Shenandoah is a valley in Virginia where stoic farmer Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) is determined to keep his family safe away from the American Civil War. Being opposed to slavery and completely self-reliant, Anderson sees no reason to let his six sons fight for the Confederate cause, even though his eldest son, Jacob (Glenn Corbett), thinks differently. Nevertheless, the war still reaches Anderson’s door. First his newlywed daughter Jennie (Rosemary Forsyth, whose performance earned her a Golden Globe) sees her husband Sam (Doug McClure – see, he did make a decent film once!) torn away from the altar to fight in battle. Then his youngest boy (Phillip Alford, from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)) is mistaken for a Confederate soldier and abducted by the Union army as a prisoner of war. Leaving son James (Patrick Wayne) and daughter-in-law Ann (Katherine Ross, two years away from The Graduate (1967)) behind to tend the farm, Anderson embarks on an arduous journey to recover his son.
Quite often the westerns of Andrew V. McLaglen, son of famed character actor Victor McLaglen, carried a certain phoney grandeur, straining for the pathos and mythic sweep achieved by his mentors John Ford and Howard Hawks. However, that is not the case with Shenandoah. While some rate The Way West (1967), an equally ambitious yet problematic epic, Shenandoah is unquestionably McLaglen’s masterpiece, a western that stands proudly beside the best of Hawks and Ford. Often described as an anti-war western, the film’s agenda is not wholly pacifist given it argues certain moral precepts should be defended. Instead, the film probes and expands the anti-isolationist ideas rooted in the westerns James Stewart made with Anthony Mann a decade earlier.
Made in the aftermath of the Second World War – in which Stewart served in the air force – Mann’s westerns argue no man is an island and that real peace, be it personal, psychological or social stems from community and nationhood. Conversely, Shenandoah asks what happens when a man of principle finds himself at odds with a nation (albeit the short-lived confederacy of the Southern states) fighting an unjust war. Over time this theme grew in resonance as America increased its military involvement in the Vietnam war where, in a sad coincidence, James Stewart lost his real life son a few years later. In the eyes of his fellow Virginians, Anderson’s moral stand is simply selfish. A fiery pastor (Denver Pyle, later Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard) lectures him about his civic duty, a Confederate captain demands his sons join the army, and federal purchasing agents order he hand over all his horses. War has turned society on its head. What was once considered unjust is now acceptable if it contributes towards a greater “good.”
Charles Anderson is portrayed as a forthright, stubborn but open-minded individual who encourages his children to speak freely. But for all their plain sense good-heartedness, the Andersons are not immune to the ravages of war. Events take a tragic turn, offset by typically Fordian/Hawksian moments of knockabout comedy and pathos, notably a truly heartrending payoff to the friendship between the young Anderson boy and Gabriel (Eugene Jackson), a newly-freed slave. McLaglen’s direction may lack the epic sweep the material deserves but the film soars anway, thanks to a towering performance from James Stewart, a rousing supporting turn from Rosemary Forsyth as a very Hawksian heroine (feminine to the core yet able to rough-house and ride with the boys), an unexpectedly affecting Doug McClure, and an equally moving cameo from George Kennedy as a world-weary Union officer, all in the service of an eloquent script. Interestingly, the film was written by former US marine James Lee Barrett who penned the decidedly more right wing The Green Berets (1968). On the other hand, Barrett also wrote the intriguing social western tick... tick... tick... (1970) and that most politically charged southern fried blockbuster, Smokey and the Bandit (1977). It’s a funny old world.