The Hollywood western remains largely a glorified, fictionalized deification of the white man’s quest to civilize the noble savage and his untamed natural splendor, either by smoking his peace pipe while trading pelts for tobacco or preferably through warrior conflict; the burying of the hatchet met with a display of marksmanship from the back of a careening stagecoach or wagon train racing against some iconic backdrop in Monument or Death Valley. Such clichés are well ensconced in our collective consciousness through the sheer proliferation of Hollywood’s reconstitution of the American frontier; its artistic template eclipsing the harsher facts of how the west was won.
That the settler class effectively chased indigenous peoples off their hunting grounds and decimated the natural landscape in their ever-expanding quest for gold, laying claim to lands that were not theirs to possess, to raise children and cattle, and who brought – along with ‘progress’ both ‘pollution’ and ‘pestilence’ that did more to lay waste to the American Native population than any great battle; these realities remain quietly buried; the fundamentals as well as the factual having absolutely no place within the context of the Hollywood western. With very few exceptions, Hollywood’s mythologizing of the frontier and the men and women who came to it retains its patina as the last experiment of rugged individualism; a triumph of man over beast, man over most any bloodthirsty savage, and, man over nature itself; all brought to heel at the behest of modern ‘civilization’.
The Hollywood western has been so insidiously prolific in this message that to even suggest an alternative to its grand narrative seems utterly hateful. For children still play cowboys and Indians; the white hat of a Dudley Do-right much preferred to the black mask and chaps of the gunslinger – unless, of course, one is referencing Zorro or the Lone Ranger. Is it any great wonder then that the first wildly popular movie of the silent era was Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) or that the name John Wayne still commands a marquee; Wayne himself consistently ranking among the top five all-time most popular stars. The duke’s legacy in particular looms larger-than-life over the Hollywood western hero; a figurehead set against these barren mesas; hand comfortably resting on his six-shooter, ten gallon weather-beaten, yet ever so confidently cocked just so and off to the side.
In the 1960s, directors like Sam Pekinpah and George Roy Hill made valiant attempts to revise the mythology for a new, more cynical generation who may have found the likes of Wayne, Roy Rogers and even Errol Flynn on horseback an anathema to the changing times. Even the venerable Clint Eastwood found it necessary to revisit his iconography with a tragic, almost apologetic epitaph to his ‘man with no name,’ ironically morphed into a reformist without a soul in 1992’s Unforgiven.
Westerns are rarely made today, perhaps because - try as we might - there seems to be no escaping the aforementioned precepts. One cannot ignore the clichés without somehow seeming disingenuous to the essence of the old west – even though that essence has been greatly manufactured and marketed out of pure fiction spawned at the start of the 20th century. The best westerns are therefore those that make the concerted effort to address two sides to the mythology, arguably standing behind the fiction, while ever so slightly nudging the audience to look beyond it – or at the very least, reconsider - its rigid iconography.
George Steven’s Shane (1953) remains one of the finest of this latter ilk; a western melodrama addressing not only the isolationism and hardships of a struggling settler class who have found more strife than celebration in their migration across the land, but also seeks to demystify the exalted image of the American cowboy. Before Shane there were generations of young boys to whom nothing seemed finer than this image of the powerful and resilient male figure astride his steed, a man’s man able to take care of himself either by his wits or at the point of a gun. The iconography of the American cowboy with buckskin and chaps, rifle at his side was perceived as the epitome of masculine chic. On the surface, Alan Ladd’s Shane starts off by rekindling this desirable masculine ideal; broad-chested, a wavy mantel of tussled blonde hair glinting against the sunrise. Yet behind his noble chin and piercing dark eyes there is angst, and self-pity and quite possibly even self-doubt; that the past has caught up to the legend; perhaps, even begun to threaten it with a morose and inescapable understanding for all the wrong and responsibility that also comes with the title.
