Shenandoah (1965)

Dir. Andrew V. McLaglen. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Phillip Alford, Rosemary Forsyth

One of my five favorite movies of all time is Gettysburg, a childhood favorite which I describe in that linked piece as having a “softness” concerning slavery but worlds of sympathy about the introspection of Confederate generals out to keep other men in chains. I came to Gone with the Wind as a teenager and enjoyed it…maybe not quite as much as the next guy, because I was never a member of Kappa Alpha, but I’ve seen it many times. I have a great fondness for the movies of my own country, and there’s a decent case to be made that no movie has been as influential on the American cinema as The Birth of a Nation. All this to say that American movies about the Civil War are almost always about the Confederacy, or view the Confederacy much more sympathetically than Union. This is a stain on Hollywood, to say the very least, and seeing as two of the three movies I’ve named are two of the most popular and well-received films in American history, it’s a stain which has spread throughout the American people. It is surpassing rare to find a movie which will call the Confederacy what it was—America at its worst—and all too easy to find a film which looks at the baby steps towards racial equality and integration as some kind of tragedy. Our westerns, that most American of film genres, tend to be far more sympathetic to Confederate soldiers than they deserve. Just check out She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Outlaw Josey Wales, to name two totally different examples. Even Ken Burns, as respectable a liberal as you can find, made The Civil War more in the image of Shelby Foote than Barbara Fields. Here’s the thing about Shenandoah, which is set in 1864 during the time that Phil Sheridan was burning the Confederate breadbasket and focuses on a Virginian family living there. It’s not that the film is pro-Union, or anti-slavery, or anything like that. But it is worthy of notice just because it doesn’t view the Confederacy through the lens of the Lost Cause.

The patriarch of that Virginian family, Charlie Anderson (Stewart), leans so libertarian I kept expecting him to defend child brides. In an early scene, he makes it very clear that he has no personal interest in the war which has been going on at full tilt for three years now. When one of his sons suggests that the encroaching presence of Yankee troops in the Valley might be a good reason to take up arms, he goes around the table and asks his sons what, exactly, do they believe they have a stake in regarding the fight? Do you have any slaves? Do you want any slaves? Are there any slaves on our land? Shenandoah makes a fascinating choice early in the picture. It understands that the Civil War is about slavery, but this is also the first attempt that it makes to cast the war in an ambivalent light. Later on, it’ll become about as close to an anti-war film as I think any movie about the Civil War can rightly be. The youngest Anderson, Boy (Alford) is taken prisoner by some Union troops because he’s holding a gun and wearing a Confederate cap he was foolish enough to pick up from a nearby river. Thus he is pressed into action, and sees three remarkable sights which make Shenandoah a brainier, more nuanced Civil War picture than what you’d usually get, even if its actors all seem suspiciously Californian.

First: A cow wanders onto a battlefield-in-waiting. A Confederate officer deputizes one of his subordinates to collect the cow, and so begins a chase on horseback which gets every man on both sides whooping and cheering. The Reb on horseback is a fine rider, and though the cow ultimately winds up on the Yankee lines, his showmanship is appreciated by all parties. It’s a sequence which feels entirely plausible. Consider the Battle of Stones River, where 80,000 or so men were engaged and one in three was a casualty. A Union band and a Confederate band went back and forth with some partisan songs before they both played “Home, Sweet Home,” and then Union and Confederate soldiers alike sang it together. In another movie, this suggestion that the white men on either side of the battlefield didn’t have much quarrel against each other on some kind of personal level might be offensive, but in a Civil War movie it makes a certain amount of sense. (Not to make this about Gettysburg, but this is part of the reason I think the Armistead-Hancock relationship, while drawn out, is far from “problematic.”) A film which can show the thin line strip of dirt which separates yee-haw camaraderie from strategic butchery is doing something right.

