Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Fascination Films

I got this idea from The Girl with the White Parasol. She brought up the topic of Fascination Films, defined as "films I don't consider great, hell maybe I don't even like them all that much, but they fascinate me."

Shenandoah (1965). James Stewart stars as Charlie Anderson, widower and patriarch of a Virginia family, dedicated to keeping his clan out of the Civil War.

I don't like Westerns as a rule. But every time this one turns up, I watch it. I have seen it so many times, in fact, that no matter what scene I find on TV, I can pick up the movie immediately and follow it through to the end. Yet I'm not sure I like Shenandoah.

As Charlie Anderson, Stewart is completely authentic. He's so good at being the center of this family that it takes you a while to realize what a hollow moral center the movie has. We're talking about the Civil War here: slavery and secession. How is a man heroic for not taking a stand on that?

Since the movie was made in the mid 1960s, I am guessing that it may have been crafted as a well-meaning argument for ending our involvement in Vietnam. But viewed on its own merits, listening to Charlie Anderson discussing the war with his family, we don't hear him speak against it because violence is wrong. We hear him rail against it because "it doesn't concern us." That may be a viable argument if you're discussing whether America should be trying to impose our way of life on an unwilling foreign land. It's not if the question on the table is whether your own neighbors, in your own country, should be allowed to buy and sell fellow human beings. The more often I see the movie, the more this isolation disturbs me.

And while the women (Katharine Ross and Rosemary Forsyth) in the cast are almost as genuine as Stewart and can be quite moving, the men are almost painful to watch. Doug McClure, Patrick Wayne, Denver Pyle ... They seem to have wandered over from the set of McClure's TV show, The Virginian. The Technicolor sets are definitely TV soundstage quality, as well.

And yet, and yet ... if Shenandoah came on right now, I'd watch it again. Stewart/Charlie has a scene at the end where he talks to his late wife, Martha, at her grave. He brings her up to date regarding their kids and their daughter-in-law, Ann ("You didn't know Ann, did you? Well, you'd like her, Martha.") and their grandchild and I mist up a bit. Maybe because the dialog is so sincere when he rails that only ones benefiting from the war are the undertakers, I can willfully ignore that he's talking about a sad but necessary conflict that brought about the emancipation of slaves and instead pretend he was talking about Vietnam or Iraq.

Now go visit The Girl with the White Parasol and read her take on Fascination Films.


  1. What a great prompt! I haven't watched all of Shenandoah.

  2. I haven't seen Shenandoah but I could instantly envision that scene with Stewart at the grave. The talking-to-the-grave scene is a pretty common device, but nobody could bring the raw emotion like Stewart.

    And thanks ever so for the plug!

  3. I'm pretty sure I saw the musical off-Broadway (dinner theater, if I remember it right). I haven't watched the Western, but since I love Jimmy Stewart, I'll have to see if I can find it.

    I had thought the reason for his pacifism was that he was a Quaker, and therefore morally opposed to war, but this makes it sounds a lot less understandable. I definitely have to revisit this.


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