Movie Review: Shenandoah

ShenandoahThumbby Brad Nelson
Combine Jimmy Stewart with the old west (or Old South, in this case) and you just can’t go wrong. It’s tough to screw it up. But it shore looked that’s what they were doin’, pa, after watching about the first 15 minutes of this. It more resembled an episode of Bonanza (with b-list actors filling in among the stars) than a Jimmy Stewart classic. In fact, as noted by a reviewer at, Bonanza was the top-rated show at the time and the resemblance is intentional.

But eventually the movie gets its legs and Stewart anchors this film even though he’s surrounded by his several sons who can’t act a lick ‘cept fer the youngin. And that youngin did do a quite splendid job.

Shenandoah picks up speed and more than its share of grit as Stewart and his sons (and a daughter, played splendidly in this case) get caught up in the Civil War which is erupting all around them. The homespun common sense frontier wisdom that Stewart elicits is worth the price of admission. Good dialogue used to be the art of a movie before special effects and visuals drowned out the human element. A few can deliver a line as realistically as Stewart.

The issue of slavery, and the Civil War itself, are played in an interesting way. Stewart’s character owns no slaves and doesn’t agree with slavery. He sees no reason at all why he should fight in this war. But eventually he unavoidably gets wrapped up in it and the viewer is taken on a tour of a couple battlefields and other Civil War situations. It’s a bit different than I expected. I expected this to become a Civil War movie with two sides shooting at each other and lots of rows of men being mowed down line for line as usual. But it’s really a movie that dances in and around the war. Very nicely done.

You’ll notice that one of Jimmy Stewart’s sons is Zephram Cochrane. And if you don’t know who that is, you can just go ahead and Google it. But he really can’t act a lick either. I kept waiting for the Companion to come sparkling in. You’ll also run into Troy McClure (that’s *Doug,* Brad). Oh, sorry. You’ll run into Doug McClure too as one of Jimmy Stewart’s sons and this time he’s not running away from any dinosaurs. But he actually does a very nice job in this. You’ll also find Katharine Ross in this one and she plays the quite angelic daughter-in-law.

Overall, this is a pretty good movie and the star, of course, is James Stewart and he can carry this picture all by himself with two hands tied behind his back. And does. But they did write some really good dialogue for him. I give Shenandoah 3.9 (forget half-stars…I use tenths) out of 5. It’s just one tenth away from that truly stratospheric 4.0 rating. But this is a classic and a quite enjoyable film. If you like Jimmy Stewart, you have to watch it. That’s an order. • (1615 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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7 Responses to Movie Review: Shenandoah

  1. Black JEM says:

    I had the opportunity to act in the play version – which I believe the movie was based off of – not the other way around.

    The movie – SPOILER ALERT _ SPOILER ALERT —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-
    takes an interesting turn upon the confrontation between Stewart’s character and a soldier who has shot and killed one of his sons as they are out searching for his youngest son. I always felt the play did a much better job here, and created a bigger sense of loss and disappointment, which was in keeping with the overall theme of the movie. Letting him live changes the mood swing and the final impact of the film.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Ahhh….I had no idea that the movie was based upon a play. Very interesting. I certainly don’t see much evidence of that in the movie from what I recall. Many movies that are based upon plays have that “two or three changes of scenery, at most” look. “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a good example of this, although the movie version is also excellent.

      • Black JEM says:

        Yeah – it doesn’t show that look at all – and it is possible that there was a book first, then made into a play and then into a movie —- I just checked – and I stand corrected. The movie was first, the play second – and the play was based off of the screenplay for the movie.

        I first saw the play, then was in a production of the play, and then saw the movie. I would still argue the play is better for that scene I mentioned above.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I have no doubt that this could make for an engaging play, especially with a strong cast. And for the movie, there really has never been a stronger lead than James Stewart. Perhaps only Bogie, John Wayne, Spencer Tracey, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Henry Fonda could take a mediocre script and make you forget about it. I think “Shenandoah” was a good script. But Stewart was surrounded by a bunch of third-string actors, if that….and still it was a terrific movie.

          • Black JEM says:

            John Cullum as Charlie Anderson was amazing in the play and he won a Tony. You might most remember him as the South Carolina Senator Rutledge in “1776” who sang the slavery song – “Molasses to Rum”.

            Cullum was amazing and I was fortunate enough to see him do it live, in Chicago I think. Powerful. But the settings between a film and a broadway musical are so different. Both Cullum and Stewart were giants in their own spheres.

            Yeah, the acting is kind of stilted in the movie. But it is an excellent story. I can remember we did it for three nights in a local production. On the last night during the 2nd act, I could hear audience members crying – crying noticeably – while I am trying to stay in character on stage. That is how good the story is. I felt that way when I saw the play. The movie just never made that connection with me.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              That’s so cool that you were in that play. I’m definitely impressed. And I haven’t seen “1776.” I’ll have to see if I can find that.

              • Black JEM says:

                You should – it is very good.

                Not exactly a factual telling of the declaration debate – but an interesting compilation of the attitudes and feelings of the colonists over maybe a three year period prior to the signing – with the characters being compilations of families or state delegates all rolled into one, along with some stereotyped characteristics thrown in for fun. The story itself covers just a few months prior to the signing of the Declaration and the writers crammed all of this into it. The movie is both funny and solemn. I try and watch it every year around a certain day.

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