Mythic realism. That’s the perfect term to describe director George Stevens’ 1953 classic color Western Shane, one of the most unlikely great films I’ve ever seen. That’s because much of the 117 minute long film plays out as if it’s cheesy, with its lone, virtuous gunman who stands apart and above all others (a precursor to Clint Eastwood’s characters in Sergio Leone’s revolutionary Dollars Trilogy of spaghetti westerns), as a western version of the fathers of perfect nuclear families of the Eisenhower era sitcoms. Yet, below is a roiling realism that only serves to heighten the mythos, by contrast. This is the tension that is so unusual, yet remarkably powerful. I may have, when a boy, seen this film, in black and white, on television, for some scenes resonated as if I’d seen them long ago. Then again, such a seeming familiarity is part of the province of myth, and why this film achieves its greatness. It’s a greatness that is wholly distinct from the more modern sort of Western that Sergio Leone pioneered in the following decade. Leone’s films’ greatness (especially his westerns) was based upon a knowledge of film, as a medium and art, whereas Shane reaches far back into the eons, to portray its lead character as something akin to a god, in a way as primal as the Gilgamesh epic. In this sense, what many of the film’s detractors view as corniness, is archetypal characters and behaviors. But Stevens leavens this with well written characters and situations, and, to his credit, with believable villains who have real motivations, ones which actually gain a good deal of sympathy in the viewer.
The film opens with the coming of a stranger, a gunman dressed in buckskin. We soon find out his name is Shane (Alan Ladd, in his finest performance, bar none); although, in true mythic fashion, it is never specified as to whether that is his personal or surname. He rides into a 19th Century Wyoming valley, backdropped by the Grand Tetons. It’s rare, in classic westerns, to see such a high sierra. Most westerns are set in the desert Southwest, or in the Midwest. After being initially run off the homestead of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin, likewise in his finest performance), Shane comes back and helps Starrett fend off a warning party sent by powerful cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer). This makes Shane an enemy of Ryker, while engendering the affection of Starret’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur, in her last film role) and his awestruck son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde, one of the premier child actors of all time- see the realistic and hyperactive scenes of him at play, annoying the adults). Shane is obviously a skilled gunfighter, but he is circumspect about it around Marian and Joey. There is also a nifty version of an Oedipus complex at work, as Starrett’s dependents are obviously drawn to Shane, but so too is Starrett. But Shane seems oddly aloof, as if he knows that he cannot be bogged down too long in the affairs of mortals.
Some critics contend that Shane reciprocates the feelings of Marian and Joey, but there is simply no evidence of this in the film. There is only one scene where Shane shows any regard for Marian- at an Independence Day celebration, and it is quite asexual. In fact, there are a number of scenes where Shane actually seems put off by Marian- the most obvious one being a scene where she catches Shane teaching Joey effective gunplay, and upbraids him. Shane does not apologize, and even defends his actions by stating that guns are tools, and no better nor worse than their users. So, Shane clearly exhibits traits that, if not superhuman, are almost inhuman, and in this manner, Shane plays out almost as a western prefiguration and inversion of John Sayles’ 1984 film, The Brother From Another Planet. Yet, his actions are also oddly realistic, as he has a loyalty to Starrett, whom he starts working for, and principles.
Shane then goes on an errand to buy supplies in the nearby town, he engenders emasculating condescension from Ryker and his men, specifically Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), at the saloon, for trying to buy a bottle of soda pop for Joey. Calloway heckles Shane, and throws whisky on him, but Shane leaves, without incident, warned by Calloway to not come back. Not long afterward, in a collective act of power, Starrett leads a bunch of other homesteaders, and their wives, in to town to shop. This is when Shane offers to buy Calloway a drink, tosses it in his face, as well as his own drink. Then proceeds to beat the hell out of him. Ryker and his men then gang up on Shane, as Joey watches, and Starrett joins the fray. Together, the two men defeat the bad guys, and what’s notable is how the scene is devoid of the typical John Wayne film gunplay, and instead features quite realistic fistfighting, for grown men don’t get knocked out with a single punch, they keep going and going until made into bloody pulps. In this way, the film is very realistic, because when guns do go off we see real consequences, and the historic reality of the Old West is that it was not nearly as gunhappy as the western films of yore would lead one to believe.
