Pop Shows the Weasels


An unusually bold mainstream Sixties classic, 1965’s period piece SHENANDOAH, starring James Stewart and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, comes to Blu-Ray, via Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

Ostensibly, a tale of the Civil War, SHENANDOAH personifies the nightmarish conflict largely through the Anderson family – a brood of Virginian isolationists (some not by choice), ruled by strict patriarch/widower Charlie. The six sons, daughter and daughter-in-law nightly discuss the current news over dinner. With actual sounds of battle occasionally evident in the distance, the sibs argue about joining up, opposition to any service, or simply leaving things status quo. Charlie leans toward the latter two. “How many slaves you own?,” he asks his pro-Confederacy-minded son Jacob. “What about you, James? You ever think you might like to own a slave?” Embarrassment lowers the verbal ballast, and with the simmering palaver momentarily quelled, the family, grateful for what they’ve achieved (a beautiful, large, prosperous farm), uncomfortably resumes their meal. On a personal front, Anderson awaits his first grandchild, and a local successful officer-apparent courts the clan’s only female-born member. Charlie’s words of “It doesn’t concern us” seem to ring true.

Then, the unthinkable happens. A local gray battalion is practically wiped out on their land, and, worse, the youngest, (known only as “Boy” throughout the picture), wearing a Reb cap he found, is captured by Union troopers, and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

“Now it concerns us!” snarls Charlie (as only Jimmy Stewart can), and the family sets off to make things right.

SHENANDOAH, as penned by James Lee Barrett, is a moving, rousing action-packed drama that nevertheless doesn’t flinch for being a parable to the then-raging Vietnam War (slavery aside, many of the arguments the Andersons have were being held nightly at dinner tables across the country…although, at the time, none of this overtly clicked with me; then again, I was eleven). Remarkably, Andrew V. McLaglen doesn’t let the engrossing narrative become too marred by politics – just enough; it’s a clever directing gig. Star Jimmy Stewart’s stance is quite extraordinary, considering his hawkish position on Nam and the military in general (or, should we say Brigadier General, as that was his status in the Air Force). That said, Charlie Anderson’s opposition to the war is only negated by the very Republican decision that “now it concerns us.” For Anderson/Stewart, that turn-the-tide situation meant fighting at all costs (in February of the next year, the veteran star flew a special secret mission over Vietnam); mirroring the narrative, the actor’s stepson was killed near the demilitarized zone in 1969.

For McLaglen, SHENANDOAH was a dream come true. Movie royalty, the son of Victor McLaglen, Andrew grew up on John Ford sets – eventually becoming an unofficial a.d. on such iconic works as The Quiet Man. He soon stepped-up into full directing mode, managing a steady career until his screen retirement in 1991. McLaglen always claimed that SHENANDOAH was his best work. He could be right, although a number of late underrated entries should be considered, including North Sea Hijack and The Wild Geese, plus a slew of terrific television episodes on such famed series as Have Gun Will Travel, The Line-Up, Perry Mason, The Lieutenant, The Virginian, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, and Wagon Train.

SHENANDOAH was the movie McLaglen was most proud of, no doubt because it’s also his most Fordian. Stewart even gets to talk to his dead wife at her gravesite (a la John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). He also wisely recruited the brilliant William Clothier (The Horse Soldiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Donovan’s Reef, Cheyenne Autumn) to film the gorgeous visuals in rich, vivid Technicolor. Then, there’s the cast – many Ford veterans (also McLaglen personal buds), including Paul Fix, Harry Carey, Jr., Pat Wayne, Chuck Roberson…plus Doug McClure To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Phillip Alford (as Boy), Strother Martin, Denver Pyle, George Kennedy, Tim McIntire, James Best, Kevin Hagen, Dabbs Greer, Kelly Thordsen, Rayford Barnes, Lane Bradford, Edward Faulkner, Gregg Palmer, and, in bits, Gary Grimes and Warren Oates. The women in the pic are especially worth mentioning – a pair of newly signed Universal contractees (two of the studio’s last), Rosemary Forsyth and, more notably, Katharine Ross. Forsyth would appear in a number of other excellent Universal entries, such as The War Lord before segueing into MCA-TV series – while Ross would fare better in the unfairly ignored Games before becoming a major star in 1967’s The Graduate (which allowed her to eventually ease out of her Universal “bondage,” albeit gracefully, via Tell Them Willie Boy is Here).

The score by studio reliable Frank Skinner is suitable, elevated by a lovely main and end instrumental rendering of the famed title melody.

As produced by Robert Arthur, SHENANDOAH looks bigger than it is – an opening battle prologue from MGM’s vault, featuring an impressive montage from 1957’s Raintree County. The picture is also incredibly adult, and contains some pretty graphic violence, and a harrowing rape scene.

While critics were mixed, although mostly positive, audiences flocked to see the movie in the summer of 1965. Back then, if a movie recouped its cost, and then grossed four million or so – it was considered a big-time hit. SHENANDOAH grossed over eighteen million in the U.S. alone that July and August before going on to enjoy an equally profitable international run.

The new Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of SHENANDOAH looks sensational – like owning your own pristine 35MM Technicolor print. It’s as if I was sitting in the front row of the Onteora all over again.

FUN FACT: SHENANDOAH was retooled as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 1974, starring John Cullum (replacing the original choice Robert Ryan, who had succumbed to lung cancer in July of 1973).

USELESS FUN FACT: SHENANDOAH was, to my knowledge, the last movie to use the classic traditional matte paper one-sheet posters. After this release, all one-sheets would go “glossy,” which is still used today.

A super nostalgic celluloid excursion, the SHENANDOAH Blu-Ray is the first time I’ve seen this movie in decades. Andrew V. would be happy to know that by the poignant fade-out, there were tears in my eyes. I truly can envision John Ford weepily uttering “Son of a bitch!” High praise indeed from ghostland!

SHENANDOAH. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25433. SRP: $24.95.

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