I saw this terrific anti-state film starring Jimmy Stewart over the weekend. Stewart has long been one of my favorite Hollywood actors but I had missed this film, which I now gather is his last great role.
Stewart plays Charlie Anderson, a Virginian patriarch in the Shenandoah Valley during the civil war. The film opens with a skirmish between Union and Confederate troops. Two of Anderson’s sons witness it and the eldest son Jacob reports back to Anderson, who can hear the cannons clearly:
Jacob: They come closer every day, Pa.
Anderson: They on our land?
Jacob: No sir.
Anderson: Well, then it doesn’t concern us. (Pause.) Does it?
Charlie Anderson is a widower still deeply in love with his wife who has been dead for sixteen years. He promised her on her deathbed that he would raise their children as Christians but it is clear that Charlie himself is not by nature a religious man. He begins each meal by leading the family in saying grace. Charlie Anderson doesn’t have much to say to God, but if he has to speak to him then God’s going to hear what’s on his mind:
“Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t of done it all ourselves. We worked dog bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway Lord for this food we’re about to eat, Amen.”
A great anti-state scene comes early in the film. A confederate officer named Johnson arrives with a handful of soldiers and asks Anderson if they can drink from his well. Anderson recognizes Johnson, and gives his permission. Their conversation begins politely enough but quickly turns sour:
Johnson: When are you gonna take this war seriously, Mr. Anderson?
Anderson: Now let me tell you something Johnson, ‘fore you get on my wrong side. My corn I take serious because it’s my corn. And my potatoes and my tomatoes and my fences I take note of because they’re mine. But this war is not mine and I take no note of it.
Johnson: Well…, maybe you’ll take note of it when the Yankees drop a cannonball in your front parlor.
Anderson: Well I might as well tell you right now that I can’t think of another thing I want to hear you say.
Johnson: You have six sons, don’t you Mr. Anderson?
Anderson: What, does the size of my family have some special interest for you?
Johnson: Matter of fact it does. We need men. Now two of these men here are no more than sixteen. It seems strange to quite a few people around here that none of your sons are in the army.
Anderson: Well it don’t seem strange to me, with all the work there is around here.
Johnson: I’ll come right to the point Mr. Anderson. Came out here to get ’em.
Anderson’s eyes narrow. He has not enjoyed talking to Johnson, but now he begins to contemplate the ways he could kill Johnson, if need be. Then he laughs in the officer’s face. Johnson has not brought enough men, not nearly enough.
Johnson: I say something funny?
Anderson: I think so… You came all the way out here to get my boys, huh?
Charlie Anderson calls out his six sons and invites Johnson to say his piece to them.
Johnson: There’s a Yankee army breathing down your neck Mr. Anderson, I don’t think you realize…
Anderson: You’re town bred, aren’t ya?
Johnson: I don’t see what that has to do…
Anderson: I’ve got five hundred acres of good rich dirt here. As long as the rains come and the sun shines it’ll grow anything I have a mind to plant. And we’ve pulled every stump, we’ve cleared every field, and we done it ourselves, without the sweat of one slave.
Anderson: So? Can you give me one good reason why I should send my family, that took me a lifetime to raise, down that road like a bunch of damn fools to do somebody else’s fightin’?
Johnson: Virginia needs all of her sons Mr. Anderson.
Anderson: That might be so Johnson, but these are my sons! They don’t belong to the state. When they were babies I never saw the state comin’ around with a spare tit. We never asked anything of the state and never expected anything. We do our own living and thanks to no man for the right.