Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shane (Stevens. 1953)

"A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that."


Earlier this month I posted a review of the much loved dark British comedy Withnail and I in which I described a drinking game that famously goes along with the movie. Though I am probably not the first to think of this, I have a feeling it would be very easy to make a drinking game out of the classic western Shane. All you need to do is take a drink every time a character in the movie says “Shane”. Doing this would make watching some scenes unbearable – which is why I wouldn’t recommend playing along. Some movies, like Withnail, might benefit from a few drinks. Shane is a movie that needs to be soaked in by the viewer. It has underlying complexities that we do not see in most other films of the western genre.

I can vaguely remember watching this movie many years ago with my entire family. My father is a loyal fan of the western genre, and Shane has long been one of his favorite films. Because of this previous experience some scenes were vividly foreshadowed in my mind before I saw them on the screen. I have never forgotten the classic scene in which Shane (Alan Ladd) struts up to the bar of the local shop and saloon and asks the bartender for a “soda pop”. It may be a complete subconscious experience, but I have called soft drinks “soda pop” for most of my life. I am forced to wonder what influence this movie had on my vocabulary.

The film follows a family of homesteaders who live in the Wyoming territory and make a humble living tending farm. The nuclear family consists of a mother (Jean Arthur), a father (Van Heflin) and a dough-eyed little boy with an infatuation for shooting guns (Brandon De Wilde). One day a weary stranger rides into town looking for a drink of water. The camera immediately notices that he has a shiny six shooter strapped around his waist. The stranger’s name is Shane. Due to an interruption by the inflammable Ryker gang, cattle ranchers who want sole possession of the territory, Shane flashes his shiny gun and the audience knows as much about the character as they will ever learn. He is a gunfighter. And he has taken a liking to this family on the range.

Alan Ladd is perfect in the title role. His sculpted hair and charming looks seem to be that of a typical 50s western star, but the implied mysteries behind the character do not falter at the hands of his appearance. Who is Shane? Why does he travel from town to town? After a homoerotic scene involving a tree stump, he agrees to stay on the farm and work for the father, Joe Starrett, for no pay. He just wants to settle down and have a life. The young boy, Joey, takes a strong liking to the newly hired help. His mother warns him that Shane won’t be around long, but that probably makes the hero worship even stronger for the boy.

It is quickly explained that the leader of the Ryker gang, Rufus, is an old cattle rancher who is willing to bully the settlers off of the land he desires. The rest of the “sodbusters” seem willing to allow Ryker to bully them and force them to move, but Joe Starrett is able to raise moral by promising that something will be done. This culminates in a fist fight between Shane/Joe and the entire Ryker posse. Do not get the wrong idea; this was already a bubbling situation. Shane knowingly stirred the pot in the previously mentioned “soda pop” scene, and the Ryker’s knew he was potential trouble.

Something that makes this western seem a little different than the others I have seen is that the bad guys do not start out inherently evil. Rufus Ryker was one of the men who originally navigated and settled Wyoming. He helped fight off the Indians (right or wrong) and made the land a place that could be settled. Of course, the town is nothing more than a hotel, general store/saloon and another unexplained building. He is not really fighting for much. He feels entitled to the land that he helped pave. In some kind of way he is not wrong in that feeling. Rufus even offers Shane and Joe, on separate occasions, positions to work for him and make more money while driving the other settlers away. They both decline the offer – which forces Rufus to make a bold declaration of war in the hiring of his own gunfighter, Jack Wilson.

Wilson is not a nice fella. He is a Yankee who badmouths the homesteaders and even goes as far as to blatantly kill an innocent man for wanting some whiskey. This scene has been described by some as the saddest gunshot death in any western due to how inexplicable it is. This may be the moment in which Loyal Griggs won his Academy Award for best cinematography with his steady-cam long shot. The screen acts as a frame and provides an appropriate chilling sensation to accompany the murder. Now Shane and Joe are forced to respond to the killing, of course…

This may seem like a run-of-the-mill western plot, but A.B. Guthrie's screenplay offers some undertones of sexual deviancy. If you pay attention, it is strongly suggested that Shane and Marian (the mother) have a primal attraction to each other. There is even one scene where Marian is bandaging Shane after a tussle where the sexual tension is so thick that I began to audibly giggle. Right before the obligatory final shootout, Marian looks at Shane and asks him – “are you doing this just for me?” This moment alone should trigger a love triangle notion in the audience. For some it seems obvious. Others miss the boat completely.

All of this ends with Shane riding into town and shooting most of the Rykers and the hired gunfighter without much trouble. He is shot in the battle, but he makes it clear that it is not a fatal wound. This is also the moment that the movie is most famous for. Shane knows he has to leave. He attempted a life of noble work, but he ended up falling back into the same killing routine. You have to wonder how many times this exact same thing has happened to the gunslinger and how many more times it will happen in his lone life. As he rides away, young Joey screams the famous line “Shane! Come back, Shane!” But I think even Joey knew that Shane had to leave.

Shane is a western that successfully challenges the conventions of the genre. There is an encrypted love story, a power struggle and a role model type relationship all involved in a seemingly simple story about a gunfighter with a heart of gold. Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur are both pleasures to watch and the amount of genuine emotion in the movie is perfect. 

Shane: A-

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