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A perfect example of a movie made watchable and interesting due entirely to its star, Shenandoah (1965) stands as one of the better films in James Stewart's post-fifties career. It's the story of a prosperous Virginia farmer (Stewart) who has raised six sons and a daughter on his sprawling, self-contained farm since his wife died in childbirth. It's 1863 and the Civil War is taking place all around him, but Stewart maintains a neutral stance. Morally opposed to slavery, he wants no part of a war based on it - as long as the conflict does not touch him personally. The war, however, eventually does take a toll on the family, starting when Stewart's new son-in-law is called into Confederate service on his wedding day. Then Stewart's youngest son is captured by the North and suspected of being a Confederate soldier. Showing some of the determination and sense of purpose that marked his earlier Anthony Mann westerns, Stewart sets out to find him, taking most of his other sons with him on the journey.
Shot on lush, pretty locations near Eugene, Oregon, by director Andrew V. McLaglen, Shenandoah nonetheless has a visual look that resembles television shows of the period. McLaglen's father was Victor McLaglen, a stock actor for John Ford, and the younger McLaglen seems to have inherited Ford's fondness for big, burly action movies - but without the emotional intensity or picture-perfect compositions of the master director. That said, there are two set-pieces in Shenandoah that are particularly well-staged, one involving a cow on a battlefield and the other a shocking rape/murder sequence that uses the power of suggestion rather than explicit detail. McLaglen went on to direct three more features with Stewart, but this was by far the highest-grossing, perhaps partly due to the fact that its antiwar tone touched a chord as America agonized over Vietnam.
Stewart's performance, however, was surely the main reason for Shenandoah's popularity. Grizzled and tough, his teeth perpetually clenched on a cigar stub, Stewart totally dominates the movie. While he is convincing as the strict patriarch who rules his family with a stern hand, his tender side peaks through as well, revealing a soft heart. (He is still, after all, James Stewart!) It's an appealing contrast and in one scene, for example, Stewart advises his new son-in-law (Doug McClure) in the ways of women. "They expect things they never ask for," says Stewart. "And when they don't get them, they ask why. Sometimes they don't ask. And then they just go ahead and punish you for not doing what you didn't know you were supposed to do in the first place."
And only Stewart could pull off, with such poignance and sensitivity, two scenes in which he must speak to his wife's grave. One famous speech well sums up Shenandoah's attitude toward war: "I don't even know what to say to you, Martha. There's nothing much I can tell you about this war. It's like all wars, I suppose. The undertakers are winning it. Politicians talk a lot about the glory of it. The soldiers, they just want to go home." Despite Stewart's fine performance, he didn't receive an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor but the movie did garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound.
Producer: Robert Arthur
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Screenplay: James Lee Barrett
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Film Editing: Otho Lovering
Costume Design: Rosemary Odell
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: James Stewart (Charlie Anderson), Doug McClure (Sam), Glenn Corbett (Jacob Anderson), Patrick Wayne (James Anderson), Rosemary Forsyth (Jennie Anderson), Phillip Alford (Boy Anderson), Katharine Ross (Ann Anderson), Charles Robinson (Nathan Anderson), James Best (Carter), Denver Pyle (Pastor Bjoerling), George Kennedy (Col. Fairchild), Warren Oates (Billy Packer), Strother Martin (Engineer).
C-106m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Jeremy Arnold