In Clint Eastwood’s penultimate address to his own iconography, 1992’s Unforgiven, his retired gunslinger responds to a claim that the man he has just shot ‘had it coming.’ “We all have it coming, kid,” is Eastwood’s reply. Yet, Ladd’s Shane is perhaps the first western hero to address this sobering truth; at first only to himself, but much later on to young Joey Starrett (Brandon de Wilde); the boy whose idol-worship is destined for disillusionment before the final fade out. In the classic sense, Shane is a reformed nobleman, not a cowboy. But this nobility has been very hard won indeed, through self-sacrifice and the sacrificing of others that have earned him his merit and a reputation – however infamous. It’s a young man’s game, of course – proving one’s self. But in the realm of the Hollywood western proof is often derived and measured from one’s ability to defeat an enemy; to kill instead of be killed, and thus to become lost in the destructiveness of the challenge; reputation both garnered and held in a modicum of fear and more than an ounce of ever-reoccurring danger.
Based on a story by Jack Schaefer, the screenplay by A.B. Guthrie Jr. intuitively questions these precepts of male honor and pride; what it means to be the best in a profession where only the best survive to fight another day. It is important to remember that the traditional Hollywood western never recollected from the vantage of the victim laid to rest in six feet of gray earth after the dust from the conflict has settled. In the clear cut B-grade or even A-list golden age Hollywood western the good guys live to ride off into the sunset. Bad guys kiss the ground. John Ford would probe the shallowness of this victory in 1956’s The Searchers; John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards a weather-beaten monument to such a dead-end existence; isolated from mankind and ultimately destined to walk the earth disenchanted and alone.
Yet, it is Stevens’ Shane who first brings this image of the loner to us; giant-sized, handsome and arguably, not yet past his prime, although already having entered his self-imposed emeritus years. In effect, Shane has thought through and perhaps even seen his future and it is neither bright nor inviting: not the vision perceived through a younger man’s eyes; and clearly not as it undeniably appears to Joey Starrett’s impressionable mind. For Joey, Shane is already a hero. Without even moving a muscle in his introductory shot Ladd and Stevens’ camera sets up the illusion: Shane – hearty, slightly aloof, the strong and silent type – in short, a western paragon; seemingly benevolent and good-natured, but brooding and volatile just beneath the surface. Shane already has a past and a reputation - both earned with the sweat off his brow and hard-won martyrdom of his manly soul.
Joe Sr.’s (Van Heflin) own manly resolve has been systematically beaten into the hard earth on which his family barely survives. But Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) recognizes the darker side of a man’s heart; inextricably linked to this spirit of adventurism and his innate thirst to conquer and possess. Within Shane this struggle between the past and the future has already begun; the quaintly barbaric notions of youth settling into a more complacent – though consistent – lifestyle among the common folk. The spirit, however, has yet to entirely surrender; in fact, flaring to romanticized heights on occasion; as when Joey observes with awe as Shane decimates a stone, his clear-eyed and lethal gunslinger’s accuracy brought into focus with intense, sudden and very dramatic precision.
The film is set in Wyoming during an undisclosed period post-dating 1862’s Homestead Act. Shane, a buck-skinned drifter arrives at the isolated farm of Joe Starrett, his wife Marian and young son, Joey. This arrival is unobtrusive and strangely not dramatic, Shane’s stoicism and easy nature endearing him almost immediately to both Joe Sr. and Joey. Shane is invited to stay for supper and then, the night; an invitation gratefully accepted. Learning of a conflict between Joe and an exceptionally ruthless cattle baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) who is intent on forcing the Starretts and other nearby settlers off their land, Shane offers to remain, work the land and help resolve this conflict.
