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Film / Sherman's March

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Sherman's March is a 1986 autobiographical documentary film written and directed by Ross McElwee.

As McElwee himself explains onscreen, the film was originally meant to be a documentary about, yes, William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea through Georgia in late 1864, and his follow-up march through the Carolinas in early 1865, which concluded with Confederate surrender and the end of The American Civil War. His original idea was to retrace Sherman's route and document the lingering effects of the campaign on the area.

However, shortly before McElwee was to start his project, his girlfriend up in New York dumped him. McElwee finds himself unable to focus on his topic, and instead winds up documenting his own life instead. Specifically, he documents his disaster of a love life. As McElwee more or less retraces Sherman's route, he meets various women and becomes enchanted by them, only to be rejected. The film becomes a meditation on Southern womanhood, and McElwee's romantic frustrations, while also still touching on William Sherman's life and career.


  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Ross seems to have a good thing with Winnie on the Georgia barrier island, until he has to leave for few months to take a job. When he comes back, she's taken up with Michael, the only other resident of the island. She states plainly that it happened because Ross left.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Back up in Boston after his tour of Sherman's march and his encounters with various women, McElwee gets a teaching job and starts auditing a music class. Two minutes before the end of the film, he notes that his music teacher is very attractive. He says that he asked her if she'd like to go see a movie—and the credits roll.
  • The Cameo: None other than Burt Reynolds, whom McElwee tried to film on a couple of previous occasions but missed. Finally he tracks Burt Reynolds down to the set of Cannonball Run II. Security escorts him away and tells him he'll be arrested if he comes back.
  • The Chanteuse: "Joyous"—that's her name—bass guitarist and singer, first introduced singing with a band in a parking lot, and later shown singing in a nightclub. She hangs out with Ross for a little while before heading to New York to advance her music career.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: McElwee comes across as a downplayed version of this. He never seems intent on sex and is always polite with the women he films, but he also spends quite a bit of time filming their naked legs, faces, etc.
  • Crazy Survivalist: Claudia, the second woman Ross takes a fancy to, leads him to a compound being built by some crazy racist survivalist kooks. They're building a tennis court, so they'll have something to do in the aftermath of nuclear war.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: A running theme, as McElwee spends time with all these women and films them and gets to know them and never scores with any of them. Given his rather wimpy Nice Guy persona, this is not surprising.
  • Documentary: Shifted from a historical documentary to a personal one.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Starts to verge into this territory towards the end when Ross tries to pressure Karen into going out with him even though she's obviously not interested.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: For someone who wound up making a 2 1/2 hour movie about himself, McElwee is surprisingly reluctant to show his face. In one scene in a hotel he addresses the camera from the opposite side of his hotel room, half-hidden in shadows. In another scene he doesn't want to wake up his sleeping father, so he addresses the camera in a shadowy, poorly-lit living room.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: A clip of the rain pouring outside Karen's house accompanies McElwee's comment about how Karen hasn't had time for him because she's been with her boyfriend.
  • The Matchmaker: Ross's old friend Charleen, a middle-aged schoolteacher who tries very hard to hook Ross up with Dee Dee. She expresses great impatience at Ross's insistence on filming everything.
  • Narrator: McElwee narrates throughout.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Wini, who lives on an island off the coast of Georgia, indulging in nude sunbathing on the beach, milking her own cow, and talking about her "hippie lifestyle".
  • Nice Guys Finish Last: Charlene's diagnosis is that Ross gets nowhere in his love life because he's so damn wimpy.
    Charlotte: You're not interesting because you're so self-effacing and polite!
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Discussed Trope In-Universe, as McElwee's romantic distractions wind up totally changing the nature of his film.
  • Road Trip Plot: McElwee roughly following the path of Sherman's marches, although he sometimes makes digressions—he visits Charleston despite the fact that Sherman bypassed it, marching inland to Columbia.
  • Romantic False Lead: Ross himself, oddly enough. He comes back to Wini's island to find out that she has taken up with Michael in his absence and is no longer interested in him. He goes to meet his old friend Karen, but she's with a new boyfriend and isn't interested in him either. The scene where Karen leaves for a party with her boyfriend, ditching Ross who winds up hanging out with her roommate, is painful.
  • Short Title: Long, Elaborate Subtitle: The actual title is Sherman's March: A Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.
  • War Is Hell: McElwee notes how after Sherman cut a path of destruction through the South from Atlanta to Savannah and thence to Charlotte, he granted surrender terms so generous that he was reprimanded by the American government, which promptly revoked said surrender terms.