01 June 2009


Shenandoah Still Sad, Tragic
By Kristin Battestella

Despite my recent DVD proclivity for Sean Bean, my VHS collection offers a serious helping of classic stars like John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, and James Stewart. Everyone knows at least one Jimmy Stewart picture-and it isn’t necessarily It’s A Wonderful Life. My tween nieces may not remember the name of Harvey, but they can tell you about ‘that guy with the invisible rabbit’. Even my sister came over one day claiming she saw an unknown Jimmy Stewart movie on television. She recounted the entire plot before my dad and I could interrupt with, ‘it’s Winchester 73!’ Along with all Stewart’s other fine films, Shenandoah is a quiet, touching tale with fine performances and reflections.

Charlie Anderson (Stewart) works his Virginia farm and struggles to make it to church on time with his six sons, daughter, and daughter-in-law. When the Confederacy comes to enlist the boys, Anderson staunchly declares he will take no part in the war. Eldest son Jacob (Glenn Corbett) objects, but his brother James (Patrick Wayne) and his wife Ann (Katharine Ross) look forward to the birth of their daughter. Only when the youngest Anderson Boy (Philip Alford) is mistaken for a ‘Johnny Reb’ and captured by Yankees soldiers does the Anderson family take matters into their own hands. Papa Charlie, his remaining sons, and disguised daughter Jennie (Rosemary Forsyth) cross enemy lines in hopes of rescuing the boy from a disastrous war and lost Southern cause.

Shenandoah’s story may seem somewhat familiar. One can’t help but think of it along with the 1956 Oscar nominated Gary Cooper classic Friendly Persuasion. Where Friendly Persuasion serves up lovely Quakers Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and Anthony Perkins- Shenandoah is largely a sad solo vehicle for stalwart Stewart. Though not quite in tune with its 1965 contemporaries, writer James Lee Barrett (In The Heat of the Night, The Undefeated) and director Andrew V. McLaglen (Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel) serve up a much darker and tragic picture than Persuasion. We begin with a Widower and are served up more sadness as we go along. It’s bittersweet and sentimental, but Shenandoah is a beautiful picture. You may even get a tear or two. In Friendly Persuasion the carriage races to Sunday services are played for laughs-but not here. From the Andersons’ late arrival and hogging of two whole front pews to…well, I can’t in good conscious give away the ending! Let’s just say, that after a viewing of Shenandoah, you won’t ever confuse it with Friendly Persuasion again.

The aging Stewart and that touch of Friendly Persuasion unfortunately give Shenandoah an over the hill look and style. It’s tragic and reflecting on the passing of the fifties western heyday just as much as its gives Civil War-an indirectly Vietnam-commentary. The homestead sets, ladies’ hairstyles and dress, and the bright yellow facings on the Confederate garb look more like 1955 Cavalry pictures. There’s also only one brief and beautiful reference to slavery and freedom. Such a topic would make a statement in 1965 but was nearly untouched in earlier, usually racist westerns. We also don’t get much affection between our young married couples. They don’t even kiss-except for one brief exchange adhering to that good old fashioned ‘three second kiss rule’. Shenandoah is a little imperfect and obvious in some points, but I think its goodness was overlooked at a time when films were becoming much more heavy and scandalous. We’re only four years away from Sam Peckinpah’s X-rated western last hurrah The Wild Bunch. I imagine Charlie Anderson might object to the language, nudity, and blood in that one!

ShenandoahIf you can possibly find one less-than-stellar Jimmy Stewart picture, I’ll give you ten exceptional ones. Perhaps he’s past his prime here, but Stewart brings a timeless old school refinery to Shenandoah. We absolutely believe Charlie Anderson is a man about his morals and his family; and despite his anti-war stance, you know he will do anything to keep his home together. Even if we didn’t agree with Anderson’s wholesome values, Stewart makes the stern father lovable and wise. He does the right thing by all his children, so it’s even sadder when Anderson can’t make the war go according to his plans.

From eldest son Glenn Corbett (Big Jake) to married son Patrick Wayne (The Searchers) and teenaged Philip Alford (To Kill A Mockingbird), Shenandoah makes sure the Civil War comes calling to each of the Anderson children. We delight in the wedding of lone daughter Rosemary Forsyth (Santa Barbara) and confederate soldier Sam (Doug McClure, The Virginian)-only to have his service come all too soon. Likewise, daughter-in-law Katharine Ross (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) gives a wise and maternal performance amid her debut film’s unhappy times. Sons Charles Robinson (The Sand Pebbles), Jim McMullan (Dallas), and Tim McIntire (Kung Fu) are little more than filler, but the bittersweet talent from the rest of the family makes up for any stock players.

Shenandoah is a simple little film making some not so quiet anti-war statements. It’s an old-fashioned picture, but somehow progressive; has western and war action, but also heavy drama. Jimmy Stewart fans and classic film lovers should know and love it; and teachers reading or viewing Friendly Persuasion should definitely consider Shenandoah as a compatriot pacifist tale. Like most older films, there’s nothing naughty to deter young viewers. Blessedly, Shenandoah is available on DVD-featureless, but affordable. So gather the family, the popcorn, and the tissues for a night with Shenandoah. You’ll be hugging each other afterwards.

No comments: