Sunday, 5 April 2009

Shane (1953; directed by George Stevens)

It’s easy to dismiss this Western now and, in fact, it has had its detractors, including Pauline Kael of The New Yorker - though she was never an admirer of Westerns. More than half a century later, the cuteness of Brandon De Wilde’s Joey, the awkward performance of Jean Arthur and the sheer obviousness of the story’s outcome could make you wonder what all the fuss is about.

However, this rich work deserves careful exploration of its seams. George Stevens' film directly and deliberately addresses one of the key myths central to the development of the Western, that in which the traditional hero rescues the small farmer from the lawless rancher and his cowboys who stand in the way of progress; when his job is done, he must move on, as he cannot function as his true self in an environment in which there is no lawlessness to deal with. By the end of the film, we have already seen that his presence on the Starrett farm, although initially helpful, has the potential to destroy the happy family unit. The mother clearly finds herself attracted to him and Joey admires him for being good with a gun – something his parents don’t approve of; in fact, Stevens saw the film as anti-gun, despite the fact that Shane saves the day by resorting to what he is good at.

As with many Westerns, the homesteader is idealised. The Starretts live close to nature but don’t destroy it, as can be seen from the opening scene where the deer comes close to the farm and from the fertile look the area has; indeed, before filming, this area had to be flooded to achieve this Edenic look.

Although Stevens' initial preference was for the wiry Montgomery Clift, the choice of Alan Ladd to play Shane highlights the way the film addresses the role of the hero in the Western. He is not an actor traditionally associated with the genre and his short physique doesn’t seem to fit with the likes of contemporary stars of the genre like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott, all of whom were tall.

The dichotomy between the good and bad Indian is a classic convention of the Western, dating back to its literary forebears. Think of good Chingachgook and bad Magua in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. One helps the hero to survive in the wilderness and develops his sense of moral purpose untainted by the corruption that comes with civilisation; the other represents the danger of unrestrained 'savagery' that must be overcome before the country can be settled. This motif can be transferred to the landscape which can appear as either beneficial to the white man or hostile; in some films, it can be both, allowing for greater tension. In Shane, the hero first rides into view in white buckskins and light hat, whereas the character in the Jack Schaefer story wears dark clothing. Although this colour stereotypically aligns him with the good, the fringed buckskins also serve to align him with the wilderness (via its natural inhabitants, the Indians) out of which he rides, and which, in his case, serves to lend him moral integrity and purity. This relationship with the landscape takes on further meaning when we consider that Shane is riding down out of the mountains that can be associated with a sense of Biblical moral certainty, with the audience being invited to share that perspective as they look down on the land over his shoulder. The Biblical concept of being purified by the wilderness emphasises Shane is a saviour figure who, as the movie unfolds, will achieve some kind of redemption for his life as a gunfighter, first by stopping the Rykers and their henchman Wilson, then by spurning Joey’s request for him to stay, and finally by riding away from a situation his presence can only destroy.

That he first appears to Joey framed in long shot between the antlers of a deer only underlines this almost mystical connection with the wilderness and his ‘goodness’ is even more apparent when we contrast his approach to the Starrett farm with that of the cowboys who trample all over the vegetable garden; when we compare his clean cut features with those of the roughly dressed, unshaven Ryker and his men; when we see the black-hatted, sneering Wilson, the gunfighter whom Ryker has hired.
Stevens’ direction further heroicises Shane. During the fight with the gunfighter Wilson, who has, by this time, been revealed as a ruthless murderer, Shane is shot from below to make him look more powerful and in the reverse shot, Wilson is shot from a low angle to construct him as weak; in actuality, Alan Ladd was considerably shorter than Jack Palance, who plays Wilson.

As in other Westerns, the values of co-operation among the community are stressed over that of the individual, highlighting the myth that the frontier engendered American democracy. The Rykers have been seen by some critics as representing ruthless capitalism and self-aggrandisement (as Joe says, “God didn’t make all this country just for one man like Ryker.”), but the homesteaders meet to attempt to solve their problems and the sense of cooperation is notable in the scene where Shane and Joe Starrett combine to move the tree stump on the farm, portrayed by Stevens in a montage of images cut to vigorous music, and, later, where Joe joins Shane in a fight with the Ryker gang in the saloon.

