cooper starred in Friendly Persuasion, which is undoubtedly the best, fairest depiction of Quakerism on celluloid. But the ironic parallels don't stop there: Friendly Persuasion too was both a box office and a critical success; its screenplay was likewise written by a victim of McCarthyism, in this case Michael Wilson, who was not given a screenwriter's credit. And not least, if High Noon was the filmic apotheosis of the haunted Fifties, could Friendly Persuasion have been a turning point of the crazy eighties? After all, Ronald Reagan gave a copy to Mikhail Gorbachev at the summit which marked the end of the Cold War, along with a speech praising it as the emblem of the search for an alternative to war. And we know how the former president got most of his ideas, and half his facts, from watching movies.

UN-FRIENDLY PERSUASION

Still, Friendly Persuasion has its critics, including some Friends. For instance, Thomas Radecki, of Urbana-Champaign Meeting in Illinois, condemned it in a lengthy review in Friends Journal (4/1989) entitled "Film's Message Esteems Violence". As far as Radecki is concerned, almost everything about Friendly Persuasion is wrong: "Quakers are portrayed as opposing going to war but are not shown as doing anything active...to nonviolently work against the war. They are accused of letting others do the fighting for them. The values of the Quaker minister are repeatedly mocked. Her younger son participates in gambling...her daughter falls in love with a dashing Union lieutenant...[and] goes dancing with him...[her] husband brings an organ into the house....Later, in the critical part of the film, every Quaker man eventually picks up his gun to fight the rebels....At one point, [the mother] becomes angry and...strikes a rebel soldier to keep him from killing a pet goose...at no time did the Quaker minister witness for peace."

There's more, but you get the idea. Radecki grudgingly admits that "the film does have some redeeming qualities, but I rate the movie as at least somewhat harmful due to its message that violence is the only way to successfully resist violence. I wish I could say better."

If he can't say better, however, I can: Such complaints notwithstanding, Friendly Persuasion seems to me to come about as close to truth and fairness as I expect to see Hollywood get in a treatment of Quakerism; I recommend it to every Quaker parent, as projecting images their children ought to see and imitate. While all that Radecki mentions is, in the narrowest sense, accurate, I believe he has woefully misjudged the film, on several counts: its place in American cinema, the characters and their roles, its historicity, and, not least, its value as an expression of the Peace Testimony. Here, for perhaps the only time, I think Ronald Reagan was closer to the truth when he commended the film to Gorbachev because it "shows not the tragedy of war, but the problems of pacifism, the nobility of patriotism as well as the love of peace."

Why such praise? The discussion of High Noon points to the first consideration: the film's challenge to its cultural context, as indicated by its stars. Another of Gary Cooper's biographers, Stuart Kaminsky, put it this way: "Instead of his usual man of action, a man who settles things with his gun and fists when he is pushed to the wall, Cooper is here a man who rejects everything his earlier characters had stood for." The significance of Gary Cooper as Quaker Jess Birdwell is underscored when we consider that the role was originally planned for crooner Bing Crosby (!?).

ELIZA VS. AMY--NO CONTEST

Perhaps even more important was Dorothy McGuire's performance as Eliza, which earned her the Best Actress award from the National Board of Review for the "spare yet appealing integrity" of the role. Here is a woman who is a leader in her community, as her husband is not--she is the one who rebukes the Union commander when he enters their meetinghouse looking for recruits. She is competent and respected in her household, challenging her husband and even, however briefly, leaving him when he waffles under her eldering over the unorthodox organ. (There is, in the resolution of this contretemps, a demure hint of her as a sexual person too.) And, let us not forget, she is brave enough to face a band of rebel marauders alone and unarmed, and treat them, despite her fears, for the most part peaceably.

In short, she is just about everything as a woman, never mind a Quaker woman, that Grace Kelly in High Noon was not. And all this in a major, successful Hollywood film of the mid-1950s! Not only was such a female character a countercultural figure then; they are rare enough in even the better films of the nineties, for pete's sake.

But what, Friend Radecki might object, about the once-militant pacifist Quaker elder who turns gun-toting fire-brand when his barn is burned down? What about the Birdwells' son Josh, who finally joins the battle against the rebel invaders to find out if he is truly a pacifist or only a coward? What about Eliza's assault with a broom to save her endangered goose? Are not these all mockeries of Quaker pacifism?

