Shenandoah: James Stewart stars as the family patriarch driven to rescue his young son from the Yankees in this fine Civil-war-era family saga

Shenandoah (1965), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, stars James Stewart in the lead role of a politically neutral Virginian farmer who gets caught up in the civil war and loses most of his family during the 1864 campaign by the North to capture the Shenandoah valley.

The Shenandoah Valley, or the Valley of Virginia, was, along with its strategic and tactical military advantages (being a convenient invasion route) also of great logistical value to the Confederacy during the American Civil War. It was an extremely fertile and highly productive agricultural region. Farmers in the Valley practiced a mixed agriculture that produced a broad array of field crops, including corn, hay, and cereal crops, particularly wheat. Hence, it was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy”. The farmers also kept a full complement of livestock such as horses, cattle, sheep, swine and fowl. The Confederate Army relied heavily on the valley as a source of draft horses. The North believed that if they could deprive the south of this asset it would greatly shorten the war. During the war, there were two major campaigns there: the first being in 1862, in which the valley was defended by General Stonewall Jackson; and the second in 1864. The 1864 campaign took place between mid-August and mid-October and involved six major battles. In the end, after great loss of life on both sides, the north under General Sheridan defeated the south under General Jubal Early, after which the farms and crops were burned and destroyed. The results of this ‘scorched-earth policy ‘ was so devastating that pre-war agricultural production in the Valley was not achieved again until 1880. Not many American films have been made about the civil war, and even few references these incidents that happened in the Shenandoah valley. One film that comes to mind is John Ford’s “Rio Grande,” in which John Wayne played an Union officer (serving under General Sheridan) who was responsible for burning the farms in Shenandoah valley that belonged to his southern wife, played by Maureen O’Hara; the incident creating a rift in their marriage that is only bridged at the end of that film.

Andrew V. McLaglen’s 1965 film, “Shenandoah,” starring James Stewart, tells a fictional story of a Virginian farmer and his family getting caught up in the 1864 campaign. Though the film’s story ends before the ‘Burning,’ it does show how the war devastated the beautiful valley. In the fictional community of Shenandoah Gap, widowed patriarch Charlie Anderson(James Stewart) rules his clan of six sons  (Jacob, John, James, Nathan, Henry, and Boy (who is 16)), one daughter (Jennie) and daughter-in-law, James’ wife, Ann; and is determined not to pay any attention to anything (like a civil war) happening beyond the boundaries of their 500-acre farm. “This war is not mine and I take no note of it,” he states without hesitation or doubt. Anderson does not believe in slavery and has no thoughts on the preservation of the Union. He’s more concerned with the raising of his children and the running of the farm. Though they occasionally have to fight off soldiers and federal agents who want their animals or supplies, they try to remain neutral. Some of the sons have misgivings about sitting out the war, but they remain silent in front of their stern father. Charlie’s daughter, Jennie, falls in love with and marries Sam, a Confederate officer who is called to duty on their wedding day. A bunch of Confederate soldiers, who came to Charlie asking for help, are brutally massacred by Union soldiers not far from their farm, but even this is not going to force Charlie to alter his stated neutrality or isolationism. But the war finally becomes Charlie’s concern when Charlie’s youngest son, Boy, is mistaken for a southern soldier (after he picks up and wears a discarded Confederate cap), and is taken prisoner by the Union soldiers. Leaving James, Ann, and their newborn baby behind to watch the farm, the Charlie sets out with the rest of the family to find Boy and bring him back. The journey proves to be traumatic for Charlie, as he not only fails to find his son, Boy, but his other son, Jacob, is accidentally killed by a Confederate sentry; though in middle of all this Charlie accidentally frees his son-in-law, Sam, from a Union prison camp. A grief-stricken Charlie returns to his farm only to find out that James and Ann have been murdered by Confederate looters, though the baby has been spared. A totally devastated Charlie gets a much needed reprieve when Boy, who managed to escape from the POW camp, returns to the family.

“Shenandoah” is very different from other Civil-war-era Westerns in the sense that this is more of a Tearjerker\Melodrama and a family saga filled with humor and pathos- rather than an Action-packed Cavalry Western, like John Ford’s “The Horse Soldiers” or Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee (which was released in the same year).” The first hour of this film is entirely devoted to setting up the ecosystem of the Anderson family- their internal and external relationships and conflicts, their friends, their rivals, their farm, the family dinners, the church they regularly attend, the suitor courting the daughter, the war slowly invading into their lives, and the power exerted by the patriarch, Charlie, in all matters. It’s a very warm, very funny and very pleasant bucolic drama in the mold of “Friendly Persuasion” in the film’s first hour. It’s only after Boy is taken prisoner that the film kicks into high gear and start acquiring the traits of a Western. Like “The Searchers,” the film becomes a tense story of a family elder’s grueling search for a missing kin in a hostile territory. Only here. it’s not the hostile Native tribesmen they are up against, but their own kind- except that they have now split into two factions. This is also a big departure as far as classical Westerns go; by the ’60s the concept of Native Americans as villains was becoming passé. And, since Anderson is politically neutral, he disdains both the Confederacy and the Union. One of the best scenes in this portion is an encounter between Charlie and a Union Colonel Fairchild, played by George Kennedy in a one-scene appearance. And contrary to Charlie’s (and audience) expectations, he turns out to be an extremely sympathetic character, who completely empathizes with Charlie’s predicament; reason: Fairchild also has a 16 year old son who is studying in Boston. And, since Fairchild does not have Boy in his custody, he gives a not to Charlie in which it is written that returning Boy to Charlie will be considered by Fairchild as a personal favor to him. Kennedy is brilliant at expressing the soldier’s battle fatigue and world weariness, and casting Kennedy , who is famous for his hardboiled performances in tough-guy roles, in such a subdued role is a pleasant surprise.

