Shenandoah: A 1965 Interpretation Of American Ideas

Shenandoah (1965)If a non-fiction book has the word “Shenandoah” in its title I probably want to read it because it’s likely a tour guidebook or a Civil War account. Recently, I found a movie titled Shenandoah[i] at the library and brought it home. Though I’d seen it about eighteen months earlier, it obviously hadn’t made a huge impression on me since I couldn’t remember much of the plot. Well, I’d give it another try since it had a Civil War setting and a great title.

A couple evenings ago, I decided to re-watch this classic film starring Jimmy Stewart. I settled on the couch with a cup of tea, sweet snack, and cozy blanket. My research notepad and pen were at my side because I fully intended to fine-tooth comb the movie for historical errors.

An hour and some forty minutes later, “The End” flashed on the screen, and I glanced over my scribbled thoughts. Suddenly, my tally marks and critique didn’t seem so important. All I wanted to know was the year the movie was released. The setting might have been an impression of the Civil War, but I felt there were more important conflicts and messages in the film than just blue and gray.

The following day Internet Movie Database came to my aid. The film was released in 1965. Ah, ha! Context at last… In 1965, the United States was locked the Cold War with the Soviet Union and was embroiled in the Vietnam Conflict. Tensions rose among youths who opposed war and the draft law. Families were split as fathers – veterans of World War II – argued with their children who held out flowers and begged for peace. The African American Civil Rights Movement was also underway in 1965. The movie subtly addresses pacifism, war, and racial equality, becoming a commentary on the 1960’s through the “accepted” lens of Civil War history.

The movie Shenandoah is the story of a father who wants nothing to do with the Civil War. As long as no soldiers – blue or gray – bother his family or fight on his land, he intends to mind his own business and farm his property. The father – Charlie Anderson, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart – debates the Civil War’s causes at the dinner table with his six sons. When a Confederate recruiter arrives, Anderson announces “These are my sons; they don’t belong to the state.” An interesting remark when considered alongside the Cold War and opposition to the state-communist controlled Soviet Union.

The film progresses through a “classic” Civil War wedding scene, ending with the bride in tears as her man rides away, and Anderson continues to feel that the war does not concern him. He’ll just mind his own business. Then the war becomes his business when his youngest son is captured. Suddenly, the non-committal, almost-pacifist father has an interest in the conflict. Someone he cherishes is in danger, and it becomes his mission to save his son. (I’ll not spoil the ending…) Though at first glance the film might seem to support the anti-war sentiments of the 1960’s, a clear, defensive message eventually emerges: don’t get involved until what you cherish most is threatened, then fight with all you’ve got. That theme seems consistent with the star actor’s views.

Jimmy Stewart served as a pilot during World War II. During the Cold War, he continued to serve the U.S. Air Force.

Jimmy Stewart served as a pilot during World War II. During the Cold War, he continued to serve the U.S. Air Force.

Jimmy Stewart was a patriotic man. He flew bombers in combat missions during World War II and was promoted to the rank of general for his leadership and service. During the Vietnam Conflict, Stewart spent time touring U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia and was strongly against the anti-war sentiments arising on the American home front. One of Stewart’s step-sons enlisted with the Marine Corps and was killed in the conflict.[ii] Was Jimmy Stewart talking about the Civil War, the Vietnam Conflict, or the wars of any generation when “Charlie Anderson” says “It’s like all wars…the soldiers just want to go home”?

Another interesting aspect of the film was its significant attempt to bridge racial conflict. One of the Anderson boys is good friends with a young African American man. One of the Southern girls announces freedom to a former slave. And an African American soldier “saves the day” for a wounded soldier in a battle scene. While it was historically inaccurate to show integrated military units on a Civil War battlefield, the obvious attempt to show friendship and the effects of working together seems to be a positive expression toward the Civil Rights Movement.

Shenandoah was a popular film in its era, and it broke box office records in Virginia. The anti-war themes resonated with some Americans. The desire to keep a family together and in safety likely appealed to the older generations.

I sat down to watch a Civil War movie with a critical eye. I ended the evening reminded that films, books, and other forms of media are historically accurate in one way or another. No, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the details of the ladies’ clothing and the movie was about two-thirds finished before I realized it was supposed to be 1864. But this movie was an interesting historical look at American ideas a hundred years after the Civil War.

One of my favorite quotes from the film works nicely in the Civil War setting, but seems like a stronger statement in 1965 with the Cold War, Vietnam Conflict, and Civil Rights Movement challenging America: “If we don’t try, we don’t do. And if we don’t do, why are we here on this earth?” Perhaps the Civil War setting has appealed to many generations because it becomes a way to tell a story, give social and political commentary, and re-evaluate modern ideas in the relative safety of time long past.

 

[i] Shenandoah (1965), James Stewart, Andrew V. McLaglen, James Lee Barrett. DVD produced by Universal Studios (2003).

[ii] For more details of Jimmy Stewart’s life, including his military actions, please reference Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2006).

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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6 Responses to Shenandoah: A 1965 Interpretation Of American Ideas

  1. wdonohue1 says:

    I like Sarah’s approach. I had a history prof in Louvain fifty years ago who repeated over and over that a given work of history tells us more about the author than of the historical period or event about which he/she writes.

  2. Berry Fitzhugh says:

    Best thing about that movie was Maureen Ohara, she was gorgeous!

  3. Rob Orrison says:

    Remember seeing this movie as a kid on tv at my grandparents house. I have always enjoyed it…sometimes as historians, we need to take our hats off and just enjoy something without critiquing everything. Especially if the point of the movie is not a historic event, but more telling a story about family etc.. Yes, there are mistakes in it, but Jimmy Stewart covers up ALL mistakes in my book!

  4. I do not agree that Shenandoah was an anti-war film. It proved that sitting on the fence, being a pacifist, did not work. Evil must be confronted before it gets out of hand. It is kind of like when George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) confronted the evil Mr. Potter in “Its a Wonderful Life”. We must confront evil today or it will get out of hand, witness the rise of ISIS. Good people must stand up to evil today as much as 150 years ago.

  5. Thanks for commenting! Just thought I’d add a couple thoughts that maybe didn’t get woven into the article.
    Overall, the movie is pretty good and entertaining. I like the family scenes and the first church scene makes me laugh every time. I enjoy Stewart’s acting and have seen some of his other movies (particularly like “The Spirit of St. Louis”).
    I do not advocate pacifism…just making some observations on the era of the movie. It’s a real turning point in the movie when the Andersons grab their guns, but they end up “a day late and a dollar short” because they didn’t act sooner.

  6. Ron Vaughan says:

    I think the movie represents in a broad way, the plight of those families who tried to stay neutral, but were effected. They lost 3 family members, and a son missing. They managed to avoid conscription of sons and horses, but most were not so lucky.
    Charlie was not only a political fence sitter, but also in regards to his “religion”. In November I attended a musical version of Shenandoah, performed by a local theatrical group. I was not sure what to expect, but it was amusing. This version followed the story line of the movie, but skipping things like battle scenes. At the end, Charlie was depicted as becoming more devout, seeing the reappearance of “boy” as an answer to prayer.

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