Context is King

I just watched the Jimmy Stewart movie Shenandoah again. I had seen it before and really enjoyed it. The agrarian life pictured in the movie appeals to me. Here is a man with six sons, a daughter, and a daughter in law eating dinner around his table. He has a huge farm where all the children pitch in and help with the tasks. He loves his children and has instilled a love for family in them. The children respect their father, even when they are in disagreement. I will not rehearse the whole movie. However, there is one point that struck me as I watched it a second time.

The movie is set in the Civil War and makes the point that war is hell. Stewart loses two of his sons and his daughter in law to the war, even though they are not even fighting in it. Men try to steal his horses and his sons to fund the war effort. I Samuel 8:11-18 came seeping into my mind as I watched these two scenes. Much of what Stewart says throughout the movie I agree with, especially as it pertains to how the government tends to see it citizens as property in a war effort.

However, on second viewing I began to get the impression there was something else going on. It is not simply a realistic picture of war with all its death and pain. It is in many ways an anti-war movie. By the end one is left with the vague notion that war is always evil. War is because of sin. There is no doubt of this. But in our fallen world, war is not only at times necessary, but can be righteous and just. The movie does not depict the nobility of fighting for a good cause. It is perhaps hinted at with the release of a slave boy, but even that is not clear. Stewart is in some ways noble, as he tries to rescue his son. But there is not good and bad in the war. There is only raping and pillaging. Stewart is not fighting for what is right. He is scrounging to save his family in the midst of all this madness. I began to wonder when it was released. Was the director making a point? What was the historical context? I checked the box. It was released in 1965, as the Vietnam War began to escalate. A theme in the movie is that Stewart does not want to get involved in a war that is not his. This could be the battle cry of those who opposed the Vietnam War.

Another note of interest is that The Sound of Music was released the same year, 1965. Comparing the plights of the two families in the movies is a good exercise in dissecting what a movie is trying to say about its subject.

Shenandoah is still a very enjoyable movie. Stewart is a great actor and certainly delivers here. I would still recommend it. By the way, I am not making a statement about the current war or about Vietnam. I am simply pointing out that putting a movie in its historical context can help with interpretation.