Shenandoah (1965)

Students in my Civil War Memory course finally finished watching Gone With the Wind.  With all of the discussion and analysis it took us two weeks to get through it.  It was well worth it and for the most part they really enjoyed it.  We are now transitioning to the Civil War Centennial and the movie, Shenandoah.  As part of their preparation for this movie I had students research the centennial and analyze newspaper articles from the period.  Today we discussed how both the civil rights movement and the Cold War influenced how Americans remembered and commemorated the war in the 1960s.  Having been released in January 1965, just six months after Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Shenandoah clearly reflects this broader cultural and racial shift.  In contrast with earlier films such as Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation this film does not glorify the plantation South.  This strong anti-Lost Cause theme emerges early in the film.  Consider the scene around the diner table.  Charlie Anderson is challenged by one of his sons who argues that the family can no longer ignore the war.  The father asks his sons if they desire to own slaves.  He then goes on to ask: “Now suppose you had a friend that owned slaves and suppose somebody was going to come and them them away from him.  Would you help him fight to keep them.”  One son insists that he would not and notes that, “I don’t see any reason to fight for something that I don’t believe is right and don’t think that a real friend would ask me to.”  The dinner table reflects the broader moral issues that Americans were struggling with at the time.  But even apart from the issue of civil rights the movie fits neatly into the ongoing ideological war with the Soviet Union.  There is a moral clarity that comes through in this scene that reinforced America’s sense of its own place as leader of the free world.

This anti-Lost Cause theme returns in the above scene when Charlie Anderson confronts a Confederate officer hoping to recruit the Anderson boys.  Somehow we are supposed to imagine that six strapping young Virginians were able to avoid conscription for two years.  Anderson defends the necessity of keeping his sons on the farm by insisting that his farm was built “without the sweat of one slave.”  The shift from GWTW is striking in Anderson’s refusal to make any sacrifice to slaveholding Virginia or the Confederacy.  This unwillingness to identify specifically with slavery removes it from the ongoing debate about civil rights.  I am confident that my students will enjoy this movie and I am looking forward to the class discussions.

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36 comments… add one
  • Ken Tyree Apr 5, 2019 @ 23:20

    This movie is strictly hollywood and inaccurate. If it was accurate, it would have the decency to tell you that this farm was completely destroyed by the Yankees as were all the others in the valley. TYREE HM2, great-grandson of Charles Thomas Tyree

  • cathy Holt Dec 2, 2016 @ 14:41

    After 15 years of researching my ancestors in Missouri and Arkansas, their civil war struggles, their divided loyalties, or their neutrality, I would like to comment on the accuracy of Shenandoah. As compared to soldier’s letters, officer’s reports, my ancestors letters and memories, I can say this is the most accurate of all civil war movies to date.

  • H. S. Anderson Dec 23, 2015 @ 12:47

    This is a beautiful movie. One of my favorites.

  • Sherree Jan 28, 2010 @ 11:02

    This is a fascinating discussion, Kevin. I'll just add an observation from the point of view of memory.

    I first saw this movie with my grandmother. I remember identifying with it. At the time, my grandmother owned a nursing home in the mountains of Virginia. The patients lived upstairs. We lived downstairs. Well, most of the patients lived upstairs. One patient, an African American woman, lived downstairs with us. There were some in the white community who didn't want this woman to be in the nursing home at all. My grandmother really didn't care, though. She was very much a leave aloner. Also, she was not interested in the Vietnam War. Now, my parents, they were. My parents were also not just interested in the struggle for civil rights; they participated in that struggle in our area. “Shenandoah” wasn't their movie, though. It was my grandmother's. The African American woman who lived with us in the nursing was a direct descendant of slaves, and she and my grandmother were much closer to the era in question than we are, and they were much closer to one another as human beings. So, I join with Robert Moore–and with you–in cautioning against simplistic interpretations of both the Civil War and the memory of that war of successive generations.