FAILINGS ARE NOT FAILURE

Not as I saw them. Rather, they simply showed these Friends as less than perfect, as people holding sincere beliefs who are not always able to live up to them completely. And contrary to the cavils of thin-skinned Friendly critics, this is not mockery; it is humanity. It makes not only for a much better drama, but also for a very sympathetic sketch of Quakerism.

In fact, only the apostate elder, whose pacifism proves to be merely barn-deep, is shown to be worthy of scorn: the Birdwells' son turns away from his gun after the battle; he has found his peace witness--at a price, but found it nonetheless. His father almost shoots the rebel who wounded him but then does not; and the wife is ashamed of herself for the broom attack. True, none of them breaks into a homily on the practicality of nonviolence; that is left to the Methodist preacher who, stops by with his gun, and laments his and society's inability to find a more peaceful way, but praises the Friends for trying, however falteringly.

But why did they have to be shown to be so flawed in other ways? Why the organ, the dancing, the romance with a soldier, the fear of being called cowards, and more? Is this not more mockery? They should have been more homiletically peaceful, some may say. They should have been more thoroughly plain; they should have been more, well, Quakerly. But it is here that what seems like the film's deepest flaw is in fact one of its greatest virtues; because, verily, dear Friends, that's the way it really was among Indiana Quakers in those years.

Make some allowance for the Hollywood treatment, but Jessamyn West's stories on which the film was based were not inventions. Rather, she re-created a real Quaker girlhood as recalled for her by the grandmother who had lived it. (Look up her poignant memoir, The Woman Said Yes, for the details.) And in those years, Indiana Friends did indeed join the Union army in great numbers; they did turn to music in their homes and in their worship; their separatist way of life was in fact fast dissolving.

THE TRUTH ABOUT INDIANA

Perhaps this was a great loss, a default on their Quakerism (though Friends in Western and Indiana Yearly Meetings will give you an argument about that). But in any case, it happened just about that way. (Read Thomas Hamm's fine study, The Transformation of American Quakerism, for a scholarly account.) And is it not unseemly for members of a body of truth-seekers and speakers to be trashing Friendly Persuasion for just those features of its story which are, for better and for worse, the closest to the actual historical truth about us?

If that's not enough for you, think of it this way: Which movie would you rather have had Gorbachev and the Politburo settling back to watch after the Reagan summit, their feet up and the vodka handy, reading between the subtitles for cinematic clues to the future contours of US-Soviet relations (with, in the bargain, a sketch of that quaint sect of Quakers)?

Take your pick: Friendly Persuasion, and the less than perfect Quaker Birdwells; or Grace "killer" Kelly and the apocalyptic machismo of High Noon.

I don't find the choice hard at all.

FRIENDS ON FILM: A GUIDE

Compiled by Dennis Maulsby

(Ed. Note: Movie buff Maulsby is a member and clerk of Penn Valley Meeting in Kansas City and a bank vice president. He found most of the movies described here via late-night TV and VCR, and is seeking out more. If you know of other films with Quaker content, please let us know, via this Letter.)

(A Further Note about Availability: Movies, like books, go in and out of print. Many of these films are on video, but finding some of them can be difficult; try your library for video directories, and/or a video wholesaler.)

Murphy's War, 1971, starring Peter O'Toole & Sian Phillips. Murphy is a British sailor, who is rescued from the sea after his warship has been sunk by a German submarine in the last days of World War II. The action takes place off the East coast of South America near a small primitive Indian village. Sian Phillips plays a female Quaker doctor assigned to the village by a Friends' relief organization.

A group of Germans is hiding out upriver from the village, waiting out the war. Murphy attempts to destroy them for killing his lost ship's sole remaining officer. His simple desire for survival gradually becomes a mania for revenge, in spite of the doctor's efforts. In fact, Murphy remains confused to the end about the doctor's Quaker beliefs. She in turn is unable to prevent his destruction.

