This William Wyler directed feature takes all of about three minutes to capture one’s sentimental side. He opens the film in 1862, Louisiana, with a young Quaker boy fencing with his pet goose, Samantha on the family farm. It’s Sunday and the Birdwell’s are gathering to go to prayer meeting. The family consists of our young boy Richard Eyer, big brother Anthony Perkins, the only daughter played by Phyllis Love and our Quaker parents perfectly enacted by Dorothy McGuire and the iconic Gary Cooper.
This gentle tale involves the day to day struggles of a peace loving family who are about to have the horrors of war encroach upon their lands and uproot there beliefs in right and wrong. Serious as the topic may be, a good majority of the film is endearingly funny with Coop at the top of his game as the “Deeds” like father with an adventurous streak.
As a rather strict family of religion, Coop seems to get caught up regularly in competition with friendly neighbor Robert Middleton who is not of the Quaker faith and is never disrespectful of Coop’s religion though he does enjoy getting Coop in a bit of trouble now and then with the straight laced McGuire. Against her wishes, Coop takes the family to the county fair where each character will find an adventure of their own. Gambling, romance, dancing and even frilly elastics for garter belts figure prominently in this hilarious segment.
The most humorous segment of the film just might be when Coop and young Perkins embark on a road trip that sees them arriving at the home of the widow Marjorie Main who has three daughters just itching for a man of their own. The three practically manhandle young Tony while even Main seems to set her bonnet for Coop. A scene not to be missed. Wonderful Marjorie seems to have been plucked from the set of a Kettle film to do duty here as “Ma.”
There are plenty more charming scenes ahead including romantic interludes with Coop’s daughter and Middleton’s young son and Union soldier, Peter Mark Richman as well as what happens when Coop tries to bring an organ into the home. McGuire moves to the barn which leads to another fun bit involving Coop and Middleton. It should also be noted that Middleton gets a good role here and plays a “good guy” as opposed to many of his on screen assignments.
The tone of the film will soon change when the Rebs are just a few hills away and laying siege to the surrounding farms. The family’s faith will be tested in just how far they will go to protect themselves from enemies that they don’t believe they have in the first place. The focus will shift heavily to young Perkins in an Oscar nominated role as he must decide between his Quaker teachings or take up the gun and possibly take a life to protect farm and family.
As the tension rises, Coop somberly tells McGuire, “I’m just his father, Eliza, not his conscience. A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience. ” Who better to deliver a line like that then an aging Gary Cooper?
Alongside Wyler and the movie being nominated for Oscars, Perkins received a well deserved nod as well though he did lose the statue to Anthony Quinn’s Lust For Life appearance.
There is a charm and innocence in this film that makes it required viewing for more than the casual Gary Cooper fan. For those that are not overly familiar with Coop’s countless credits, this is just one of many that stand tall, requiring multiple viewings. McGuire is a delight as the mother not only trying to keep her family out of the war but on the straight and narrow path of the Quaker faith and even she will have a memorable test of faith near the end eliciting a tear from those of us with a heart.
Civil war buffs would be prime candidates to sit and enjoy this frontier tale of family life and it also serves as an interesting look at the career of Perkins in a pre Norman Bates role. One must almost pause to remember that Perkins was in films before the role that arguably altered his career to the point of being irreparably type cast. He’s good here and shouldn’t be overlooked. Even Pat Boone fans might tune in as he croons the song over the opening credits.
Enough of my sentimental ramblings. If you have seen this Coop classic, I hope you love it as I do and if you have never sat and enjoyed it, do so now.