on May 10, 2003
Classic, family-friendly Civil War story about an isolationist Virginia farmer (James Stewart) who is forced to become involved in the conflict raging around him when his youngest son (Philip Alford) is mistakenly taken prisoner by Union soldiers. Like John Wayne in "The Searchers", Stewart sets out to hunt down his kidnapped loved one, enduring physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships along the way. Uniformly well-acted by a superb cast, with stand-out performances from Patrick Wayne, film newcomer Katharine Ross, talented juvenile lead Alford, and of course, venerable screen legend Stewart. Capably directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, from a solid screenplay that deftly blends moments of sweet-natured humor and wrenching drama. (Take special note of the tragic scene at the family farm ... most of the violence takes place off-screen, and is all the more disturbing because of what you don't see. Now that's skillful, mature filmmaking!)
Fans of the movie who have patiently awaited its release on DVD are bound to be a bit disappointed with Universal's unremastered print and bare bones presentation. The first two or three minutes of the DVD are plagued by bad sound (the music crackles and pops with distortion) and a horrendous video transfer (the picture is grainy and has tiny white lines running through it). Thankfully, things quickly get better after that rocky start. The DVD includes the Original Theatrical Trailer which has deteriorated badly and is presented in full-frame; sadly, there are no other extras offered on this edition.
While this movie doesn't fit today's tastes for irony, cynicism, and action that is as violent and graphic as possible, I like this movie a great deal. Actually, it is because it isn't like today's movies that I appreciate it more. Some find its earnestness too sweet and the humor a bit ham-bone. But I am willing to transport myself into a time when such things were possible in movies. All movies have conventions and none are "realistic" - not even documentaries. So, if you can accept one set of conventions, you should be able to adapt to another and appreciate the movie for what it sets out to be.
This is not a movie about violence per se. It is about family and loss, and deals with the notion of trying to be in the world but apart from it and how difficult that can be because the world has a way of rolling over you. The Civil War is the backdrop of this question. Jimmy Stewart's character, Charlie Anderson, is a widower who still grieves for his lost sweetheart. He has a bunch of sons and one daughter. He tries to keep them out of the war, but cannot. His daughter is pursued by Lieutenant Sam (Doug McClure) who fights for the Confederacy. (If both armies are bad to Charlie Anderson - the Yankees are the worse army in this movie.)
My two favorite scenes are the family prayer over the meal where Charlie thanks God for the meal and food while noting without their hard work it wouldn't be on the table. The other is when Lieutenant Sam asks Charlie for Jennie's hand in marriage. Charlie asks Sam why he wants to marry Jennie. Sam say's its because he loves her. Charlie says that isn't good enough. Sam is nonplussed. Charlie asks if he likes her. Sam doesn't get it. And the explanation Charlie gives should be printed on a card and handed to EVERY young couple contemplating marriage. It is wonderful and true.
This is a good movie if not a great one. If you enjoy Jimmy Stewart, this is a very good performance. If you like heartfelt movies and enjoy something not laced with the bitter taste of modern movies, then this is one you will likely enjoy. I still like to watch it now and again.
on June 2, 2003
Shenandoah is one of a handful of thrilling western epics that James Stewart appeared in during the mid-1950's. It's full of sweeping expanse, wagons-west adventure and stark, beautiful cinematography that makes one wish for a western landscape that, in reality, never truly existed.
Universal Studios has developed a rather nasty track record with their catalogue titles ever since the introduction of DVD. In a nutshell, the powers that be seem to think that "title attraction" alone is enough to guarentee sales, hence rarely does Universal put its best foot forward or, heaven forbid, go all out with a special edition of some of their great classic films. Long story short - if they can give us full frame editions of "Death Becomes Her", "Babe" and "The Sting" they will. If they can slip in non-anamorphic widescreen transfers of "The Deer Hunter" and "Backdraft" they will! Clearly, this is a studio that places profit above integrity and "Shenandoah"'s transfer quality is no exception.
The transfer is riddled with age related artifacts, scratches, faded color and edit match cut lines that pretty much destroy the continuity of this viewing experience. Aliasing, edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details are all present and annoying. There's some minor pixelization that breaks apart background detail as well. The audio is strident, scratchy and uninspiring. Extras - NONE! - What a shock!
