#387) Sherman’s March (1986)


#387) Sherman’s March (1986)

OR “Southern Comfort”

Directed and Written by Ross McElwee

Class of 2000

The Plot: Filmmaker Ross McElwee sets out to follow the route of General Sherman’s historic March to the Sea over 115 years later to see its continued impact on Georgia and South Carolina. Shortly before filming, however, Ross’ girlfriend breaks up with him, and Ross finds himself in a despondent, reflective mood. Ross’ sister Dede suggests that he use his camera as a way to meet women, prompting a complete restructure of his movie. Over several months, Ross falls into a pattern of connecting with women, falling in love with them, realizing that love is unreciprocated, and returning to his Sherman’s March movie. That’s all well and good, but 2 ½ hours of this?

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief synopsis and a bio on McElwee.

But Does It Really?: Perhaps it’s my disconnect with the time period and/or southern culture, but I could not engage with “Sherman’s March”. It’s obviously a very personal film and tows the line between fact and fiction quite effectively, but ultimately this movie cannot justify why McElwee’s love life is worth 2 ½ hours of my time. I can give “Sherman’s March” a slight NFR pass on my “Everybody Gets One” mandate, but I still question how this movie was deemed worthy of recognition in the same class as “Apocalypse Now” and “Goodfellas”.

Shout Outs: At one point Ross and Pat discuss the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies, citing how bizarre it is that something from their childhood is getting a reboot. Yes, how odd…

Everybody Gets One: Ross McElwee studied filmmaking at MIT under documentary filmmakers Ed Pincus and Richard Leacock (whose work with D.A. Pennebaker appears elsewhere in the NFR). It was at MIT that McElwee perfected his first-person approach to documentaries, filming his subjects spontaneously and with no additional crew. All of McElwee’s films contain autobiographical elements, primarily his family and roots in North Carolina.

Wow, That’s Dated: As per the film’s subtitle, this movie takes place in “the Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation” and McElwee’s fear of an impending nuclear holocaust is a recurring theme throughout the movie.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Best Documentary nod for “Sherman’s March”, but it did win the Grand Jury prize for documentary at the 1987 Sundance Film Festival. Side note: The 1986 Best Documentary category did not suffer from lack of competition, resulting in only the fourth ever tie in Oscar history, shared between Brigitte Berman’s “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got” and Lee Grant’s “Down and Out in America”.

Other notes

  • “Sherman’s March” was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’ve never felt the urge to slap an independent federal agency before…
  • Part of my detachment from this movie is that I’ve never been a Civil War buff, so Ross’ musings about the complexity of General Sherman and his effect on Southern culture completely escaped me. Then again, I didn’t grow up in the south, so this history didn’t permeate my formative years the way it did for McElwee. If this movie were about the Junipero Serra trail, however, that’d be a whole other story.
  • I don’t understand why any of these women would talk to a man who constantly has a camera pointed at them. The exception being aspiring actress Patricia Rendleman, who during her time with Ross gets an audition for a Burt Reynolds movie.
  • Shoutout to “The Secret Life of Plants”, the bizarre ‘70s documentary with a Stevie Wonder soundtrack. I love that weird little movie!
  • Another point against this film: I’m getting a genre-blurring “David Holzman’s Diary” vibe from it. Nothing about the rest of this movie shakes off that feeling.
  • Ross looks like a young John Landis. Maybe that was a requirement for all ‘80s filmmakers? And is there a rule that he must be 30 feet away from the camera at all times?
  • Ross’ nuclear paranoia is supported by Bill and Herb, two survivalists building a fallout shelter up in the mountains, complete with…tennis court? “Dr. Strangelove” this is not.
  • “Slavery should not be enforced, it should be a right. If you want to be a slave, be a slave.” Ohhhhhhh boy.
  • We spend an extended amount of time with Wini and Michael on Ossabow island, but the only parts I can remember off-hand are the Spielbergian mirror shot, and the scene where Ross is stung by a bee.
  • And then we get to the real star of the movie: Charleen Swansea, Ross’ friend and former poetry teacher. She plays matchmaker for Ross and is definitely camera-ready. Swansea appeared in several of Ross’ films, including as the subject of Ross’ 1977 doc “Charleen”.
  • I think my main problem with this movie is Ross simultaneously trying to be an outside observer and the movie’s central figure. As he puts it “It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film.” Either you’re the Michael Moore of your documentary or the D.A. Pennebaker, but not both.
  • It occurred to me that very few of my notes are about the actual women, even though Ross documents at least 10 of them throughout the movie. That says a lot about this film’s almost-mechanic repetition of Ross’ love life.
  • I can’t confirm which Burt Reynolds movie was filming in North Carolina circa 1981, but I’m pretty confident it was “Stroker Ace”, the 1983 box-office bomb that Reynolds later said is “where he lost [his fans]”.


  • For the record, Ross McElwee did eventually get married to Marilyn Levine, who co-directed and co-wrote 1991’s “Something to Do with the Wall” with Ross, and appears in several of his subsequent films.
  • Ross now teaches filmmaking at Harvard, and still makes semi-autobiographical documentaries, most recently 2011’s “Photographic Memory”, in which Ross attempts to understand his son Adrian, as well as filmmaking’s new digital landscape.

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