When I first saw this film, I was about eighteen years old and gave it the thumbs up. I thought it was exciting, moving, dramatic and even heart-warming. Being naïve beyond my years, I also thought it was a story well-told and well-acted. The acting still stands up to this day but, having since watched it (several times) through older eyes, I have arrived at the inescapable conclusion that the thing is pure Hollywood hokum from beginning to end. Scarcely anything bears closer scrutiny. If you plan on watching Shenandoah, you should be warned of ‘Spoiler Alerts’ before reading on.
The Anderson family at dinner
The plot centres on Charlie Anderson (Jimmy Stewart), a widowed farmer, who lives on his Shenandoah, Virginia farm with his six sons, Jacob, James, Nathan, John, Henry and ‘Boy’, his daughter Jennie, and his daughter in-law, Ann, the wife of Jacob. Even though the story takes place towards the end of the American Civil War, Charlie is determined to keep his family out of the conflict because, as he says, a fight over slave ownership has nothing to do with him. He does not own any slaves so he has no intention of sending his boys off to fight someone else’s battles. All the work on his farm is done by himself and his sons.
Gabriel (L) and Boy
Every Sunday morning he takes his entire family to the local church to worship, alongside all his neighbours. And that started me thinking. Everyone else in church has sons away fighting (and dying) for Virginia and the South and their lousy slave-owning lifestyle, yet there is not a single sign of resentment of Charlie or his family, who are ‘sitting out’ the war. One wonders, how many other southern families, property owners, held similar views to that of the Andersons about the war. Or was he unique? The war had been raging for years and the South was on its knees by now. Rebel soldiers had been reduced to ‘throwing stones’ at their Union foes in some instances. Surely, the Andersons’ neighbours would be a tad peeved at Charlie’s stance, as they witnessed their hallowed lifestyle going down the drain? But this is Civil War, Hollywood-style. Ever since Gone with the Wind the movie industry would have us believe that most people in the Deep South at that time were decent folk who really cared about their slaves and treasured their way of life!
James Best (L) and Boy about to do battle
Charlie’s youngest son is named ‘Boy’. Why? He already had five boys; was he incapable of coming up with a proper name for the sixth, or was this simply the screenwriter’s way of impressing upon us the youth of the latest addition to the Anderson clan? Anyway, we soon learn that Boy has a bosom buddy, a young African-American kid named Gabriel, whom, we must assume, resides at a nearby slave-owning farm. Gabriel seems to be one of those fortunate children of slaves whose owners allow him to have days off so he can go fishing with his pal whenever the fancy takes them. Ah, slavery Hollywood-style! Margaret Mitchell has a lot to answer for. ‘A civilization gone with the wind…’ And good riddance, too.
Well, to cut a long story short, the two buddies are down at the creek when they are grabbed by a Yankee patrol. Boy is taken prisoner because he had found a rebel cap in the creek and had stupidly put it on. He tells Gabriel to run and tell old man Anderson what has befallen him. Charlie, four of his sons, and daughter Jennie, then set out on horseback to track down Boy. They ride around for weeks without finding him, but it matters not because Gabriel finds him in the middle of a battlefield! Evidently, after rushing off to inform Charlie of Boy’s plight, Gabriel was given his freedom and promptly enlisted in the Union Army. We can only assume that stray Negro boys were welcomed into white Union regiments, despite having been given no military training, whatsoever. He was given a nice blue uniform and a gun and sent into battle to kill Johnny Rebs!
By this time Boy had escaped from a Yankee stockade and joined up with a Reb outfit just in time to be attacked. Wounded in the leg, he lies on the field as the Yankees swarm in, waiting to be finished off with a bayonet. But rescue was at hand. Poised over his prostrate form and about to skewer him, was none other than his great mate, Gabriel! Well, that was a stroke of good fortune. Boy’s family had ridden all over Virginia for weeks trying to locate him, yet little Gabriel manages to pop up in the middle of one of hundreds of battlefields, among thousands of combatants, and comes face to face with his good buddy! He quickly picks up his wounded pal and carries him to safety, depositing him in some shrubs on the field. Then he dashes to kill other Rebs, presumably those he does not know personally. Nobody from either side notices a Union soldier carrying a wounded Confederate soldier to safety in the middle of the battlefield! That was lucky. Ah, Hollywood warfare. You can’t beat it with a stick!
Katharine Ross & Patrick Wayne as Ann & James
We move next to the Anderson farm where James (Patrick Wayne) and Ann (Katharine Ross) have been left to run the entire place on their own while dad and the rest of the family ride around for a couple of weeks looking for the boy. Ann, by the way, has just had a baby, which pretty much means that Charlie has left poor James to run the farm on his own! Scavengers turn up at the farm and kill James and Ann, (yet spare the child for some reason), before leaving the premises intact. One wonders how many real life scavengers would fail to loot a, beautiful two-story farmhouse, having just murdered its inhabitants, and then burn it to the ground.
The final scene in this fairy tale of a film takes place in the local church again. And it is a doozy. The remainder of the Anderson family are present, minus Jacob, Ann, and another son who was shot while they searched for Boy. Even the grand-daughter is present and bawling her head off, when the main door at the rear of the building bursts open and in limps Boy on crutches. Well, he did cop a mini-ball in his leg. Movie-goers could be forgiven for expecting Papa Charlie and the family to rush to his side and embrace him. After all, his disappearance has directly resulted in the deaths of three family members. The kid’s return must surely be a moment for family rejoicing and embracing. But no. Charlie turns around and hugs him, then accompanies the lad back to the pew. His brothers and sister remain in their pew singing hymns. Just as they would in real life. Sheesh!