It’s hard to comprehend exactly how a guy could get away with making a two and a half hour film called Sherman’s March about southern women and himself but that’s just what Ross McElwee did with his 1986 indie doc classic. The film treads the line between documentary and mockumentary with relative ease and keeps you smiling along the way. The film begins like a PBS special, an ominous voice over a map showing the route of Union Maj. William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous march toward the sea, noting its residual impact on the formerly confederate states. However, the film quickly shifts direction when McElwee explains how he has just received a grant to shoot his historical documentary about Sherman’s March but, because his girlfriend Ann dumped him the day he planned to begin filming, decides instead to join his family on an annual wilderness retreat. Thus begins Ross McElwee’s epic and lustful journey to court–or at least explore the subject of–southern women.
The film occasionally reengages the subject of Sherman’s March (the event, not the movie) in one way or another. McElwee does, for the most part, follow the route that Sherman and his troops took, mostly after facing some kind of crisis or rejection from a woman he has come into contact with. He also sometimes compares himself to Sherman, either in looks (they both had red beards) or in character (he seems to see Sherman and himself as somewhat tragic figures). Mostly though, Sherman’s March serves as a kind of catalyst or plot device for the continuation of McElwee’s own story.
Though McElwee often talks about being restless and depressed, the tone of the film remains light-hearted. Though he is criticized at one point in the film for being self-effacing, his ability to make fun of himself is what carries the film for me. We can laugh at Ross–and occasionally at some of the people he meets– right along with him. It’s through his edit, rather than his voice-over or interviews, that we truly come into contact with him and get a feel for his humor and sensibilities. This is, I think, one of the marks of a great documentary. One of the fascinating tensions, for me, in viewing and considering the film, was thinking about how much of Ross’ story was invented with prior intent and how much of it arose organically. I wondered whether Ross envisioned, after his girlfriend dumped him, the documentary that resulted from it. This thought arose from certain scenes where I could not quite tell whether McElwee was being disingenuous or not, similar to many Herzog documentaries.
My only criticism of the film, unfortunately, relates to its length. I found that what carried me through the last half-hour or so was simply that Ross had already won me over in the first two, rather than it feeling particularly engaging at that point. It’s a minor gripe and one that I make with some hesitance, but it’s a review so I thought I’d blurt it out anyway. Overall, the film is fun, funny, melancholy, and at times tender and manages to remain not only relevant but captivating nearly 30 years after its release.