  • Robert Moore Jan 27, 2010 @ 20:50

    It's funny, I looked at the Wikipedia entry (for what it's worth) for the movie and the entry states that it was an anti-war (Vietnam) film, but at that point in the game, I wouldn't think that was the objective. If the film was released in 1965, it was probably filmed in 1964, right? It seems it may have just become a conveniently anti-war film at a later point, no?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 21:25

      I thought the same thing. It seems to me that the war has not yet become a central focus for the country when it was filmed in 1964.

  • Robert Moore Jan 27, 2010 @ 20:44

    I think it might be beneficial to look into the possible motivations, if any, of those who were behind the film: James Lee Barrett (writer), Andrew V. McLaglen (director), and Robert Arthur (producer).

    Again, it would be interesting to see what or who was consulted in regard to historical accuracy, and if that was even a real concern.

  • boydharris Jan 27, 2010 @ 18:23

    I haven't seen this movie in forever, but the scene you have posted strikes me as having to deal more with the Cold War than the Civil War. This is especially explicit when Jimmy Stewart rails against “the State.” If the the movie had been produced just five years later, the anti-war message could have been linked directly to the war in Vietnam. Instead, and I am just throwing this out here, could this movie be placed in the same anti-war (post Cuban Missle Crisis) category as FailSafe and Dr. Strangelove. All three were produced around the same time (mid 1960s) and all have an undertone message that is against war, while not seriously identifying causes. Fail-safe and Shenandoah more serious in tone, while Dr. Strangelove highlights the absurdity of war. Anyway, I have placed this movie in my Netflix list and am looking forward to rewatching it.

  • Ken Noe Jan 27, 2010 @ 16:29

    I'm actually using it in my new Civil War memory course this spring, like you, as an example of Hollywood's war during the Centennial years. I'm curious to see what my students think of it when the time comes. My take right now is that to make the Andersons sympathetic, and to make the movie less controversial and more profitable, they simply had to divest them of slavery. That trope of the anti-slavery Confederate was quite common in popular culture of the time, especially westerns, so it shouldn't have been much of a jump. But we should exchange notes come May.

    I wish “Journey to Shiloh” was on DVD–not a very good movie but an interesting anti-Vietnam film dressed up as a Civil War movie. The surviving heroes desert at the end. Plus it features a very young Harrison Ford.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 16:33

      I've never seen “Journey to Shiloh”. The movie works very hard at achieving consensus at a time when the country was once again split over issues that stemmed from the Civil War. My students are enjoying it so far.

    • Leonard Lanier Jan 27, 2010 @ 22:06

      Maybe Dr. Noe knows the answer to this question. If memory serves me right, I recall Dr. James I. Robertson Jr. mentioning that he served as a historical advisor on Shenandoah. He is not listed among the movie’s credits at IMDb, but I do know that Dr. Robertson has a high opinion of the film, and usually tries to arrange a showing of it each year at Virginia Tech.

      If so, that adds another layer of complexity to a film that promotes an anti-Lost Cause message.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 22:29


        Here is what I discovered re: Robertson and the movie in Robert Cook's excellent study of the Civil War Centennial. Keep in mind that Robertson served as the Executive Director of the Civil War Centennial Commission. Robertson considered Shenandoah “without qualification to be the best Civil War drama ever put on film. Its battle scenes are more authentic than those in 'The Red Badge of Courage'; its plot and characters are more original than the ingredients of 'The Horse Soldiers'.' In my opinion the human warmth, simple emotionalism and rich portrayal of an embattled American generation cause 'Shenandoah' to eclipse easily that so-called 'classic' treating of the war, 'Gone With the Wind.'”

        Robertson's Personal Papers related to the Centennial are filed under the National Park Service, Record Group 79, National Archives

        • Leonard Lanier Jan 28, 2010 @ 13:59

          Wow! Talk about an endorsement. Although I've referenced Cook's Troubled Commemoration many times when discussing the memory of the Civil War, I somehow missed that reference on pages 236-237. Thanks alot Kevin.

