Shenandoah (1965)

I picked this movie up because it came recommended and I’ve always liked ol’ Jimmy Stewart.

I’m not sure what I was expecting of it, as I had forgotten anything and everything I’d read of it by the time I sat down to watch it. We start off learning of Charlie Anderson (Stewart), Virginian farmer and father of eight. Or is it seven, plus a daughter-in-law? Oh whatever, they all kind of blended together, honestly. The film is set in the middle of the Civil War, and Anderson is staunchly determined not to be involved. He does not feel the need of ‘state’ or duty to it, nor any other kind except to his family and his deceased wife. Her final wish was for him to raise their children as Christians, so he takes them into church every week inbetween their usual farmwork, often interrupting the service by arriving late and occasionally with familial noise or business on the part of the younger family members.

As is inevitable with a civil war, though, Anderson and his family (all sons but one daughter, whatever the total number was) are not able to keep out of its reach. It wanders in quietly and inanimately through a Confederate hat that washes down a stream to his youngest, “The Boy.” He only questions the Boy wearing it at the dinner table, but says little of it otherwise. He argues with his eldest, James (Patrick Wayne, son of John) about his stance on the war itself, winning in at least authority if not philosophy. But soon the involvement is more immediate–a Confederate soldier marries his daughter, and a small group of Confederate soldiers come to request his sons join up. Then the Union comes to buy or take his horses, leading to a brawl between the Andersons and the soldiers, determined to hold their ground, even as cannonfire echoes from miles around their farm. Finally the Boy is captured thanks to his “Johnny Reb” cap, and Charlie takes the family out to find him.

I was a little confused by the movie. Not the plot, certainly (it’s simplistic enough), but by what it was trying to do and accomplish. It bears the cringe-inducing fumbling and inarticulate dialogue of early Hollywood westerns that worried more about gunfights than characters, and the portrayal of the soldiers in the film is slightly confusing. Confederate soldiers are by and large polite and generally friendly, and all Union soldiers are snotty, arrogant and sarcastic. In the end the movie seems to be taking a stance against war, but this seems incongruous when it feels like it’s taking sides. Certainly I don’t mean to imply that it should have been the opposite, but this blanketing of attitude is the kind of poor writing I’m referring to. Many character actions are unbelievably ridiculous, too. Why on earth did the Boy keep the hat on after it got him into that trouble? Why did he so readily and stupidly follow the other Confederate prisoners? Why on earth did the entire family go out as a GROUP to find the missing son?

Dramatic events are just as clumsy as the dialogue, having no sense of pacing or emotion, often trying to focus on one or two characters with the rest paralyzed or milling around behind it all. Jimmy shines through it all, bringing a bitter, down-trodden pride to Charlie Anderson, showing him as a man who will stand by what he thinks is the right thing to do. Even when faced with loss, he barely contains his frustration, rage and sorrow–but I did say barely, and he does do it, and holds to his principles. He makes (seemingly) clear the movie’s feelings about war, that sides are irrelevant and pain, death and loss are the only real inevitable results.

I was happy to note the presence of George Kennedy (“sidekick” to Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun series and a character actor who has appeared regularly in a slew of other films) and Strother Martin. Unfortunately Strother does not get to put much of his voice or character into his very minor role, and with a distinctive voice like his it almost seems a waste. I had to strain to hear that peculiar timbre his voice has, as I fought off an irritation at the scene it occurred in.

One of the more disappointing films I’ve gotten around to seeing these days.

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