Starring: James Stewart
Director: Andrew W. McLaglen
Mood: If you need to sneak a Western by your family and need a movie that’s so sweet and family-centric that it seems like it’s PG but you actually get plenty of shooting and punching action so you’re not bored.
The back of the DVD proclaims, “Shenandoah tells the dramatic story of a man caught in a dilemma,” which could be the plot to literally every Jimmy Stewart movie ever.
Lucky for us, Stewart EXCELLED at giving us a conflicted man. And Shenandoah is another example of Stewart’s general awesomeness.
It’s mostly a war movie and a family drama, but you’ve got that classic Western premise of a man defending his family and land, and then Stewart rounds out the movie with some unexpected comedic cheek.
If you haven’t seen Shenandoah and are a fan of Civil War content, this is definitely worth a watch.
I don’t know what’s wrong with whoever wrote the Shenandoah plot synopsis on Wikipedia – there’s a whole lot of negative bias in there that is NOT how I saw the start of this movie!
The movie opens in Virginia, 1864. Widower Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) has six sons and a daughter, plus his daughter-in-law, all living on his huge property in the prime ‘breadbasket of the south’, the Shenandoah valley.
This is an extremely attractive family. You see shot after shot introducing handsome young men and pretty girls, and a sweet-faced teen named ‘Boy’ (Phillip Alford). Unfortunately, all of the strapping elder sons kind of blend together and I can’t remember a single thing about any of them.
But Charlie is instantly entertaining, and Stewart is clearly enjoying himself. Charlie still prays before dinner because it’s what his late wife would have wanted, but in his ‘prayer’ he points out that he and his boys did all the work putting that food on the table. He also sasses the local pastor and a man trying to buy his mule, and has inside jokes with Boy.
Everyone is trying to get Charlie and his family involved in the war, trying to enlist his sons and take his horses, but he’s stubbornly neutral – with plenty of good reasons, which he sounds off about at every opportunity in that classic Stewart courtroom manner.
Now here comes the big dilemma: Boy gets captured by Union soldiers. Charlie and his super-hot family are forced to saddle up and go look for him. And that’s where the plot takes a dark turn – spoiler alert: they don’t all make it home.
In case it’s not obvious from the start of this article, Shenandoah is first and foremost a Jimmy Stewart movie. Other actors have their moments, but he’s in like 90% of the scenes and drives the entire story forward.
That didn’t bother me, because Stewart is so capable at the helm. I also didn’t really feel like I needed more from the rest of the cast. Nobody was bad at all, but no one really felt like they deserved more screentime, either.
Phillip Alford is the only real standout as Boy. In one scene, when Boy is stuck at a Confederate camp far from home, he’s staring off into the distance just radiating that theatre kid energy.
- Fun Fact: Phillip Alford ‘s first movie role, just a few years before Shenandoah, was starring in To Kill a Mockingbird – he was scouted from local stage performances in Alabama.
The character of Charlie’s daughter Jennie (played by Canadian actor Rosemary Forsyth) is a great balance of hopeless romantic and tough cookie. Forsyth gives you enough the moony young love that the script clearly wanted, but you can see her grit when Jennie demonstrates her formidable skills at shooting and riding.
This was actually the first movie for both Forsyth and Katherine Ross (whom we all know and love from other Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Shadow Riders, and Conagher).
Shenandoah has a little bit of something for everyone.
- Family-friendly comedy
- Sweet romance between Jennie and a Confederate soldier, and between Ann (Katharine Ross) and James (Patrick Wayne)
- The most AMAZING brawl at the Anderson stables, it’s like five full minutes of punch-outs that use every single inch of the set – especially the water trough
- Lots of skirmishes, tons of shooting and blowing up people and canons and wagons
- An anti-slavery message – Charlie believes everyone should do their own work, and Boy is BFFs with a young Black man named Gabriel (Gene Jackson)
- An anti-war message
Some of the stunt acting is hilariously bad, like you see an explosion and then after a beat some guys who aren’t that close do dramatic cartwheels away. Horses fall down at not quite the right time. A man gets shot in the head and does the kind of fake death that you would do if you were faking death to entertain a coworker who was trying to be serious on a client call.
And some of the acting is a little saccharine, like the conversations between the women about what it means to be in love, and the long smile of recognition between Boy and Gabriel on the battlefield while literally everyone around them is doing cartwheels to show that they are blown up.
But this movie more than makes up for a few small missteps with its engaging story. The end finds the Anderson family back at the dinner table for prayer, but this time there are a bunch of empty seats and the mood is somber, and it really ties it up perfectly.
Clearly I’m not alone in thinking Shenandoah is a solid movie, because they made it into a Broadway musical that ran for – get this – 1,050 performances and earned multiple 1975 Tony nominations including Best Musical.
It was also nominated for 1966 Best Sound Oscar, and Rosemary Forsyth was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jennie.
Even though it’s not a shoot-em-up Western, Shenahdoah delivers on plenty of levels that have immensely broad appeal. Especially if you’re a Jimmy Stewart fan, which OBVIOUSLY I am.