      • Ken Noe Jan 27, 2010 @ 23:25

        Mr. Lanier, essentially you know what I know. My fellow Hokie Cash might know more if he's online.

  • Robert Moore Jan 27, 2010 @ 15:47

    Also, when considering this film as a window to the CW era Southern vantage point, would you really consider this film, “anti-Lost Cause” or simply non-traditional? It stands alone in its time for having bucked the narrowly focused and standard Lost Cause delivery of the Southern story, but the film never shows folks with sentiments similar to Anderson's. He stands alone, with his family who is torn over whether to fight or not. I never considered it as delivering anti-Confederate rhetoric.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 16:24

      Really good point, but as far as I can tell based on where we are in the movie it doesn't look like any Virginians understand what the war is about. I think you are right that avoidance is more accurate than anti Lost Cause.

  • Robert Moore Jan 27, 2010 @ 14:50

    I'd submit that there is also another aspect of historical truth in the film that may be overlooked. I see Charlie Anderson, not as a Unionist (in his opposition to his sons joining), but what I call a “leave-alone'r” (as if the story of Southern Unionists isn't enough, now I'm asking people to consider the “leave-alone'rs… geez!). I think this is a great example of those folks who cared less about involvement with either side in the fight. The problem with some of those Southerners and their sentiments was that some were driven to take up arms, and most that I have encountered did so in blue because of the harassment of Confederate conscript hunters. Speaking of which, the avoidance of conscription is a little more difficult to believe in this movie considering the geography. The Anderson farm was in the open, yet, most of those who successfully evaded (or tried to evade, at least for a while) conscription in the Valley were closer to the mountains and in the hollows.

    On a sidenote, it always kills me to hear the town name “Harrisonburg” totally warped in one scene of the movie.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 15:06

      I wouldn't mind hearing more from you on the “leave aloners” in the Shenandoah Valley, but it seems to me that the particular position that Charlie Anderson has more to do with not wanting to address what the war is about. Thanks for the comment.

      • Robert Moore Jan 27, 2010 @ 15:22

        In that case, I suspect we might place Anderson among those who wanted to maintain a certain status quo. He recognized the issues regarding owning another human being (and had problems with it), but wasn't willing to take any steps to impact things as they were, other than avoiding jumping into the status of slaveholder. I'll have to take another look at the movie, but I don't recall any mention of wanting to get rid of, or maintain, the institution of slavery… they just didn't want to participate in the institution. I wonder, therefore, if this (apart from the leave-alone'r status on some broad scale) was the standard mindset of the non-slaveholding Southerners. Slavery was present and had been a fixture for so long in society that became part of the status quo.

        Another thing that strikes me in the movie is when one of the Andersons tells the slave that he is free because of the EP. Again, I'm going to have to see the movie again, but it seems that the Anderson girl who says this may have been subject to the anger of the person who actually “owned” the slave. Just seems it could have been better handled in the script.

        • Mike Radinsky Jan 27, 2010 @ 18:12

          Is it possible the film-maker wished to indict and admonish the “leave-aloners” of the Civil rights era, more so than portray an accurate mindset of a group of Southerners. Many southerners did not participate in the institution because it was either un-neccessary for their occupation, or economically unfeasible for their particular way of life. However, that doesn't mean that they wouldn't support it by force of arms. Kevin wrote:
          The father asks his sons if they desire to own slaves. He then goes on to ask: “Now suppose you had a friend that owned slaves and suppose somebody was going to come and them them away from him. Would you help him fight to keep them.” One son insists that he would not and notes that, “I don’t see any reason to fight for something that I don’t believe is right and don’t think that a real friend would ask me to.” Most definitely anti-lost cause.
          If the question had been reframed as though asked by a pro-slavery contemporary, perhaps the answer would have been different:
          “Now suppose you had a friend that owned slaves and suppose somebody was going to come and them them away from him, and give them your brothers jobs at lower wages, and your piece of the land, and tax your father to pay for those who won't or can't work, and allow them to socialize with your sisters? Would you help him fight to keep them?.”
          That was the more historically accurate question in the minds of most southerners.