As the farm could definitely use an extra pair of hands Joe accepts Shane’s hospitality; the family drawing closer to him as time wears on. Joey becomes particularly infatuated with Shane whom he begs to teach him how to shoot. Marian is, of course, opposed. A fascinating subtext of romantic longing begins to brew between Marian and Shane. She is obviously attracted to him, or perhaps merely remembers a time in her life when she too found men both exciting and virile. But Marian is ever-loyal and devoted to her husband and to her son whom she emphatically clarifies for Shane will not be acquiring the finer points of marksmanship. Shane attempts to educate the pair on the purpose of a pistol; that like any implement it can be used for either good or evil; the situation entirely dependent upon the individual who possesses it.
Shane and the Starretts ride into town along with other homesteaders to purchase supplies and food stuffs from its general store. Adjacent the shop is a bar where Ryker and his men are indulging their proclivities for strong drink. Shane orders soda pop, incurring the taunts of Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), one of Ryker's men. Director George Stevens sets up a genuine sense of foreboding; that at any other time Shane would have brutalized Calloway without hesitation. However, in the presence of the other homesteaders Shane resists his more primal urge and backs down. The moment is fraught with largely undisclosed tensions and a modicum of shame; young Joey’s inability to grasp why the challenge has not been met as he might have wished mirrored in the disappointment briefly caught in Shane’s own eyes.
This, of course, leads us into the second confrontation between Calloway and Shane. Left to his own accord Shane orders two whiskies, pouring one down Calloway’s shirt to return the favor, then dashing the other in his face before knocking Calloway flat on his back with a two-fisted assaulted. The bar erupts in conflict. Ryker’s men gang up on Shane. But Joe Starrett intervenes and together they triumph in a display of might. It is a bittersweet victory, however, for Ryker coldly declares that the next time either man sets foot in town the air will be filled with gun smoke.
Ryker decides to hire professional gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) a psychopath and a sadist; the antithesis of Shane. To illustrate his own prowess with a gun Wilson provokes hot-blooded ex-Confederate Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) into a duel, gunning him down in the street before he even has a chance to draw his pistol. Throughout the movie, Stevens creates a fascinating parallel between Shane and Wilson – both having charted similar paths in life; each diverging in their moralization (or in Wilson’s case, lack thereof) over what it means to kill. Where Shane has come to the unease and measured comprehension of his own past sins, Wilson not only relishes, but remains inebriated on his own murderous skills; in effect having succumbed to the elixir of brutality – playing God with a devil’s penchant for the hollow, yet all-consuming, satisfaction it so obviously derives.
After Torrey’s funeral the settlers disperse, many intent on leaving their homes in order to preserve what is left of their lives. However, when Ryker's men commit arson, hoping to scare away the settlers once and for all, the blaze actually has the opposite effect. They come together to extinguish the flames. More importantly, they have become united in their resolve to remain on the land, whatever the consequences. Incensed, Ryker plots to have Wilson murder Joe Starrett – whom he has perceived to be the leader of this new organization. Interestingly, Calloway’s appetite for the planned ambush has diminished to the point where he does his best to warn Shane of the impending setup.
Perhaps in recognition of his own lost sense of adventurism, newly stirred in anger to do the right thing, or merely with an understanding that in his absence Shane will assume his role as husband and father should he not return to the farm, Joe stubbornly resolves to face down Ryker and Wilson. To prevent the inevitable, Shane knocks Joe unconscious with the butt of his gun; a tearful Joey admonishing his one-time hero for the assault. Shane now plans to ride in Joe’s stead. Marian begs him not to go but Shane has made his decision; a last stand that arguably wrecks whatever chance he might have had to live anonymously among the people; sacrificing his own autonomy for the goodness and defense of those whose only desire is to live free from the tyranny imposed upon them by an unjust world.