BOTTOM LINE: Universal thinks customers won't mind these imperfections, a.k.a. - they don't mind giving them to you. So here's a thought - voice your protests in letters and emails. Because DVD and classic film libraries around the world really aren't benefiting from this sort of shoddy workmanship. In the end we're all losers!
on September 21, 2000
This is a bittersweet, moving -- sometimes even beautiful --film. Jimmy Stewart is superb as Charlie Anderson, an arrogant, self-reliant man who thinks that he and his family can ignore the civil war which rages around his farm in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He is disabused of this idealistic but naive notion when Union troops mistake his beloved youngest son, "Boy," for a rebel soldier and take him prisoner. Impetuously, the furious Anderson rides off with his older sons on a Quixotic mission to get the boy back. But this dangerous adventure costs him the lives of two sons and one of their wives. Only after the chastened Anderson reluctantly abandons his search does his beloved "Boy" -- who has escaped -- return home to him. Fine acting, good drama and characterization, beautiful scenery and film score, and a poignant ending make this an oustanding movie. One of the ten best fims ever made in my opinion -- and, quite possibly, Jimmy Stewart's greatest role.
on February 2, 2003
Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) may be a gritty, crusty, widowed father of six sons and one daughter, but there's no denying this tough patriarch loves and cherishes his family beyond words or understanding. And with the brutal savagery of the Civil War raging maniacally around his farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he is able to keep his family out of the conflict--at least, for awhile. Inexorably, inevitably, the war comes to the front porch of Anderson's home when his youngest son, simply named "Boy" (Phillip Alford) is mistakenly taken prisoner by Union solidiers.
And thus the film SHENANDOAH embarks on a more ominous dimension, as Anderson and his sons journey forth into the insanity around them to find the boy. Their quest is unsuccessful--the subsequent tragedy to the family unbearable. Stewart so vividly portrays a tough man who is stricken down, again and again, by the horrors of man's inhumanity to man. Yet he succeeds in keeping his now fragile family together, a family that has abandoned its search and returned home. Stewart's scene in the family cemetery--a quiet plot now hosting fresh graves--is one of the most moving, compelling scenes I have ever watched. And if you're not wiping tears from your face when this film reaches its powerful, emotional conclusion, you've either fallen asleep or not paid attention to the story.
The supporting cast--including Doug McClure, Glenn Corbett, Rosemary Forsyth, Patrick Wayne, and Katherine Ross--is solid; director Andrew V. McLagen provides a beautiful, haunting film. SHENANDOAH is a bonafide tearjerker, a powerful family drama that stands the test of time.
It may be an instance of precognition on the part of its producers, but this film, which was released in the same year in which combat ground troops were sent to Vietnam, not only concerns itself with a similarly divisive war but has a distinctly anti-war tone. (At a moment when the world seethes with debate over the proper response to Saddam Hussein, it comes again into its own as an echo of current events.) There's nothing of the "glory" of war in it, though it's nowhere near as gritty and graphic as some later war films, and its main focus, like that of any good story (whether written or filmed), is on the people who make the events happen.
Though often filed under Westerns, it actually takes place during the Civil War, probably in the late summer and fall of 1864 (Gettysburg and Vicksburg are mentioned as past events). Stewart plays Charley Anderson, a Virginia farmer, whose 500 acres at Shenandoah Gap are and have always been farmed without the aid of a single slave. Instead his work force consists of his six sons, Jacob (Glenn Corbett), John (James McMullen), James (Patrick Wayne), Nathan (Charles Robinson), Henry (Tim McIntire), and "The Boy" (Philip Alford), aged 16 (Charley's wife Martha "died the night he was born"), daughter Jenny (Rosemary Forsyth) (who says she can "outrun, outride, and outshoot" any of her brothers), and daughter-in-law (James's wife) Ann (Katharine Ross). Though the war rolls back and forth around him, Charley stoutly maintains that it "is not mine, and I take no note of it." Jacob keeps asking, at each apparent provocation, "Does it concern us now?", but even when a Confederate patrol is ambushed and massacred on his land, Charley refuses to get involved. Not till 51 minutes into the movie, when the Boy is mistaken for a Rebel and picked up as a POW by a small Union patrol, does he say, "Now it concerns us." The remainder of the movie follows the adventures of himself, Jenny, and four of the boys (James and Ann have stayed behind at the farm), shortly joined by Jenny's Confederate-officer husband Sam (Doug McClure), whom they've rescued off a prison train, to find their missing kinsman, with intercut segments showing the Boy's escape from his captors and brief experience of battle.