Again, common to many Westerns, the gunfighter tries to 'settle down' and live a normal life, dressing in homesteader’s clothing, helping out on the farm, buying supplies from the store in town and like the true Western hero he does not show his hand until it is absolutely necessary – in this case, after Wilson kills the helpless Torrey, when he physically stops Joe going into town, knowing he stands no chance against the gunfighter. Dressed once again in his 'armour' of white buckskins and wearing his guns, he rides into town, followed by Joey.

When he confronts Ryker in the saloon, Shane says, “You’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.”

Ryker replies, “What about yours, gunfighter?”

Shane retorts, “The difference is, I know it.”

Having disposed of Wilson and the Rykers, he leaves town wounded and heads back into the wilderness from which he came, with Joey exclaiming how much he loves him, his mother loves him and even his father loves him! There is no place for him in society now that the lawlessness has been tamed and if he stayed, he would have to deal with the inevitable feelings between him and Marion. That the likely historical point of reference to this is the Johnson County Range War of Wyoming in 1892, a year before American historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote of the close of the frontier adds further pertinence: as Shane has noted, the days of the gunfighter, good or bad, were over.

While it’s based on Jack Schaefer’s book, the story contains much that is central to the classic Western myth, much of which, in turn, is derived from the idea of the medieval knight errant saving the people from whatever evil stalks the land. Its Christian allusions are clear too: Shane must save the town and suffer for the farmers before he leaves – he is even denied by his most loyal disciple Joey, who cries, “I hate you Shane!” after he has witnessed Shane fighting his father to stop him going into town.

Stevens drew on his own dislike of violence and his experiences as a member of the U. S. Army Signal Corps who filmed the horrific conditions at the Duben labour camp and at Dachau at the end of World War Two: although Shane has to resort to violence to dispose of the threat of Wilson and the Rykers (a Germanic sounding name, deliberately picked to have echoes of Reicher, that is, a member of the Third Reich, a Nazi, and changed from Schaefer’s Fletcher), Mrs Starrett makes it clear to Joey that relying on the gun to solve problems is not the answer.

Riding off towards the mountains he came from, Shane passes through the town’s graveyard and slumps in his saddle. The possible reading of this is that he is mortally wounded, which would serve a number of purposes: firstly, it’s a corrective to Joey’s obsession with guns and looking upon Shane glamorous; secondly, it fits the idea that there is no place for that kind of violence on the frontier any longer and there is no place for men like the Rykers, Wilson or even Shane, who, explains to Joey, “A man has to be what he is... You can’t break the mould. I tried and it didn’t work for me. Joey, there’s no living with a killing”; thirdly, it fits the Christian analogy, because Shane has sacrificed himself so others can live; fourthly, it underlines Stevens’ own feelings about violence and the problem of firearms in America.
Alan Ladd, George Stevens and Van Heflin on the set of Shane

Starring: Alan Ladd (Shane), Jean Arthur (Marion Starrett), Van Heflin (Joe Starrett), Brandon De Wilde (Joey Starrett), Jack Palance (Wilson), Ben Johnson (Chris), Edgar Buchanan (Fred Lewis), Emile Meyer (Rufus Ryker), Elisha Cook Jr (Torrey), John Dierkes (Morgan Ryker), Ellen Corby (Mrs. Torrey)
Director: George Stevens
Screenwriter: A.B. Guthrie Jr., based on the novel by Jack Schaefer
Producer: George Stevens
Composer: Victor Young
Director of Photography: Jack Griggs

Paramount Pictures Corporation
Copyright Date: 1952
118 minutes

See also: Woody Allen on Shane -

Roger Ebert on Shane -

Filmscreed -

New York Times review of George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey:

Bob Baker - "Shane Through Five Decades", in The Movie Book of the Western, edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye (Studio Vista, London, 1996)

Edward and Evonne Heussen Countryman - Shane (BFI Classics, London, 1999)

John Saunders - The Western Genre: from Lordsburg to Big Whiskey (Wallflower Press, London, 2001)

1 comment:

  1. Nice commentary - Glad to see someone else who loves this film.