Shane (1953)


I recently revisited Shane after nearly fifty years. The durability of this classic Hollywood Western, seemingly always ranked in the top three Westerns as well as very highly ranked among all movies everywhere of the past eighty years, owes to a near perfect adaptation of the classic questing hero tradition, the Samurai, the chivalric knights, the incorruptible private investigators. Jack Shaefer’s novel from which principally the wonderful frontier writer A.B. Guthrie fashioned the impeccable screenplay for Producer-Director George Stevens’s movie masterpiece, is a novel that updates that powerful storytelling tradition with a stunning fealty and inspiration that you suspect would discourage license. Guthrie, Stevens and the cast of Shane–it’s hard to think of a movie in which an entire cast is so brilliant–have not only flawlessly transplanted the knight-errant to the American West of the Homestead Act days; in a vast Wyoming valley in the post Civil War period and framed by an epic backdrop of the Grand Tetons, they have preserved the look and feel of the very beginnings of the American middle class way out West and woven it as a tale of an ascendant new culture during the passing of the old Wild West culture of cattle barons and gunfighters–that great national myth itself. And they slyly signify the coming consumer culture.

Mysterious gunfighter Shane, his buckskin outfit a knightly apparel, rides in off the desert as already an anachronism, a gentle but deadly man with an unspoken past of out-drawing fast guns in the lawless towns of the frontier, bound for somewhere he can hang up his gun and live peaceably. He ends up befriending the homesteaders as an agent of law and order on their behalf, vanquishing the predatory local cattle baron and his intimidating men and thereby promoting the growth and prosperity of the new world the brave settlers will quickly bring, even predicting in spoken words its features: towns and cities, schools, libraries, hospitals, local government, security, gun free zones, small business, local economy. Herewith: In a magnificent 1870s set of the lonely hard scrabble little frontier town on the plain fronting the indescribably beautiful soaring Tetons, the homesteaders, in town as a protective group on a Saturday and browsing in Sam Grafton’s general mercantile store and saloon, looking over Sears catalogs and fingering Grafton’s newest stock–Joe Starrett, the hero and leader of the homesteaders, oogling a catalog page showing the latest styles in women’s underwear while his wife, Marian, holding a canning bottle muses, “What will they think of next?”–endearingly point to the future. And as one of the wives tries on a new designer hat, one of the cattle baron’s earthy cowboys, coming in from the saloon, sneers at her…and you know he’s already far behind the times.

And to remind that Shane countenances that America is a land of Change, little Joey Starrett longs to grow up and be a great shot and a tough fist-fighter just like the frontiersman Shane. Yet a reasonable guess is that Joey would be near seventy in the Great Depression, having already seen the turn of the century, World War One, and the Twenties. The dreams of his boyhood on the Wyoming homestead, dreams founded on already fading times of the Old West, would in a blink of national history be lodged in a far distant Time. Apropos: After Shane notices Joey closely watching him riding toward the Starrett farm for the first time, Shane eventually tells Joey that Shane likes people who watch what is coming, saying that those people “make their mark.” (Here we must raise a glass to screenwriter A.B. Guthrie.)

The eternal Tetons hovering over the doomed little frontier town? A masterful symbolic scene out of the hero tradition: the tale should be stark, apt for any future era. There are both the timeless setting and the coming and going of ephemeral generations. The questing hero will always be at home on this stage, especially when (i) powerful established interests clash with unprotected newcomers (“The nearest Marshal is one hundred miles away,” one embattled homesteader says to Shane), (ii) the hero alone has the prowess to battle the oppressors, and (iii) the hero is ennobled by falling in love, a love that cannot be consummated but which motivates and sanctifies him. These are the classic features, centuries old. Hence Shane falls in love with Marian Starrett (she is well-named, don’t you think?) and in a classic showdown in the Grafton saloon on a dark night kills a renowned gunslinger, Jack Wilson, together with  Old Man Riker, the predatory cattle baron, then tells hero-worshipping little Joey Starrett, who has followed Shane to the showdown, to go home and tell his mom, Marian, that “there are no more guns in the valley.”

The wonder of the Shane crew, their performances: Alan Ladd as Shane is compelling and incorporates all the knightly virtues of old. Jack Palance was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as gunfighter Jack Wilson; Brandon deWilde was nominated for the same Oscar as Joey Starrett; George Stevens was Oscar-nominated for Best Director; and A.B. Guthrie took an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Van Heflin as Joe Starrett has never been better. Jean Arthur is simply superb as Marian. Ben Johnson as cowboy Chris Callaway, Edgar Buchanan as crusty homesteader Fred Lewis, and Elisha Cook, Jr as hotheaded homesteader “Stonewall” Torrey, are always believable.

The powerful portion of the musical score of Shane which heightens the tension of the gun battle at Grafton’s between Shane and Wilson, as well as the earlier scenes of the fist fight in Grafton’s saloon between Shane and Joe Starrett and Riker’s cowboys and the subsequent gunning down of Torrey by Wilson, is lifted from The Glass Key, the classic film noir from 1942 starring Ladd and Veronica Lake. It’s an inspired theft.

Finally, Shane presents its drama–the conflict between the Old and New West–with edifying complexity. Old Man Riker, after all, built his cattle empire by defeating most formidable Indian warriors and then taming a tough land: he won’t go quietly. The homesteaders have been allotted the land through government decree and have braved frontier life in trying to put roots down: they won’t run away. Shane tells Riker that as aging foes they have both outlived their time.

Guthrie and Stevens have Shane, possibly fatally wounded, ride off into the distance. Shane is now indeed a hero of the past.

But the Hero tradition is alive and well.