One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Free State Of Jones looks back on the Civil War (no, not that one), so we look back on earlier Civil War movies.
To claim a stance of neutrality is to exercise a privilege of non-engagement, and to implicitly side with those in power. Howard Zinn used the metaphor of a speeding train, Desmond Tutu likened the concept to an elephant atop a mouse, and Barack Obama dispensed with figurative language entirely when restating this principle in his statement on the shootings in Orlando. Shenandoah’s head of household, Charlie Anderson (Jimmy Stewart, nearing his autumn years), considers himself a conscientious objector in the Civil War consuming his nation, unconcerned as a middle-ground Virginian and a slave-less farmer. And while he might like to believe that the bloodstained tendrils of conflict won’t extend to him and his kin so long as they mind their own business, war leaves no innocents. You can’t be neutral on a moving country.
The thorny matter of military intervention was on everyone’s mind in 1965, when journeyman helmer Andrew V. McLaglen mounted his Western Shenandoah. Political discourse was cleaved in half over the burgeoning situation in Vietnam—our presence “over there” was either an urgent ideological bud-nipping that would preserve the integrity of the American way of life or a massive con job perpetrated by sleazy fat-cats who could peel money rolls safe at home while teenagers died facedown in rice paddies. McLaglen, at times past the limits of subtlety, seized his antebellum setting as a ready analogue for the embattled status quo of the era. He wasn’t shy about his pacifist leanings; the film’s potent antiwar sentiments infused the 1975 musical adaptation with an evergreen resonance, regardless of the contemporary political climate.
Charlie Anderson is intent on keeping to himself, so much so that he gives God a cold shoulder during his dinner prayer, instead emphasizing all that he and his family have done to grow their crops. Chronically late for the Sunday morning mass, the Anderson family evinces a wish to depend on nobody and nothing, even the big man upstairs. But when the skirmish between the Union and the Confederacy ensnares Charlie’s sweet boy named Boy (Phillip Alford, better known as Jem Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird), the family’s isolationist policies start to unravel. Tragedy befalls eldest son James (Patrick Wayne) and his young wife, Ann (Katharine Ross, making her film debut two years before The Graduate), and the desperate search for the missing Boy nearly drives Charlie to the edge; but a moment of mercy one small step above “Wait, your mom was named Martha, too?” returns him to his senses.
McLaglen’s pretty Americana offers some appealing apolitical pleasures, but Shenandoah lives today primarily as a social document. At the time of its release, the underlying message was clear: The time to get our sons out of harm’s way is now, while that’s still possible. But even today, regrettably so, the core notion remains every bit as urgent, though the proper nouns in the subtext have all changed. Learning that armed conflict is never worth it only after it’s too late to save the lives of the innocents is practically an American tradition.
Availability: Shenandoah is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local library or video store. It’s also available to rent or purchase from several of the major digital outlets, and free to stream on Amazon Prime with a Starz add-on subscription.