A widowed Virginian farmer (James Stewart) tries to keep his large family out of the American Civil War. Things change when his youngest son is taken prisoner by the North. Stewart and his family set-out to find the boy and return home.
This film has an air of “The Waltons” about it. The first forty minutes of the film pan out like a family adventure showcasing the struggles that any large family face on a farm – coping with grief, tending to animals, newborns, family arguments and hard-slog. This is admirably set in the opening credits sequence against a backdrop of cannon-ball fire and battle-weary soldiers falling by the way-side. Stewart’s kith and kin are portrayed as outsiders, trying to remain oblivious to the horror of the war surrounding them; with stern lectures on the futility of the fighting coming from the patriarch himself.
The second part of the picture runs more like a typical western with Stewart leading his group in search of his missing son. That said, there isn’t too much action. Violence, when it appears, is brief but effective. In particular, there is a poignant scene in which Stewart confronts the confederate soldier who mistakenly guns down one of his sons. The emotion etched on Stewart’s face and the puddles forming in his eyes as he utters the following is almost painful to watch “I’m not gonna’ kill you. I want you to live! I want you to live to be an old man. And I want you to have many… many, many children. And I want you to feel about your children then… the way I feel about mine now! And someday, when a man comes along and kills one of ’em, I want you to remember! I want you to remember.” Whilst the script has good moments such as this, in other parts it’s just a bit too sentimental for modern audiences.
I liked the bit-parts of the enigmatic Strother Martin as the Yankee train engineer (“You can’t burn my train!”) and a soft George Kennedy as a disillusioned Union Colonel. Katharine Ross gives a star turn as Stewart’s ill-fated daughter-in-law too.
“Shenandoah” is certainly not a realistic, modern western. It’s a film which I think would seem more at home in the 1940s than in the 1960s and accordingly probably ranks as the last of this type of picture. The ending of the movie is extremely cheesy and reminded me of a Lassie episode; but just like Lassie, it warms the heart. On other hand, this is not all fairytale and there are darker moments including a quite brutal double murder – shot magnificently as the scavenger-murderers scale the staircase up to the bedroom, sabres rattling against each individual wooden plank.
They just don’t make movies like this nowadays and probably shouldn’t…… Nevertheless, for a piece of western nostalgia with a house-raising performance from Stewart in the lead role, you can’t go wrong.
hotdog rating: 7.5/10