"Two Mighty Armies Trampled Its Valley... A Fighting Family Challenged Them Both!"
This movie is often categorized as a Western. I suspect that happens because of the presence of some cast and crew members and because there is a certain amount of horse riding in the film. However, from the opening of the movie, when the beautiful musical strains of the song ‘Shenandoah’ are interrupted by drums and cannon fire, it should be obvious that this movie is actually focused on war. Like Friendly Persuasion and Gods and Generals, this movie concerns the War Between the States.
Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) is a farmer with a very large spread in Virginia’s Shenandoah gap. Along with his large farm he has a large family, but lost his wife Martha many years ago. The merits of this film can be well promoted by lines which Jimmy Stewart delivers with his inimitable style. Early on, when his son Jacob (Glen Corbett) mentions that the Union/Confederate fighting is getting closer, Charlie responds, “They on our land?” Jacob replies, “No, sir.” His Father says, “Then it doesn't concern us. Does it?” Charlie Anderson’s desire to mind his own business is one of his major ethical rules.
The film gradually introduces Charlie’s family: six sons; one daughter: Jennie (Rosemary Forsyth, in her first film); one daughter-in-law: Ann (Katharine Ross, before The Graduate); and Sam, a man who becomes his son-in-law (Doug McClure). The youngest son (Phillip Alford, in this lone movie role other than ‘Jem’ Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird), who is referred to only as “the boy” throughout the story, finds a confederate cap floating in a stream and wears it home. He comes in late for dinner and is told to remove his cap before dining. Charlie’s saying of grace at dinner is also fairly typical of lines from this film: “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn't be here and we wouldn't be eating it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we're about to eat, amen.”
When a Confederate lieutenant visits the Anderson farm with recruiting in mind, the lieutenant says to Charlie: “Virginia needs all her sons Mr. Anderson.” Charlie replies, “That might be so, Johnson, but these are my sons. They don't belong to the state. When they were babies I never saw the state comin' around here with a spare tit! We never asked anything of the state and never expected anything. We do our own living, and thanks to no man for the right.”
The Anderson family "proper" (not counting Sam) stays as uninvolved with the war as they can. However, when Union soldiers capture “the boy” and take him prisoner because of his confederate cap, Charlie can no longer keep himself from becoming involved and the rest of the film concerns his quest to find and rescue his youngest son.
Shenandoah is regarded by many people as a libertarian classic. I think that is a good characterization; however it is getting so that such terms might mean different things to different people. In any case, Shenandoah is an anti-state, antiwar, pro-family classic. Family, love and marriage, birth and death, war and the nature of the state (about which this film’s insight is deep) are the main themes of Shenandoah. Its cast is outstanding. Besides the accomplished actors already mentioned, some of the best character actors of the era are in this film, a sampling includes: Paul Fix as a country doctor, George Kennedy as a Union Colonel, Denver Pyle as the local pastor, James Best as a confederate soldier and Strother Martin as a train engineer.
Toward the end of the film Charlie Anderson has returned and visits his wife’s grave. He has seen the misadventure, destruction and death that is the essence of war and says this to his departed wife Martha: “There's not much I can tell you about this war. It's like all wars, I guess. The undertakers are winning. And the politicians who talk about the glory of it. And the old men who talk about the need of it. And the soldiers, well, they just wanna go home.”
This film was made during the Vietnam War, but unfortunately seems applicable today. The story was also made into a Broadway musical, which won James Lee Barrett, the writer of the play and also the film’s screenplay, a 1975 Tony award. Although that play is now out of print, there is an audio CD of the original Broadway cast’s musical score.
When considering someone like Jimmy Stewart, who has made so many fine films, it is hard to pick any single favorite. However, Shenandoah, Harvey and The Mortal Storm would be in any “best of” selection which I would make. I often forget how moving these stories are. I am fresh from a viewing of Shenandoah and I don’t believe I can give too high a recommendation. This movie is available on DVD and VHS and also occasionally shows on cable/DBS channels. If you get a chance to see it, take the chance, you won’t regret it. You should get to know Charlie Anderson.