Despite its many genre tropes, I’m not sure Shenandoah counts as a Western. Yet it performs a function common to Westerns of the 1960s. It allows pointed criticism of current events (in this case, the Vietnam War) from a safe, thus palatable, distance. Many have tagged this an anti-war film, but I’m not sure it is. Yes, Charlie Anderson (Jimmy Stewart) repeatedly avoids involvement in the Civil War, claiming “It’s not on my land. I’m not a slave owner. It doesn’t concern me.” But Anderson cannot long afford his isolationism. Confiscation of private resources, conscription of sons, the death of loved ones — he may not simply opt out of war’s collateral damage. Notwithstanding his earlier protests, there are, it seems, quarrels one simply cannot avoid.
In June of 1965 (the month Shenandoah premiered), Congress authorized the use of ground forces in Vietnam. By December, 190,000 US troops were in Southeast Asia. Given that context, it’s tempting to project a pacifist message onto screenwriter James Lee Barrett and director Andrew V. McLaglen. But such projection is ignorant of the hawkish messages of their oeuvre. Their filmographies boast The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Green Berets, The Cheyenne Social Club, McClintock and Chisum. Even Shenandoah‘s ham-handed, b-plot nod to the Civil Rights movement hardly jeopardizes their conservative credentials.
The look of Shenandoah is as conservative as its message. Art directors Alexander Golitzen and Alfred Sweeney paint with an idyllic palette. Few farms have ever been as beautiful as the Anderson’s 500-acre spread. It’s a distractingly implausible archetype, lifted from pre-school picture books, flatly (even clumsily) lit by director of photography William Clothier. Clothier’s many collaborations with John Ford are testament to his interpretive understanding of light. Yet Shenandoah looks efficiently cheap, like so many television shows of its era. Dumping light onto a set accommodates slow film and speedy camera set-ups. But it results in a flat aesthetic, casting multiple unmotivated shadows that are impossible to reconcile with 19th century firelight, and add little depth to character or plot.
I’ll admit to being misty-eyed at several points during the movie — a response I attribute largely to the combined charm of its actors. The company falls crisply in line behind patriarch Stewart: Doug McClure, Glenn Corbett, Patrick Wayne (yes, son of John), Rosemary Forsyth, Katherine Ross (her debut, 2 years before The Graduate), and Phillip Alford (memorably “Jem” in To Kill A Mockingbird). I was rooting for these performers to be related to each other as were their respective characters. Ultimately, this strikingly winsome cast lifted sentimental story beyond pedestrian craft.