For his first feature-length documentary, Ross McElwee wanted to focus on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody march through the South during the height of the Civil War and explore the cultural implications of that march on the people that currently live below and around the Mason Dixon. Sherman’s March is very much that film, but it’s also about McElwee’s search for romantic and sexual fulfillment. Throughout this two-hour-plus dream of a film, McElwee keeps reminding himself that he needs to return to the subject of General Sherman. I don’t know if he’s short-changing himself or his audience, nor do I know when these seemingly self-flagellating asides were recorded during the filmmaking process, but you get the sense that McElwee knew all along that he was always actively dealing with the memory of General Sherman, regardless of whether his camera was ogling a woman swimming in a lake or a preacher discussing the triumph of the spirit over the body.
McElwee is the Mark Twain of documentary filmmaking, a purveyor of American dreams whose wit is surpassed only by his uncanny knack for observation. It makes sense that a friend calls him self-effacing. Considering just how often events in the present serve as points or counterpoints to the past, or how many times the film doubles back on itself or inadvertently harks back to Sherman, not once does it ever feel cloying. The film’s alternate title, A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, is a mouthful, and it’s one that could equally apply to Don DeLillo’s Great American Novel Underworld, another dense, borderline meta chronicle of 20th-century lives living in the shadow of a past war.
Throughout Sherman’s March, McElwee meets and reconnects with a series of female friends and potential flames, from a struggling actress hellbent on starring in a Burt Reynolds film to a woman who seems to live by the mantra Thoreau laid out in Walden. Every story that reaches McElwee’s ears, however directly or indirectly (female inmates escaping a mental institution; the would-be actress’s Tarzan-meets-Venus screenplay idea), becomes part of a dream-like cultural tapestry sewed together from the ravages of Sherman’s journey. When the erudite Winnie casually asks Ross whether he thinks Sherman’s march to the sea was an attempt to show that he wasn’t a failure, you realize for the first time that McElwee is a stand-in for the general. The only difference is that the filmmaker doesn’t leave thousands dead in his wake, merely broken hearts and missed opportunities.
Without forcing comparisons, the spectator comes to realize that the women of the South are very much the same as they were in Sherman’s day. It is because McElwee understands their strength that he also understands their propensity for plastic surgery. When Sherman killed their men, they rebuilt the South themselves. Today, it’s only natural that they’re still hung-up on reconstruction and self-preservation. When an old woman bemoans the young boys who must have died by Sherman’s sword without ever having (or “knowing” for that matter) a sweetheart, the moment is especially touching because it harks back to the preacher’s comment about the spirit winning over the flesh. In reconnecting us with the past, McElwee asks us to reconnect not only with each other but with our human spirit.