I find it increasingly difficult to watch Jimmy Stewart in the classic film “Shenandoah”. It has always been one of those films, like “The Hunt for Red October,” or “Snow White and the Three Stooges,” which, if it is on television, I’ll sit and watch it until it is done. But no more. I just can’t.
“Shenandoah,” if you haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, how are you allowed to live in the Commonwealth of Virginia), is about a family farming in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, which has stayed out of the war. But the war crashes in, and by the time we get to the final scene, widowed patriarch, Jimmy Stewart, has lost one son to a bullet, one son and daughter-in-law to marauders, and another son to a POW camp. It’s a great film – not without comic relief – a film tailor-made for Stewart, but there are two scenes, both at the end of the movie, I find unbearable.
With two sons dead, and one unaccounted for Stewart goes to the family graveyard to talk to his departed wife, Martha. He tries to tell her about the war, but all he can say is “It’s just like any war: the undertakers are winning it, the old men talk about the need of it, the politicians talk about the glory of it, but the young men fighting it….they just want to go home.” The film, released in 1965, at the beginning of the escalation of America’s involvement in Viet Nam, is about as close to an anti-war statement as we get from Stewart, who retired as a Brigadier General in the USAF reserves. Whatever your feelings about our involvement in Viet Nam, that statement continues to resonate with anyone who ever prayed about a service man in the field. The second scene is the final one. Stewart’s youngest son, mistaken for a CSA infantryman, and taken prisoner, finally makes his way home. This young man, known only as “the boy” in the film is special to Stewart because his mother died giving birth to him. “The Boy” arrives, battered and on crutches, during worship service. While the congregation sings, father and son are reunited. How many fathers and sons were not reunited in the 1960’s (or the 1860’s)? Stewart and his stepson, Ronald, were not.
Stewart’s stepson Ronald was killed in 1969 by Viet Kong machine-gun fire in Quang Tri province, with four other marines. Stewart said publicly that neither he, nor his wife had any bitterness about the death of their son. “There’s our son,” Stewart said, “He wanted to be a marine. He was a good marine….I don’t see it as a tragedy…he conducted himself honorably on the field of battle. You can’t consider that as a tragedy….but losing a boy like that, you never get over it.”*
Of course Jimmy Stewart didn’t know he was going to lose his son when he made “Shenandoah” in 1965 (although as a bomber pilot in the Second World War, he knew plenty about war), but wedo. I find that I am not up to that kind of omniscience. All I think about is Jimmy Stewart’s son getting machine-gunned in Viet Nam when I watch that scene. We have this sort of omniscience because of 20/20 hindsight, and because part of what we are talking about is fictional. God’s omniscience is real. He knows exactly how it all will end. And He cares (read Ezekiel 18.23-24, or Hosea 11.1-9 if you doubt God agonizes over the lost). How hard must it be to care and to know? We may experience something of this when we care and suspect. Perhaps someone we love is pursuing a path that will not end well, we see it all happening, and are powerless to stop it – perhaps then we know some small fraction of what God feels.
“But God is notpowerless,” you protest, “He is omnipotent, He can do anything.” God can not violate our free will (see again Ezekiel chapter 18). Either we serve Him freely, or we do not serve Him at all. Most of us will notserve God, and He knows this (Matthew 7.13-14). And yet, knowing what He knows, He sent Jesus anyway (John 3.16), making provision for billions who will reject that provision.
Let us neither reject, nor forget it.
God wants his children home (Isaiah 43.5-7). It’s that simple. God wants that Jimmy Stewart ending. This is the reason Jesus died on the cross. Shouldn’t we desperately want the same?
*Jimmy Stewart: A biography, by Marc Elliot, Harmony Books (2006)