As mentioned, there's very little pageantry or glory in this video, which, given that when it was made going to war as a volunteer was still considered "the thing to do," seems almost incongruous. And though it's marred by a few minor historical inaccuracies (a black soldier would not be serving in the same unit with white troops in that war, and it seems surprising that the Andersons seem to have not only plenty of food and all their livestock but no refugeed relatives sharing it with them), it manages to give something of the very spirit of noncombatant life at the time. There's an element of romance in Jenny and Sam's courtship and wedding (she has memorized her half of the vows before she's asked to speak them), which goes unconsummated when a courier brings word to Sam that the Yankees have "broken through at Winchester." There are also moments of humor, like the suspension of a pending battle while the Rebs try to take a "Union cow" prisoner (she ultimately dodges back behind the Federal lines and escapes). Though opposed to the war, Charley is not portrayed as unpatriotic; he asks his old friend Doc Witherspoon, in a concerned tone, "Virginia's losin', isn't she?" And the story might almost be called a fable, since it goes so far as to articulate, through Charley, its moral: "I knew...we weren't likely to find him...But if we don't *try*, we don't *do*. And if we don't *do*--why are we here on this earth?!"
Modern families may find Charley's advice to the hopeful Sam ("Women are like that...[Just] hug her a bit. 'Cause that's all they really want when they're like that, Sam--a little lovin'.") mildly chauvinistic, even though it's closely followed by very similarly toned advice from Ann to Jenny. Still, it should be kept in mind that in this the script is being true to the era portrayed, and that women in those days were considered more or less second-class citizens. Younger children may ask an awkward question or two regarding the deaths of James and Ann, murdered by a trio of "scavengers." But on the whole the movie has a very strong pro-family tone, and the older generation, especially those raised on TV Westerns, will also enjoy picking out the familiar faces in the cast: Denver Pyle as Reverend Bjorli, Paul Fix as Witherspoon, Dabbs Greer as neighbor Abernathy, Tom Simcox as Lt. Johnson, George Kennedy as Union Col. Fairchild (a small part but very well done), Edward Faulkner as a Union straggler, Strother Martin as a railroad engineer, James Best as the Boy's fellow escapee Carter, Harry Carey, Jr., as one of their comrades, Kevin Hagen as Mule, Lane Bradford as scallywag Tinkum. Stewart is, of course, the heart and soul of all that goes on, displaying a range of acting talent that varies from warm fatherly sympathy through cynicism to his famous "insanity" phase; indeed, this may be one of the definitive parts of his long career. The humor, tragedy, and simple family warmth are nicely balanced, and despite its moments of violence and grief, Shenandoah is by no means too intense for the younger kids. It should also serve as the starting point for some penetrating discussion, especially if the parents watching are old enough to remember the divisions engendered by Vietnam. This is a highly recommended video on every count.
on January 6, 2001
The first time I saw Shenandoah was in 1965, when I was thirteen. I saw it probably 10 times at the theater that year. The concept of a parent wishing the shield his family from the horrors of war, by trying to ignore it, had a great affect upon me. The concept of pacificism was unusual, in a "western" during the early 1960's(changed quickly thereafter, with the Vietnam war). This message combined with the superb acting by James Stewart and a good ensemble cast makes for one of the best of the genre ever. This film should be on everyone's top ten list. It's number one with me. Always has been. Probably will always be.
I first saw the movie in my English 10 Honors class in high school. We were supposed to look for allusions, allegories, irony, and metaphors within the movie. I was prepared for a boring old western (even though it was a Jimmy movie). I was surprised but pleased about how poignant and mature the movie was. The acting, for the most part, was very effective; the family's initial happiness and the tragedies they go through are played out perfectly with heart-wrenching emotion.
I am not a big fan of "old movies" or "classics," because sometimes I find them superficial or overacted. Shenandoah effectively battles those annoyances of mine with its mature themes and honesty. The movie is funny, sad, nostalgic, simple, and complex, but any emotion you're going to feel will be geared toward the characters, not the movie itself. That's the power of a true "classic."
