Towering over a first rate cast in this tale of the American Civil War and the strong bonds of family is legendary James Stewart. Jimmy stars as a widowed farmer who refuses to partake in the war that rages around him and his six sons while living in the rural countryside of Virginia.
“We cleared 500 acres without the sweat of one slave.”
For this reason Jimmy feels the war has no bearing on his family which also includes Rosemary Forsythe as his only daughter. Yet no matter how hard he tries to deny it the war is raging around him it begins to encroach on his lands and upon his family.
While there is a violent side to this Andrew V. McLaglen western there is an undeniable warmth that resonates with you once you have seen it. It’s a fond film to recall and once Jimmy’s youngest son Phillip Alford is mistakenly captured as a prisoner of war by the North, Jimmy and his boys are thrust into the center of the conflict.
Stewart’s journey begins by entrusting the farm and lands to his one married son who has given him his first grandchild. Patrick Wayne and Katharine Ross portray the young couple. Joining Jimmy on his trek is his oldest son played by Glenn Corbett and the other lesser known actors playing his sons. Even daughter Forsythe rides along and through sheer luck they find her husband among a group of prisoners, Doug McClure. Setting him free and burning a troop train engineered by Strother Martin, they continue their search.
They will cross paths with a sympathetic George Kennedy who commandeers a Union brigade and find tragedies of their own while they look for the lost son. Stewart’s journey isn’t an easy one and won’t get any better once he resigns himself to defeat and returns the family to the safety of their own lands.
I won’t be playing spoiler here but encourage one and all to seek out this fine family saga. Could this be Stewart’s best performance of the sixties? Possibly. While he does fall into his clichéd mannerisms at times, the film offers enough dramatic highlights for Stewart the actor to deliver a heart wrenching scene or two through out the proceedings.
The script wisely follows the young Alford as well and his own journey to becoming a man. He’ll encounter a guardian of sorts when southern boy James Best takes him under his wing in their attempts to escape the prisoner of war camp they find themselves condemned to. This will take them to another battlefield where they engage in combat and it is here that the magic begins to take shape for young Alford.
With a cast right out of the John Ford stock company, McLaglen who himself was a member gives us a film he refers to as his own personal favorite of the many he directed. Joining him are regulars, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix and Dabbs Greer along with the other previously mentioned cast members.
Shenandoah captures an authentic feel thanks to the scenery and Stewart’s warmth and protectiveness over his family. The early scenes he shares with young Alford are memorable as they both sit back and watch McClure romance daughter Forsythe. It gives Jimmy a chance to talk of life’s lessons to the boy and also give McClure the gears over his asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
There is another important character in the film who never actually appears on camera. It’s Stewart’s late wife Martha who he talks to at the family grave site and refers to quite often during the movie’s running time. In his discussions with her he reveals himself to the audience and his need to find the boy.
I confess there are a couple scenes within that play to the “Stewartisms” and the need to have a good old fashioned donnybrook is captured on camera as well. A Donnybrook was surely considered a must for films of McLaglen and others like Burt Kennedy I suppose.
Shenandoah has long been a personal favorite of mine and I thought the holiday season a great time to revisit it. There is an honesty to it that gains strength with each viewing. Don’t be ashamed to reach for the tissue box either.
Gets me every time.