Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen
“These are my sons. They don’t belong to the state.” So says Jimmy Stewart’s Charlie Anderson to a Confederate recruiting officer in Shenandoah, a wholesome, family-values tale that does its best to drive a stake into the heart of Hollywood’s longtime fascination with Southern “Lost Cause” ideology.
Stewart’s character is at the moral and philosophical center of Shenandoah. Charlie is the isolationist, pacifist patriarch of a clan of Shenandoah Valley farmers who don’t believe in slavery or in the war being fought to end it. He is determined to keep himself and his large family aloof from a war that he believes is none of their concern, even though his daughter has married a Confederate officer, played by Hollywood B-lister Doug McClure.
Virginia, particularly the western counties, was home to families that sided with both the North and South, but a few outright pacifist enclaves did exist in the state. How Charlie managed to keep five conscription-eligible sons out of the Confederate Army at a time when 90 percent of white males of military age were in uniform is never explained, however.
By 1864, he finds it impossible to keep the dogs of war from baying at his farmhouse door. One day, his youngest son, Boy, is captured by a Union patrol while hunting with his best friend, a slave boy named Gabriel. Boy is taken prisoner because he is wearing a Confederate cap he happened to find. When Boy tells Gabriel to let his father know he’s been captured, a black Union soldier tells the slave he needn’t obey because he is now free. Interestingly, Hollywood rarely put Union soldiers in a positive light in the days before Glory, but director Andrew McLaglen’s effort to give a more balanced portrayal of the combatants is flawed because U.S. Colored Troops didn’t serve in the Valley during the war, nor were Union regiments truly integrated.
Gabriel dutifully tells Charlie what has happened, and the father assembles most of his sons to go after Boy, leaving behind one son, his daughter-in-law Jennie (Katherine Ross, in her first movie role) and his granddaughter. As the family is riding off, Gabriel asks Jennie what it’s like to be free. She tells him it means he can go anywhere he pleases. With that, Gabriel rebuffs another Lost Cause myth—the one of loyal slave retainment—by running off to join the Union Army.
Charlie finds a sympathetic Union officer (George Kennedy) but learns that the prisoners have been moved. While the Anderson clan pursues its fruitless rescue mission, a gang of Confederate deserters, in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, loots the family farm and kills the son and daughter-in-law left behind. In 1864, as Sheridan was laying waste to the Confederacy’s bountiful Valley, marauding bands of scavengers from both sides often terrorized local farmers and merchants.
What’s left of the Anderson family is eventually reunited when Gabriel saves Boy and brings him home, thus symbolizing the need for reconciliation and providing Hollywood with a trademark happy ending.
Shenandoah was released one year after passage of the Civil Rights Act and just as America was getting deeply involved in Vietnam. As professor Gary Gallagher says, it is “preeminently an antiwar film.”
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.