Film Review - Shenandoah (1965)
'Shenandoah' is one of the very best films in the Western genre, a movie which takes the very greatest crisis of American history and looks at the personal story of a family caught up in the tragedy of violent conflict. It is a powerful and evocative drama about one man's attempts to keep his family together in the midst of the escalating conflict of the American Civil War.
Made in 1965 by well known director of Westerns, Andrew V McLagen, and featuring James Stewart, one of the greatest and most popular of film stars from the Golden Era of the Hollywood Western, 'Shenandoah' is a movie to stir the emotions, and a movie which should appeal even to those who have no fondness for this particular movie genre.
'Shenandoah' is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful Civil War dramas ever to come out of Hollywood.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
Charlie Anderson is a home-loving man, a farmer, and a widower. He works his land in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in the State of Virginia, and in this he is assisted by his large and devoted family of six sons, one daughter, and one daughter-in-law. Although he still grieves for his long dead wife, and struggles hard to keep his family together with good Christian values in accordance with the last wishes of his wife, Charlie is basically content. A lot of love exists in his family, he's beholding to no one, and the only real worry he has in normal times is how to get the harvest in on time.
But times are no longer normal. The American Civil War is raging. Charlie wants no part of it - it's not his conflict, and as far as he's concerned, it doesn't affect him. All he wants is for the warring factions to stay off his land and leave him and his family at peace. Unfortunately, Charlie is trying to hold back a relentless tide, and the war is coming closer and closer, threatening to sweep across his land and change his life forever. Soldiers from the Confederates come looking for new recruits from amongst Charlie's grown-up sons, and then there is a visit from a state official looking to acquire horses and supplies for the army - a visit which ends in a fist fight. And one of his sons, Jacob, has a growing unease about the family's refusal to play its part in the conflict. Still Charlie resists, and family life goes on. His daughter Jennie gets married, and his daughter-in-law Ann has a baby.
But then the youngest of his sons, known only as 'Boy', encounters a Union patrol near the farm, and mistakenly the patrol assumes him to be a rebel soldier. 'Boy' is taken prisoner, and carted away. And now Charlie can no longer stand back. Now he is involved whether he likes it or not. He has to go looking for 'Boy', and so he sets off on a quest with his family to find him, leaving only James and Ann at the farmhouse. It's a quest from which his family cannot emerge unscathed as he is led into violent contact with Union forces, and tragic encounter with Confederate forces. Along the way his family experiences both heartache and happiness. All the time Charlie's mission is clear - to find his son, and to keep the rest of his family together.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Andrew V McLaglen
- James Lee Barrett
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1965
RUNNING TIME : 105 minutes
GENRE : Western
GUIDENCE : Some violence and war deaths, but nothing very gory
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Waldon O Watson (Best Sound)
KEY CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES
Without question the central character in this movie is Charlie Anderson. Cigar-smoking Charlie is stubborn, sometimes cantankerous, aggressive in defence of his way of life, but always loving and supportive of his family. At times grief-stricken and distraught, at times content with his growing family, this is one of the very finest moments in the career of one of Hollywood's greats - James Stewart.
Charlie's children are for the most part fairly anonymous, and none of their characters are deeply explored. Perhaps because of the strong family environment in which they have been brought up, individual personalities have not been able to flourish. Only one is married at the beginning of the movie, and one gets married during the movie. Only one - Jacob (Glen Corbett) - has clear views which may be contrary to those of his father, and only one - 'Boy' - has a significant role away from the Anderson's farm. Phillip Alford performs this role well.
Sam is the most prominent of the other characters in the movie. He is a Confederate Officer who becomes engaged and married to Charlie's daughter. Sam is played by Doug McClure as a socially awkward and tongue-tied young man, in love with Jennie, but respectfully nervous in the presence of her father. It's actually a very accomplished characterisation.
Denver Pyle gives a nice, almost comedic performance as the long suffering Pastor Bjoerling who is constantly having his church services disrupted by the late arrival of Charlie and his entourage.
Gene Jackson plays Gabriel - Boy's friend - a character who is involved twice in the story, each time in quite pivotal events. As a young black slave. Gabriel represents one of the major social triggers for war.
And mention must also be made of George Kennedy. Kennedy has only a minor cameo role, but it is a role which is truly memorable. He plays a war-weary, disillusioned Union Army Colonel, whom Charlie Anderson approaches in his attempt to find his son. The Colonel sympathises kindly, but points out the immense difficulties which the father faces in his quest. It's a touching portrayal of a man who, even though he's on the winning side, is tired of death and a life of tragedy.
There are few significant negatives in this film unless one finds the cloying sentimentality too much. Some viewers may, but for me the film is sufficiently well scripted and well acted, for the sentimentality to become believable.
Perhaps some scenes are a bit too contrived - notably the theatrical fist fight and the rather fortuitous rescue of 'Boy' from the battlefield. These are brief moments which are not entirely credible, but I believe they can be excused in the overall excellence of the movie.
The period of the Civil War in which this movie is set is not made overtly clear, but at one stage a Confederate Corporal states the 'Yankees have broken through at Winchester'. This happened on 19th September 1864.
This was the film debut of Katherine Ross.
The music which bookends the movie and plays intermittently throughout is, of course, the great folk song which bears the same name as the movie. 'Shenandoah' dates at least to the early part of the 19th century, and remains to this day one of the most beautiful of all American folk songs.
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Just like Charlie Anderson, this film shies away from pointedly taking sides in the conflict. Both Union and Confederate soldiers act in ways which are both good and bad. Only once is a clear stand taken by the director, and it creates an uplifting scene which embodies what so much of this conflict was all about - the emancipation of the slaves. Gabriel is a friend of Charlie's youngest son. He is also a slave (though not 'belonging' to Charlie). Following the capture of 'Boy', Gabriel is told by Union soldiers that he is now free. There follows this conversation with Jennie:
- I don't gotta go back, do I missy? Man say I'm free. Don't that mean I don't gotta go back?