The Deep Six, 1958, with Alan Ladd and William Bendix, is another variation of the Quakers-at-war motif. Ladd is a rising artist whose career and budding romance are interrupted by the Korean War. Although descended from a long line of Quakers, Ladd ends up a navy officer after ROTC in college. His early pacifist beliefs are thoroughly tested by active duty. You guess which option ...violence or non...he finally chooses.

Cheyenne Autumn, 1964, features Richard Widmark and Carroll Baker. Baker is a beautiful Quaker schoolteacher assigned to a Sioux reservation in the desert southwest. In desperate shape, thousands of miles from their home in the Black Hills, the Sioux appeal to Congress and the president in vain. Then they attempt a return to their homelands.

Most of the film deals with the Sioux's attempts to avoid capture. Naturally the Quaker teacher goes with the Indians, while her suitor, Cavalry Captain Widmark, leads the pursuit.

Bedlam, 1945, starring Boris Karloff, pits Quakers against his special brand of evil. The movie's unusual setting highlights the early Friends' mental hospital reform work. Karloff is cast as a corrupt and venal manager of a British insane asylum. A handsome Quaker stonemason and a convinced female Friend, played by Anna Lee, take on the villain. Lee, having been wrongfully committed due to Karloff's machinations, works from within, while the stonemason rallies outside support, and Karloff is eventually defeated.

The movie cast historical British mental hospitals in such a poor light that it was banned in Britain.

Angel and the Badman, 1947, with John Wayne, Gail Russell and Harry Carey. This boilerplate western is a precursor of High Noon, which lacks all the distinction of the latter, but retains some homely virtues of its own.

The plot features Wayne as a onetime good guy, Quirt Evans, gone bad. After collapsing on the doorstep of a Quaker family, he is nursed back to health by Friend Penelope, Gail Russell.

Russell, while no Eliza Birdwell, is more appealing than Grace Kelly's Amy Kane, and prettier too.

Once indoctrinated with the Quaker lifestyle and emotionally bonded to the Quaker maid, Wayne's good side re-emerges. But of course there are bad guys with guns yet to be faced, and the question of violence to be confronted.

This time, luckily, Friend Penelope doesn't end up a killer, though Harry Carey as the sheriff fuzzes the issues by coming through as the deus ex machina at the last moment. But at fadeout Wayne, yes the Duke himself, is declaring he'll spend the rest of his life behind a plow rather than a gun.

The July Group, 1985, was filmed on a shoestring in Canada with a cast of unknowns, but it is one of the best of this bunch, perhaps because it, like Friendly Persuasion, was based on a novel by a serious, creative Quaker. In the late Stanley Ellin's novel, Stronghold, (discussed in AFL#3) a small-town Quaker banker's family is taken hostage by a band of cutthroats who want couple million bucks and a helicopter. The family, supported by their small meeting, decides to try nonviolent resistance to the plot.

Here is a story that even Thomas Radecki should find acceptable. With little sermonizing, and amid much realistic fear and trembling, this small band of Quakers takes on hard-core violence head-on, in their own peaceable but determined way. Violence is not entirely avoided (the genre does have its demands), but...see it and judge for yourself. This film is hard to find, alas, but worth the search.

The Courageous Mr. Penn, 1941, with Clifford Evans and Deborah Kerr. A British biography of the founder of Pennsylvania, which vividly portrays the persecution he faced, including his historic role in inspiring a jury to defy judicial bullying and establish their right to their own verdict, a keystone of our justice system. While building his pioneering colony against great odds, the film's Penn also romances the aristocratic Kerr, who converts to Quakerism and marries him. A fine historical drama.

Down To The Sea In Ships, 1922, with Raymond McKee and Clara Bow. This film highlights the once-great Quaker whaling community of New Bedford, Massachusetts, with sequences showing Friends at worship and doing business, in authentic plain dress in an authentic old meetinghouse. Mainly, though, it is a silent sea spectacle, with stowaways, lovers pursued by a villain, and an appropriate piano score.

Raid on Rommel, a 1971 Richard Burton vehicle about a commando raid on Nazi oil supplies in North Africa, gives Friends at least an honorable mention. The raiders' medic is a British Friend who ably voices the Quaker peace testimony. He is also the focus of the film's comic relief, when he is assigned to guard the captured nymphomaniac mistress of an Italian general.

Copyright by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.

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