This film is produced by Universal Studios, who, in the ’50s made a series of tough, psychological Westerns starring James Stewart as vengeful, angst-ridden heroes, which were mostly directed by Anthony Mann. After he split from Mann, Stewart didn’t get to do many good Westerns, except maybe the odd “The Man who shot Liberty Valance.” This film is a welcome return to Western form for Stewart in which the actor got to showcase both sides of the Stewart persona. His character in the first half – the stern but loving patriarch – resembles the gentle American heroes he played in Frank Capra movies, while the angry father obsessively searching for his missing son resembles the driven, neurotic heroes from the Mann Westerns. Charlie Anderson is a Howard Roark kind of iconoclast. He is obsessively individualistic: He’s a Virginian who’s against slavery, as he managed to farm 500 acres all by himself “without spilling one drop of slave sweat”(his words); he refuse to thank the lord while ‘saying grace’ because he and his family did all the work themselves in bringing the food to the table; he attends church only because that was his dying wife’s last wish, and he and his large brood of children are a constant disturbance during the church services as they always arrive late; he is neutral in war because it doesn’t concern him personally; even when he enters the war to save his son, he does not join the existing war, he starts his own war. His first act in war is to burn down a Union train after rescuing the Southern POWs, only because the Union officer in charge (who has ‘schedules to keep’) refused to let him search the train for his son. Stewart gives a terrific performance in the film, and I think only he could have infused a sense of humor & pathos and a sense of reality to many of the lengthy monologues (and one-sided conversations) that’s part of the character; the conversation he has with his future son-in-law about life after marriage is very humorous, while he makes the clichéd monologues beside his wife’s grave very moving. The patriarchal and individualistic authority he projects is a very understated one; it’s kind of subtle but still forceful; constantly chewing on a cigar and a permanent frown on his grizzled face, he makes this proud, authoritarian yet vulnerable old man very relatable. One of Stewart’s most memorable sequences is his confrontation with a young Confederate soldier who has just shot & killed Charlie’s son Jacob; Charlie, shivering with rage, tries to strangle the boy, but then restrains himself when he realizes that the young soldier is the same age as his son, Boy; then with a quiet intensity, Stewart’s Charlie tells him to remember what he has done when he has children of his own. 

Stewart dominates the film so completely that none among the rest of the cast makes an impact. It also doesn’t help that Charlie’s family members are all underwritten and they do not have any standout characteristics. Doug McClure as Charlie’s shy son-in-law and committed southern soldier, Sam; Rosemary Forsyth as strong-willed daughter Jennie; and Philip Alford as Boy manages to make some impact. The film is as much Boy’s coming-of-age tale as it is about Charlie’s search for his son. From showing bad judgement in picking up and wearing a confederate cap, to becoming a POW , then escaping from prison and becoming a Confederate soldier, to being rescued by his friend, a slave boy, who’s now a Union soldier, and finally, though injured but still alive, reuniting with his father and family, the film presents a intelligent character arc for Alford’s character. he is the only character in the film that undergoes a transformation, because, as we can deduce from the final church scene, Charlie, even after facing so many tragedies, is still the same man he was before. This is the first (the best and most successful) of the four films that director, McLaglen made with Stewart. McLaglen was son of John Ford’s stock company actor, Victor McLaglen; and he started out by assisting Ford. McLaglen is the definition of the studio ‘journeyman’ director. His films are professionally made and there is nothing artistically or technically remarkable about them. He made very simple\simplistic and straightforward entertainers, and he was very good at handling huge stars; he was John Wayne’s favorite director throughout the ’60s and ’70s and made many popular films with Duke, like “McLintock!,” “The Undefeated” and “Chisum.” Though he lacks the frame composition genius and thematic depth of Ford, McLaglen Jr. inherited Ford’s talent for sentimental melodrama, rustic humor, great scenery and choreographing action sequences. The film is visually resplendent; and even though no filming was done in Virginia (most of the film was shot in Oregon) the great cinematographer, William H. Clothier, manages to give a Picture book quality to the film’s visuals, especially in the first half.

McLaglen considered “Shenandoah” to be his favorite film. It’s understandable why- the film has the warmth, gravitas and maturity that McLaglen’s other films lack. Though he manages to slip in the typical Western set-pieces, like a rambunctious brawl or a train holdup, as well as large-scale battle-sequences, there are two sequences that are quite unique and well-staged: one involving a cow on a battlefield just before the battle, and the other a shocking rape/murder sequence that happens mostly off-screen, with McLaglen using sounds of swords clanging and approaching footsteps to creating a truly disturbing moment. The film is also different form other Civil war films in that it does not empathize with or romanticize the Southern Cause. Showing a Virginian farmer who is against slavery and refuses to support the Confederacy must have been quite path breaking for its time. The film refuses to take sides and shows that there are good and bad people on both sides, and ultimately it’s the innocent civilians who suffer the most in a war. The film came out at a time when war in Vietnam was escalating; and Charlie Anderson’s neutrality and the film’s antiwar, humanitarian message must have appealed to the masses. The film was one of the top ten box office hits of the year and it was nominated for Best Sound Oscar. “Shenandoah” was turned into a stage musical under the same title in the ’70s starring John Cullum.


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