Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review – Shenandoah

October 27, 2011

Shenandoah – US, 1965

There’s a scene towards the beginning of Andrew McLagen’s moving film Shenandoah that grows in significance as events unfold. The scene takes place at the dinner table of Charlie Anderson (James Stewart), a widower with seven children and a large plot of land to manage. As the children sit at the dinner table quietly, Charlie Anderson begins the family prayer, which goes something like this: we did all the work ourselves, but thank you nonetheless. The prayer is delivered in a semi-comic way, and yet the message of the prayer is clear. This is a man who takes pride in having plowed the field, raised the horses, and grown the crops personally. This is not a man who purchases slaves and then just sits back and lets them do all the work while he reads or talks politics with guests. In fact, a conversation they have a moment later reveals that the family does not even own slaves. As one son explains it, how could he know the job was being done right if he weren’t doing it himself? This seems to be the consensus of the entire family.

And yet the Civil War is still a divisive issue in the family, for Charlie’s son Jacob (Glenn Corbett) is struggling with a deeply personal conflict: How can he be a Virginian and not be fighting for Virginia? Yet how can fight for Virginia without also fighting to preserve slavery? As the head of the family, Charlie has the final say, and his view can best be described as a practical one: If it doesn’t occur on his land, it doesn’t concern the family. The problem of course is that every passing moment brings the war closer to his doorstep, and it’s just a matter of time before it does encroach upon his property. And it’s only a matter of time before Jacob will look at his father and say aloud, “Does it concern us now?”

I half expected Shenandoah to borrow an element of Gone with the Wind and have Charlie realize the glory of the Southern cause and set off with his sons to the battlefield. To its credit, Shenandoah avoids this, opting instead to show that neither side has the moral high ground when it comes to the way the war is being waged. Both sides ambush the other side in ways that could hardly be described as heroic, and for every sympathetic characters on one side of the conflict, there’s another who could use a bit more empathy for the people facing him on the battlefield. And while Shenandoah is focused on Virginians, many of whom owned slaves, it avoids creating the discomfort in present-day viewers that accompanies Gone with the Wind. In that film, slaves are shown marching proudly to the frontlines to dig ditches for their enslavers. In contrast, Shenandoah gives us a truly great scene during which a young slave named Gabriel (Gene Jackson) embraces freedom for the first time and walks toward an unknown future with a newfound sense that nothing is impossible for him now.

There are other gems in the film: a touching conversation between a father and his prospective son-in-law, Sam (Doug McClure), on the difference between “liking” and “loving” someone, a brawl that adds a bit on much needed levity to a rather serious film, a wedding ceremony in which Jennie Anderson (Rosemary Forsyth) shows just how in love she is in a very unexpected and powerful way, and a conversation during which Charlie and his daughter-in-law, Ann (Katherine Ross), dispense advice on married life. Their insights are as true today as they were then. In addition, there’s a rather moving conversation between Charlie and the family doctor, in which the doctor details the toll the war is taking on him personally. It provides Charlie with an unexpected glimpse of how the war might affect him if his own sons join it.

I won’t reveal much more of the plot, except to say that eventually Charlie utters those expected words, now it concerns us, and yet even then Shenandoah continues to surprise. By the end of the film, so much has changed for these characters that you’re left with the impression that there was no one, northerner or southerner, that escaped the Civil War unscarred. In the closing moments of the film, Charlie stands one more time over the grave of his deceased wife, Martha, and tries to sum up all that has happened. His words fail him, as they would for most of us, for how does one really explain the devastation that war leaves in its wake?

As Charlie Anderson, James Stewart gives a truly terrific performance. He is stoic when he has to be, listens when he ought to, and at a key moment, displays the right amount of awkwardness during what would be an uncomfortable moment for any father. Stewart handles the scene perfectly. There will be some that say that Shenandoah slightly sugarcoats the Civil War by presenting the two sides in such an even manner. However, the film never wavers from its anti-slavery message, and it never presents one side as more of a victim as the other. The southern cause is not held up as the more noble one, just as northerners are not presented as always being the most righteous. This is an even-handed film about a family that finds itself caught in a middle of a battle that it can neither completely criticize, not fully embrace, and it remains as powerful today as it was in 1965. (on DVD)

4 stars

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