Also, the music is just beautiful.
on February 24, 2000
I have seen thousands of films and I would put Shenandoah well up my top ten. The film is full of love, sadness, joy and heartbreak. It is impossible not to feel these emotions as the story of the family's attempt to live their lives in isolation from the civil war unfolds. Jimmy Stewart is brilliant as the head of the family whose love for his deceased wife Martha is a major factor in his life and that of him family. The film is highly enjoyable with a great musical score.
on April 29, 2005
SHENANDOAH has been a favorite since its 1965 release. It concerns the tragedy of the Anderson family during the last stages of the American Civil War. It is a story of how the pride of Charlie Anderson, the patriarch of the family, preserved the family from the strife of the conflict only to have that same pride bring suffering and death to the very footsteps of his household. After over one hundred forty years our emotions and perceptions of the Civil War are still complex and conflicted. Many movie executives worried that showing the war through the eyes of one family would risk the disfavor of entire parts of the country. Yet despite these concerns SHENANDOAH was well received on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The reason for this is clear upon viewing the movie. The setting is the Civil War but it is not about the Civil War. The story is actually an inventive retelling of the prodigal son parable from the New Testament. James Stewart is the prodigal. He is a wealthy farmer richly blessed in land and family. He has six sons, one daughter, one daughter-in-law, and in the course of the story acquires a son-in-law and a granddaughter. Yet Charlie Anderson's pride is revealed (humorously) as he prays over the family meal at the beginning of the movie. He gives thanks to God not out of real gratitude but simply because that is what he is supposed to do. But he cannot let the prayer pass without making the point that it was his family's sweat that put the food on the table-not God's. Subsequently, Charlie Anderson dutifully takes his family to church; but his behavior and manners betray a subtle disrespect for the institution. Later events also show us that Charlie Anderson feels no sense of gratitude or obligation to his beloved Virginia nor to the advancing Union forces of the country of his birth. We come to see a patriarch prideful unto himself unwilling to help and asking none of God and country-so sure of himself that if he stood firm and aloof the war would just pass him and his family by. Thus the viewer is shown that the destruction and suffering to befall the Andersons is brought about by a lost Confederate cap.
It is not that Charlie Anderson is a bad man. Throughout the movie we see he is a loving father to all his children and quite devoted husband to the memory of his wife. When he speaks with his soon to be son-in-law about marriage, Charlie Anderson actually has some perceptive things to say. (Charlie Anderson's little lecture on love may strike some as corny. But after thirty years of marriage, I can tell you that there's more behind that speech than you'd guess.) Part of the tragedy is that if Charlie Anderson were consistently a truly bad man perhaps the evil that befalls his family would largely be averted; but it is precisely because he loves his family that the gate is left wide open for the wolves to enter.
Lee's army had protected Virginia well for three years; but Union forces had finally broken through and the war was being fought in the fields and towns in the Shenandoah Valley. Fighting had been getting closer to the Anderson farm until the youngest son is taken prisoner by Union solders after being mistaken for a rebel solder (the lost cap in his procession). Charlie Anderson undertakes an understandable but truly foolish quest to retrieve his son. In the midst of two battling armies, the Anderson's go in search of Charlie's son and his captors. During this quest, the Andersons find a son-in-law; but not the son. The oldest son is killed as the Andersons are mistaken for enemy riders. Meanwhile, back at the farm, another son is killed and his wife is gang-raped and murdered while the house is looted by thieves.
Charlie Anderson returns from his quest without his youngest son and learns that by leaving to save the one he has exposed his family and farm to the worst. In trying to keep from losing one, he failed and lost three more. Charlie Anderson is a defeated and broken man. At the first meal, Charlie Anderson speaks is usual prayer only to realize what a fool he has been all his life. He has depended on God's mercy for every crumb. He was not sufficient unto himself. As blessed and strong as he was in family and land, all God had to do was remove his protection for a moment for it to all come to ruin.
Charlie Anderson's "return" in the church and his youngest son's literal return to the family strike many as sentimental; but these are the natural movements of the parable. SHENANDOAH was made in the 1960's and so does not portray war in much of the grimness we are accustomed to today. It also only indirectly touches on the subject of slavery and race-two subjects some feel should be front and center in any discussion of the American Civil War. Again, it can only be pointed out that the story isn't about the war-it is about a particular family.
SHENANDOAH has worn well over the years and bears repeated viewings. It is an excellent movie and one of Jimmy Stewart's most touching characters.