There is a little bit of everything in Sherman’s March: self-deprecation, Burt Reynolds, war, melancholy, failure, historical reanalysis, and cultural satire (did I mention Burt Reynolds?), all in hopes of reaching some semblance of love, art, and selfhood. Ross McElwee puts everything he has into this documentary equivalent of the epic poem, and to a large degree, succeeds in his efforts. His two hour and forty minute runtime is nothing short of a marathon, and it all comes together to make a truly unique cinematic experience. In a way, too, every single second is necessary for his artistic endeavor to meet its proper conclusion. That’s the thing about Ross… he lets the camera, an extension of his body, take him wherever the camera needs to go. Furthermore, the authorial sincerity behind this intimate journey, no matter the consequence, dictates where and how and why the story unfolds the way it does.
While the historical pursuit of analyzing Sherman the individual serves as a guiding arrow—who turns out to be, in part, an unlikely funhouse-mirror reflection of Ross’s own identity—the true journey sits far deeper in the persona of the artist himself. Here, our trusty documentarist is playing with genre expectations by subverting the formulaic historical investigation by not only humanizing Sherman and detaching him from his infamous military success, but also by allowing for pure sincerity, no matter how tangential, on the part of him, Ross, the investigator. On imdb.com and other notable movie websites, his documentary is entitled, Sherman’s March, but once his audience sits down and begins watching, the more extended title is unveiled: Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. This is Mr. McElwee throwing us a big fat juicy wink right at the beginning of his work, and it’s all too funny and too clever for one not to be wooed into following the eccentricity to its narrative end.
Ross is a journalist of many grains. He’s both the subject and object of his artistic image, but while examining himself he also pays great attention to other individuals as well, namely, the various women of the south. In this regard, I see a mix of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion/Tom Wolfe. More specifically, Ross, like Thompson, hopes to elucidate himself in the artistic process, but he’s also interested in unveiling key cultural components of his surrounding environment, much like Didion and Wolfe. And, while the historical reevaluation of William Sherman has certain authorial implications unlike Truman Capote’s style, Ross’s efforts in humanizing the military figure is very similar to Capote’s humanizing techniques in In Cold Blood. More specifically, they tackle individuals whom society has deemed singularly monstrous, and they fight for a contrary sentiment.
On the whole, I found Ross McElwee’s documentary so dynamic and complex that I had to fight tooth and nail not to go off on my own tangents regarding his use of mirrors, the pursuit of masculinity in the form of Burt Reynolds (only to be eventually rejected because of his use of the camera, much similar to his pursuit of women—coincidence? I think not), and various other detailed narrative strategies. Sherman’s March really does have it all, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first glance. I would liken it to the awkward nonfictional nephew of The Odyssey, but I’m torn between paralleling Ross and Odysseus because I can’t tell whether such an image is wholly ridiculous or strangely perfect. For now, I’ll go with it for comical purposes.