Second: The Union troops charge the Confederates, who are downhill in reasonably entrenched positions. The first wave of blue troops are hit hard by the butternut troops, but it is only moments before it becomes clear that the men in blue will win the field. It’s clear to the regular soldiers, too. The guy Boy has been following around since he was captured recognizes that staying and fighting is basically suicide. This is one of McLaglen’s better scenes as a director at that; he manages to build in the terror of only being able to fire one shot every ten seconds or so as an innumerable wave of men come closer with their guns and bayonets and horses. (To my eye, Boy’s carrying a Sharps repeater. Lucky Boy, if so!) Boy tries to run and is shot in the leg, unable to do any more than crawl or hobble badly, and in that moment war seems especially cruel. He has been conscripted into the battle by both sides, by the Union troops who “captured” him and the Confederate troops who kept him.

Third: Just when it appears that Boy might be killed or captured again, he is seen by a friendly face. It’s Gabriel (Eugene Jackson, Jr.), who was present when Boy was initially captured; it was Gabriel who ran to the Anderson property in order to tell Charlie the news. Gabriel picks up Boy, deposits him under some shrubs, smiles at him, and then runs off. Gabriel is Black, a former slave freed in the same moment that Boy lost his own liberty. Like many freed slaves, contraband Gabriel is now Private Gabriel, but he still remembers his loyalties and friendships from before he was freed. Like his father, Boy’s racial politics have some commonalities with Abraham Lincoln’s at the beginning of his presidency: a white man is superior to a Black man, but a Black man is still a man. It’s a regressive position, to say it as kindly as possible, but it separates Charlie, Boy, and their family from the other white people they know in the Shenandoah, and even in the heat of battle Gabriel hasn’t forgotten it. This is not one of the film’s better moments—its generosity stems from a spring that I don’t really think McLaglen or James Lee Barrett have a right to tap—but it’s worth noting that the film’s most humane, merciful action is one that a Black teenager takes. All Gabriel does when he rescues Boy is put himself in more danger, and if Boy had stuck his neck out to do to the right thing with Gabriel, Gabriel wouldn’t have needed Yankee infantry to come along and tell him he was free. Again, I’m not sure the film deserves that much praise for this short sequence, but it’s there to be read nonetheless.

If there’s a real weakness in the movie, it’s that Boy survives to be reunited with his father once more. Boy is something of a favorite of his father, the child who was born when his mother, Martha, died giving birth to him. Charlie still loves Martha, as he explains a couple of times to a couple of people. Her grave is not far from the house and he frequently goes over to the stone and speaks to what’s beneath; in one conversation he says that he’s never really accepted her as dead, that he keeps expecting to see her. Losing Boy would be like losing Martha again, and until the last thirty seconds or so of the picture, when Boy miraculously wanders into church on Sunday with the aide of a rough crutch, we can believe that the war that Charlie didn’t believe was any of his business claimed three of his seven children in a matter of days. In the end, it’s “only” two. James (Patrick Wayne) and his wife Ann (Katharine Ross) are murdered when scavengers, possibly deserters from the Confederate military, ransack the Anderson home while the majority of the Andersons are away searching for Boy. Jacob (Glenn Corbett), the oldest, is shot down by a nervous Confederate soldier on a picket line, a sixteen-year-old who only manages to escape strangulation at Charlie’s hands when he realizes that his own missing son is the same age. There are a lot of boys in that range who matter to their pas in Shenandoah. George Kennedy, who is terrifically world-weary here, plays a Union officer with a son about Boy’s age, and in a historically accurate note, while kids that age are filling the Confederate ranks by 1864, his own son is safe in school in Boston.

Maybe the film is after a happy ending in giving Charlie his youngest son back by a minor miracle, or maybe it recognizes that it’s too bleak for Hollywood if half of Charlie’s progeny are struck down over the course of a week. I have a sneaking suspicion that the film is trying to have it both ways a little bit about Charlie’s libertarian streak, a way to chalk up the deaths of two sons to plain murder and freak accident, respectively, without having to really make him face up to the death of a son whose death could only have been made possible by the war. When the film was showing Charlie’s foolishness, the hubris of an old man who really believes that that the individual can stand tall when the entire world is descending in flames around his head, it was at its finest. When the film gives him a slightly stronger piece of roof to hide under, it can’t help but seem a little cheap.

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