Shenandoah is a late period James Stewart Western set against a back drop of the Civil War. Charlie Anderson (Stewart) is the patriarch of a large Virginian family whose sons he is desperately trying to keep out of the war. Anderson is fiercely independent and although against slavery is equally against war in any form. As such his farm is caught in a no man’s land of peace, surrounded on all four sides by the sounds and smells of war. As the war begins encroaching on his farm and on his family he battles hard to remain neutral but when his youngest son is mistakenly taken as a prisoner of war by the North he is forced to act and sets out with his other sons to bring his youngest home.
It took me a while to get into Shenandoah but by the end it was the closest I’d come to crying in a film since I last saw Schindler’s List. The film’s final act is incredibly emotional and without going into spoiler territory, shares some similarities with the plot of Saving Private Ryan. I was moved by Anderson’s steadfast attitude but change of heart when someone he loved was affected and Stewart is sublime in the lead role.
Early on it is made evident that Anderson is tough but fair and is trying to raise all of his seven children (six boys and a girl) to be upstanding, well mannered and polite. His wife died some years ago leaving him to raise the family in the manner which she would approve of. I liked his subtle Atheist comments and views and his work ethic was strong and intrepid. Anderson is also a man who sticks to his beliefs, to what is right and isn’t easily swayed. I liked the character a lot. Jimmy Stewart is excellent as the old man. The small but noticeable changes in his character as the plot unfolds are wonderfully played and you can see changes in his gate, his walk and the hunching of his shoulders as bad turns to worse late on. His face is also full of expression from early stern anger to later looks of distraught depression. Throughout all of this he maintains dignity and composure, even when forced to confront those who have wronged him.
Because of the number of Anderson children, some of them fade into the background and unfortunately the film has a habit of bringing characters to the foreground shortly before they are removed from the film. This can sometimes make plot developments seem rather obvious. Of the supporting cast there are some good performances and one stand out was Rosemary Forsyth in what was her debut screen role. She is dainty and beautiful when need be but headstrong and tough when required. Doug McClure was also very good and so too was young Phillip Alford. Many of the actors do succumb to playing bit parts and only shining in the moments before death or in a rare scene in which they are side by side with Stewart. The film looks nice and there are a couple of battle scenes which are well handled. The score works well and the film was nominated for Best Sound at the Oscars. The sound isn’t something that I picked up on though.
One interesting aspect of the movie is its anti-war message. The film was released just months into the Vietnam War and at a time when public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of the conflict. As a result the film’s message probably wouldn’t have been widely noted by audiences in 1965 but to watch the film fifty years later it is blindingly obvious. Another note of interest is that James Stewart was actually an active Brigadier General in the US Air Force Reserve at the time of shooting and had been decorated for his service in the Second World War. He would also go on to fly a mission over Vietnam. His casting then comes as a surprise as he was very well known for his military and political views which hardly match that of his character.
Overall Shenandoah is a little messy at times and the plot can be clunky and obvious. The hat is an unforgivable device which was just silly and there are a couple of unlikely coincidences and surprises which can be foreseen but the story is generally strong. I liked the anti-war message and the feeling of independence while James Stewart is fantastic. The final act is very well told and full of sadness and joy and makes up for some earlier sloppiness.
- The film broke box office records in Virginia, the place in which the film is set.
- John Wayne's son Patrick Wayne plays one of the Anderson boys.
- A stage musical of the film debuted in 1975 and John Cullum won a Tony Award for his part.