In effect, director George Stevens resurrects the classic western cliché of a proud man making noble sacrifices. Yet Stevens has one final, and in retrospect, thoroughly unanticipated, though very prophetic ace up his sleeve. For upon his arrival in town Shane sets into motion the wheels of confrontation, telling Ryker that, like himself, he has become a relic of the western mythology; one fast approaching extinction. In a blaze of gunfire that ominously plays out with the ennui of defeat, Shane guns down Wilson, then Ryker, and finally, Ryker’s brother who has taken his position on an overhead balcony with his rifle and manages to wound Shane in the arm first. Joey, who has witnessed the devastation, and even partaken in it by warning Shane about Ryker’s brother, is stripped of his childhood infatuation; sobered in his limited, though arguably matured, understanding of what it takes to be a certain kind of man; one he blindly idolized before but now feels rather sorry for more than anything else.
Shane mounts his horse, his wounded arm loosely dangling at his side. He tells the broken-hearted Joey, who is gravely concerned at the sight of blood running down Shane’s hand that he must leave the valley forever; the mythologized high plains drifter returning to the forefront of Stevens’ storytelling. And yet, in Shane’s penultimate line, “Tell your ma’ there aren’t any more guns in the valley” Stevens sets up a queer resolution with double meaning; first, and most obviously, that the conflict between Ryker and the settlers has been resolved, but perhaps also punctuating the end of that ensconced western iconography. For Shane, having reverted to his former self and perhaps even recognized that he will never be able to truly escape the past, has been transformed from the traditional western hero into a symbolic figurehead for a new age; his own iconography tragically encapsulated in this particular moment of sad farewell for which there arguably can be no going back and yet no future either.
As young Joey calls after this forlorn enigma to remain, the illusion of Shane fades away right before our very eyes; his passage before a row of desolate grave markers on Cemetery Hill; the horizon beckoning in an oddly stark rather than poetically beautiful sunrise. This final scene has often been hypothesized in movie critiques as Shane, mortally wounded, and lumbering off to die alone – like a great elephant slipping away from the herd. Neither Schaefer’s novel nor Stevens’ movie makes any comment to support this interpretation. On the other hand, it does not disprove it either.
Shane is nonpareil; that final flourish of the time-honored Hollywood western brought to new, self-reflexive heights. It seeks a different approach to the well-established dictums endlessly revisited in other movies and, for a time, on television. Stevens is, of course, working from superior material and with an exemplary cast who truly mark the occasion and convey all the bitterness, pride and self-diluting, occasional hopelessness; caught between establishing themselves and getting lost in that untamed wilderness that, at once, symbolically evokes with renewed temptation a promise that can never truly be fulfilled or fulfilling; instead, a very real dénouement to all of their bygone dreams, hopes and desires.
As a seven year old child I recall seeing Stevens’ masterwork for the very first time; beginning the odyssey not unlike young Joey, wanting to be just like Shane, but finishing up the journey with a more heartfelt need to have my hero, now clearly identified to me as nothing more or greater than just a man – and a lonely one at that – remain more the cherished memory of my youth than that idealized reflection of heroism itself. In the many years since that have passed, I have frequently revisited this movie to discover it retains this powerful message in maturing self-discovery. As I have matured into the understanding that imperfect life breeds complicated people, Alan Ladd’s Shane remains one of the most emotionally complex ever to emerge from the western genre. As such, Shane – both the man and the movie - will always have a place in our hearts and minds. They don’t come any finer than this.
Finery is amply on display in Warner Home Video’s breathtaking Blu-ray. Shane has never looked better. Wow! What a wonder to behold. This ground zero restoration reveals the truest hues indigenous to the original 3-strip Technicolor. Fine detail has taken a quantum leap. For the first time we can see crispness to the sprawling landscapes, and hair and fabrics that pops, while background information comes dramatically to life with a breathtaking clarity. Flesh tones that have always looked ruddy brown/orange on DVD, are exceptionally natural in 1080p. There’s really no comparison between the two. Your old DVD is now officially a Frisbee. Better still is the remastered DTS audio – delivering a hearty mix that will astound; an extraordinary effort put forth. We also get a fairly informative audio commentary from George Stevens Jr. Bottom line: Warner has spent its money correctly where it has done the most good. Shane is back in the saddle and a must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)