- Well if the man said you're free Gabriel, I guess that means you can go anywhere in the world you wanna go.
- You mean I can just just walk down that road and keep on walking?
- You can run if you like Gabriel.
With that, Gabriel says goodbye and sets off down the road, a free man to do as he wishes. He leaves to the musical accompaniment on film of 'John Brown's Body'. It's almost - but not quite - the last we see of Gabriel.
The movie is full of good sequences. Sam's awkwardly expressed request to marry Jennie, and Charlie's stern yet fatherly advice, is well observed (and depicted opposite). The church scenes are also well handled, and the battlefield action is believably filmed. All emotions are credibly presented.
To conclude this section on a note of some levity, humour does punctuate the drama in this story. Confederate and Union troops are lined up facing each other across a field, when the tension is broken by a stray cow wandering between them. The leader of the Confederate forces turns to his subordinate:
- 'Lieutenent .. is that a Confederate cow or a Union cow?'
- 'That must be a Union cow sir.'
- 'Are Union cows tasty?'
- 'Quite tasty.'
- 'Then take her prisoner.'
- 'Yes sir.'
With that the Lieutenant rides out in an attempt to commandeer the cow amidst much ribaldry and cheering from both sides. It's a great moment between troops with a shared sense of humour, if different values.
Then the killing begins ...
In the photo above, the Andersons are recovering from a fist fight wiith men who have come to acquisition his horses for the war effort, Jacob Anderson (centre) once again takes the opportunity to tackle his father over his reluctance to get involved in the conflict:
- 'Pa, first it was Johnson, and that was on our land. Now they come driving right into our yard. Aren't we going to do anything about it?'
Charlie nurses his bruises and says:
- 'Well I must be getting old - seems to me we just did!'
'Shenandoah', features a really fine script by James Lee Barrett, and well written dialogue is one of the key strengths of the movie. Most notably the stubbornly expressed refusal of Charlie Anderson to involve his family in the Civil War affords some great lines. Indeed the very first lines of the movie tell us all we need to know about Charlie's attitude when his doubting son Jacob arrives home with news of the encroaching armies:
- 'They come closer every day Pa'.
- 'They on our land?'
- 'No sir'.
- 'Well then it doesn't concern us, does it?'
As long as it remains that way Charlie is content. But still the war comes ever closer. A Confederate Lieutenant arrives, looking for new recruits to the background sound of gunfire, but Charlie has his own concerns:
- 'Glad you're here Johnson. I've been meaning to have a little talk with your people about these cannon of yours. My chicken have stopped laying, the cow's dried up. Who do I send the bill to?'
- 'Well you might try Abe Lincoln; they're mostly his. When are you going to take this war seriously Mr Anderson?'
- 'Now let me tell you something Johnson before you get on my wrong side. My corn I take seriously because it's my corn, and my potatoes and tomatoes and fences I take note of because they're mine. But this war is not mine, and I take no note of it!'
Charlie's long dead wife had expressed the wish for the children to be brought up with Christian teaching and values. It's a kind of reluctant mission that he takes on, regularly turning up late at church on Sundays, but always making the effort to attend. Charlie's saying of 'Grace' before a family meal is a classic statement of where he feels real credit for farming the land is due:
- 'Lord, we cleared this land. We ploughed it, sowed it and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be eating it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dogbone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway Lord for this food we're about to eat. Amen.'
Much of the rest of the dialogue is excellent, and a few other quotes are therefore sprinkled throughout this review.
SHENANDOAH - A FILM ABOUT WAR AND ABOUT FAMILY
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
'Shenandoah' works on many levels. It works as an indictment of the grief and suffering of war. It works as a story of America at a time of historic change. And it works as a story of family values. These various themes are all neatly brought together when Charlie has a conversation with Tom, the village doctor. He asks the doctor for his views:
- 'Tom - what's happening? Virginia's losing isn't she?'
- 'It looks that way Charlie.'
- 'How do you feel about it all?'
- 'I was born in Virginia. Lived here all my life. Raised three sons and two daughters under her flag. My oldest son Paul lies buried somewhere in Pennsylvania ... they said Gettysburg is where he fell, at a place called Little Round Top. My youngest boy came home last week with tuberculosis - he won't see another Christmas. My third son rides with General Forrest; I don't know where they are. You - you were asking me how I feel about it all. That's the only way I know how to answer you.'
The doctor cannot express his feelings. He can only relate the family tragedy of his particular war. It makes Charlie's reluctance to get involved, quite understandable. His family - like the doctor's - is now moving into the firing line. And that's what this movie shows so eloquently.
'Shenandoah' is a movie with a beautiful Virginian setting, gentle music and good dialogue, a few laughs, a poignant message, a national struggle to win a war, and a private struggle to keep a family together. The last ten minutes and two scenes - one at a grave and one in the church - are guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of many viewers. A great film.
MY CONCLUSIONS AND MY RECOMMENDATIONS
'Shenandoah' is a film with a clever script featuring great acting from James Stewart and others. Though set in the American Civil War, this is not some gung-ho heroic war film. It's a film - just like war - in which almost everybody suffers. There is pathos in this movie. But if that sounds a bit depressing, there is also compassion, fortitude, joy and even gentle humour. Above all there is a very strong sense of family togetherness cemented through homespun philosophies, and there is a warm-heartedness of spirit. And the prevailing emotion in this film, ultimately, is positive and uplifting.
I would commend the film to all who like Westerns, historical dramas, or family dramas.
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