Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) is a hard-working Virginia farmer who raises six fine sons and one daughter after his wife dies while giving birth to Boy (Phillip Alford). Charlie and family have always worked the land themselves and never employed slave labour...he abhors slavery and maintains that the Civil War between the North and the South is not his, or his family's war. He discovers, however, that he is unable to keep the war at arm's length. His Confederate son-in-law (Doug McLure) is summoned to duty on his wedding day, Boy is captured and held prisoner by Union soldiers and a 16-year-old Rebel soldier makes a tragic mistake.
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Hollywood has a habit of turning their backs on old cowboys once they turn 50. They did it to Gary Cooper, before he confounded the lot of them with High Noon (1951); they did it to John Wayne, to a lesser extent, until The Searchers (1956) saved him. And they did it to Jimmy Stewart, who drifted out of the box-office Top 10 in 1959 and seemed likely never to return. Shenandoah was only ever intended to be a minor programmer for Universal as the popularity of westerns began to wane, but the film was a rarity...a vehement anti-war horse-opera that caught critics by surprise and sent audiences stampeding to the picture palaces.
Not only did Shenandoah emerge as the studio's biggest money-maker of the year, but it propelled Stewart back into the A-list, albeit briefly...and for the very last time. The amiable actor with the trademark drawl was Oscar nominated five times in his career and won only once (for The Philadelphia Story, 1940) but this was the performance that even the Academy overlooked...a performance of immense range that covers cynicism, humour, sorrow, fierce determination and blistering rage. "To the day they put me in my own grave," said director McLaglen in 1996, "I will never understand why Jimmy didn't get at least a nomination...the range of the man was never cleaner, his conviction never more moving." Two scenes in particular represent the best work of his career. When one of his boys is shot and killed by a hair-trigger soldier, Stewart snarls like a crazed grizzly when he comes to take revenge with his bare hands. "I won't kill you," he rasps at the half-choked 16-year-old, "I want you to be an old man...I want you to have many, many children. And when someday someone comes along and kills one of them, I want you to remember!"
Finally, in the film's most emotionally powerful scene, Stewart delivers a tearful soliloquy at the graveside of his dead loved ones: "It's like all wars, I guess. The undertakers are winning it. The politicians talk of the glory of it. Old men talk of the need of it. The soldiers, they just wanna go home." And yet, it must be said that Stewart's command of the film is also to its detriment because no-one else has a chance to shine and all the characters are dominated by his. It's the women who suffer the most...perhaps it was their inexperience...Rosemary Forsyth on debut has a life saving moment and gets to ride with the men but can't cut it as a tomboy and Katharine Ross (also on debut) has even less to do and only seems animated when she screams. The cigar-chomping Charlie remains the patriarchal figure and the women are not the only ones subservient. Two of his sons, James (Patrick Wayne, son of John) and Jacob (Glenn Corbett) have misgivings about sitting out the war, but they always defer to the man they call "sir" and when Rebel recruiters come, eager to merge the boys into their ranks and Union officials arrive to seize their horses for the war, the family rallies to resist as one. McLaglen contributes an exciting battle sequence and a chilling murder by marauding scavengers.
Through it all, Charlie Anderson stands firm and proud. Farm and family are his priorities and he is a different kind of hero...a pacifist and a conscientious objector...a "yellow belly" to some. Of course, these same name-callers are invariably the blinkered bully-boys who start wars.
Published November 11, 2004
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SHENANDOAH: DVD (PG)
CAST: James Stewart, Doug McClure, Patrick Wayne, Katharine Ross
DIRECTOR: Andrew V. McLaglen
SCRIPT: James Lee Barrett
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES: None
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
DVD RELEASE: September 15, 2004