Hollywood studios began to worry during the 60’s. The old studio system was showing signs of age and movie theater attendance was declining. Movies were simply failing to connect with target audiences. America’s youth was experiencing a seismic shift in culture and politics after the rise and death of JFK, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the advent of the counter-culture revolution. During the first half of the 60’s, Hollywood continued to put out the same kinds of films it always had. Although some of its films made veiled references to what was going on in American society at the time, films in general began to look stale and old-fashioned.

Shenandoah is a perfect example of the tired material Hollywood continued to churn out in the early 60’s. The film stars Jimmy Stewart, the quintessential symbol of traditional American values. He plays the stern widowed patriarch of a large family living on a farm in rural Virginia during the Civil War. The family stands apart from most of its Virginian neighbors in that it doesn’t use slaves to farm its land. However, even though they don’t use slaves, Stewart’s character is a pacifist and refuses to allow any of his sons to fight the war. This is easier said than done as the Union and Confederate armies begin to encroach upon the areas surrounding Stewart’s farm. Before they know it, Stewart and his family become unwilling participants in the Civil War as Stewart’s youngest son becomes a prisoner of the Union army.

Its borderline sacrilege to say anything bad about Jimmy Stewart. He is a titan of Hollywood’s Golden Age and his body of work speaks for itself. With all that said, however, I can easily say this performance is the weakest I have seen him do. When an actor such as Stewart is widely known for roles that embody qualities of wholesomeness and optimism, its difficult to see him play roles that are antithetical to these qualities. Thats not to say that Stewart is unable to play different types of characters or that he shouldn’t play them. All I’m saying is that I was not convinced by Stewart’s portrayal of the patriarch character in this movie. I felt he hammed up his delivery to the point of satire and his overall performance comes off as being wooden and wholly unconvincing. Furthermore, although I understand Stewart’s patriarch is supposed to be a stern and noble man who doesn’t display signs of weakness or emotion, (SPOILERS AHEAD) his reaction to the death of 2 of his sons and the return of his youngest were so unrealistic and fake that any emotion I may have possibly felt in those scenes were squelched.

The story of Shenandoah reminded me a lot of the far better Legends of the Fall. There is nothing wrong with the plot and it provides for a lot of compelling drama. Whats more is that its anti-war sentiments reflected the ongoing war in Vietnam at the time. Shenandoah was a classic Hollywood-spun tale with a political agenda that could have made for an excellent film. Where it utterly failed was in its execution. This film should have felt epic in scope. Considering the fact that the Union and Confederate armies were engaging in battles all around the family’s farm, I was expecting to see massive battles being staged between the armies. Instead, we see a few skirmishes that looked like they were shot (and they probably were) inside a sound stage and overlit with flourescent lights. At no time do you get a sense of the scope of this war. If someone with absolutely no knowledge of the Civil War had seen this film, they would have thought the war was a small conflict that was being waged by a few hundred people.

I was not surprised to learn after seeing this film that Shenandoah was turned into a musical in the 70s. Many of the scenes and the almost simplistic and straightforward style of the narrative suggests a perfect vehicle for a musical version of this movie. However, as good as the musical or an idea of a musical may have been, the light, musical-like qualities of the film hurt it as well. Shenandoah should have been a serious, heavy-hearted movie. It is that and it was meant to be that, but many of its wooden actors and overall feel of the film detracts from this. However, the most problematic aspect of the film (and what probably helped it succeed as a musical) is its near comical melodrama. This film contains no subtlety whatsoever. Love and death scenes and any other dramatic scenes absolutely drip with cheesy lines. A good writer and director would have easily been capable of making the audience cry with many of the scenes here (SPOILER: Especially the very last scene where the youngest son limps on a crutch into the church to rejoin his father, who believes him to be dead). Instead, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes on just how cliche and overdone this whole movie was.

Shenandoah was certainly not my type of movie. I love historical films and I especially enjoy Jimmy Stewart’s movies, but this film simply did not work for me. This is a Disneyfied version of Legends of the Fall and I mean that in a bad way. Skip this film and go see instead the Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins classic.

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