          • Robert Moore Jan 27, 2010 @ 19:31

            Perhaps, but that's something that's difficult to figure out until we know more about the film-maker and who or what he consulted to develop the film. Perhaps Gallagher went into this in depth… did he Kevin?

            In that one question that you rehash, I'd say, yes, that is anti-lost cause, but it's one instance. The movie as a whole is not anti-lost cause. It might be that the film is accidentally non-traditional in framing the CW era South, but then, I would bet that that is a broad brush approach. I say this because the Shenandoah Valley is not an example of the deeper South and the depth of slavery found there.

            I'd take care in re-framing the question as you have done. Our interpretation of the film as presented should be the sole focus. The question as you have re-framed is a discussion separate from the movie. It's applicable to the era (in our attempt to understand the mindset of the people), but not the movie as presented. It likely is beyond the depth of understanding of the film-maker and I don't think that the depth of academic studies at the time had not quite gone to such lengths.

            • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 19:40

              Unfortunately, Gallagher isn't much help here. You are right in reigning me in a bit. I am asking a number of questions about this movie with my class.

        • Bob_Pollock Jan 27, 2010 @ 19:42

          I always wonder how wide spread this “leave-aloner” mindset really was. Is this the same as wanting to stay neutral?
          Historians have repeatedly claimed that because Douglas carried Missouri in 1860, this proves a majority of Missourians wanted to remain neutral. Really?
          A monument placed at Wilson's Creek Battlefield by the SCV not too long ago, states that the Missouri State Guard was comprised of Missourians who “only wanted to be left alone.” Really?
          Nathaniel Lyon, once considered a hero who saved Missouri for the Union, today is considered practically insane, and personally responsible for plunging Missouri into the war. Really?
          I think you are right, Kevin, when you say this is often a way to avoid the real issues, but it also plays into the “war of northern aggression” theme, though perhaps not in this movie.

          • Robert Moore Jan 27, 2010 @ 20:30

            It's no surprise to me that my idea of a leave-aloner and the SCV's is entirely different. The problem is trying to determine just who was a leave-aloner. In some instances they are inaccurately lumped into the Southern Unionists column because of reluctance. I think that the leave-aloner mentality was often trumped by peer pressure, but that can be difficult to prove.

  • toby Jan 27, 2010 @ 14:34

    I remember watching this film as a teenager and being disappointed that there was not more violence i.e. big battles and plenty of shooting. However, it is a good film.

    In some ways it is like the Gary Cooper film “Friendly Persuasion” in which the hero and his family, devout Quakers, must choose whether to take up arms when Confederates raid Indiana (did that really happen?). However, Friendly Persuasion is much less of a Civil War film – I don't think slavery is even mentioned.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 14:49

      I've never seen “Friendly Persuasion”. I will have to check it out.

      • chrismeekins Jan 29, 2010 @ 1:59

        Its a good flick

  • Matt McKeon Jan 27, 2010 @ 1:04

    Gary Gallegher's recent book on Civil War culture spends quite a bit of time on this flick.

    Jimmy Stewart comes across as quite the libertarian.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 1:17

      It's an extremely helpful book. My students read the first chapter to help us frame the various interpretive schools that are reflected in the movies.

      I forgot about that anti-government stance of Andereson's but I suspect it was just another way to move the character and the story away from the slavery issue.

  • jfe Jan 26, 2010 @ 23:40

    I enjoy Shenandoah, but I would suggest Horse Soldiers as a preferred alternative. Sorry to be critical. I do see your interest in contrasting this theme with GWTW.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 0:17

      Well, the problem is that I can't show every movie. 😀

      • jfe Jan 27, 2010 @ 0:44

        In all honesty, I suspect Shenandoah fits your purposes more than Horse Soldiers. Make sure your point out the incongruity of USCT fighting in the Shenandoah 😉

        • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2010 @ 0:57

          I plan to write a few more posts about the movie as we make our way through it. I think this is much more of watershed movie given its take on slavery. Thanks.

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