After Starrett and Shane whip him and his men, Ryker hires Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a notorious black-clothed gunslinger from Cheyenne. Therein follows a remarkable scene where Ryker actually confronts Starrett, and the others, as they return from town at night. He tries to make a reasonable offer to Starrett, of fair compensation for the land, and allowing Starrett to work for him. Starrett rejects this and claims to have been in the right. This is where Ryker speaks of having tamed this land since Starrett was as old as his ten year old son. He claims that he and mostly dead men tamed the land, fought off Indians and cattle rustlers, and took the risks that made the land safe for settlement, only to have those settlers not even recognize their sacrifices. It’s a good argument, which shows that Ryker, despite sometimes ignoble actions, does not lack a noble cause. Starrett then counters just as forcefully, that the mountain men and Indians were in this land before his kind, and did even more to tame it. The two men end in stalemate, while Shane and Wilson, possibly having some past connection, size each other up as they sip water from a barrel. Spurned, back at the saloon, Ryker rages, and says he’ll kill Starrett if need be, whereupon Wilson dryly intones, ‘You mean, I’ll kill him if you have to.’ All the characters know what all the characters are up to, and this places the film into the realm of myth, as well, because there is an inevitability in the film. The ends are predetermined, it’s only the hows that need to be sorted out.
A bit later, Wilson ends up goading and murdering a homesteader named Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr), in a scene which shows the realistic impact of even a single bullet, and leads to a great moment of sadness when he is buried, and his dog cannot part with his casket, and Shane then follows up with a speech that unifies the homesteaders in their determination against Ryker, who burns down one of their homes. This murder, though, sets up the final confrontation, when Ryker asks to see Starrett, in town, to finally settle things. He plans on killing Starrett, who likewise sees no alternative but to kill Ryker and Wilson. But Shane intercedes, after a tip from Calloway on Ryker’s real intentions. This moment is often overlooked in most criticism of the film, but it’s a key element, for, as in much mythos, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Jesus Christ and King Arthur, the hero makes a convert out of a former enemy. Yet, there is also a realistic aspect to the moment since Calloway was licked fairly by Shane, thus his conversion possibly shows his true colors, and also, since he has been supplanted by Wilson as Ryker’s top thug, it also makes more sense for him to spite his former benefactor; a touch of realism based in cynicism, but nonetheless realistic in terms of character motivation. Since the start of the film Shane has gotten out of his buckskin and laid down his gun, but now is back in regalia, just like a god or modern superhero. He uses guile to defeat Starrett, obviously not wanting to hurt him too badly, and heads off to meet Ryker. In the film’s biggest flaw, we see Joey and his do somehow keep up with Shane and his horse as he rides several miles in to town, ostensibly at night. Other than this flaw, the film’s end is classic. Shane goes to receive Ryker’s offer, and ends up killing him and Wilson, whom he goads in the same way that Torrey was goaded by Wilson. Joey warns Shane of a lurking gunman, and Shane kills him, and gets winged in the process. He then leaves the bar, prepares his horse, and gives word of comfort to Joey. He then rides off into the mountains, as Joey calls after him. The key to this end is when Shane tells Ryker that the time for his kind has ended, and Ryker asks him what about his kind, and Shane replies that the difference is he knows it. This has led to some people speculating that Shane actually dies at the end of the film, but this is nonsense. Shane rides over the ridge, tall in the saddle, nit slumped, and still obviously in control. And, unlike, say, the end of El Cid, there is no mechanism to hold his body- live or dead- in place. So, the claim that Shane is dead is pure bunkum, and recent bunkum, culled from the end of a mediocre 1998 action film, called The Negotiator, in which two of the characters argue this point. It simply has nothing to do with the real ending of the film. Shane is shot, but clearly not hurt, and given the realism about guns the film endorses, were Shane really mortally wounded, he’d not have been able to hide it from Joey.
The film’s screenplay has many minor moments of realism spread between the myth-making, and this is why the film, and myth works. The way the homesteaders kid each other, the child-like view of the world that Joey imbues the film with (although it’s debatable if the whole film is taking his POV), and the realism afforded the villains are all supernal, and much credit goes to A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s adaptation of Jack Schaefer’s novel. Victor Young’s musical score is not spectacular, but its classic Hollywood feel seems about right for the film, and so does the cinematography of Loyal Griggs, who is not spectacular, but makes wise use of spectacular backdrops in the process of making the myth. The DVD, by Paramount, is shown is a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and has two extra features, the original theatrical trailer, which intones, ‘There never was a man like SHANE. There never was a motion picture like SHANE.’ And this is, quite correct, in the diegetic myth of the film, which has Shane as a near-deity. But it’s also clearly wrong, as Shane is merely the Western incarnation of a figure that has been around since man descended from the trees. There is also an audio commentary, recorded in 2000, and it’s solid and informative, although plagued by long silent spells. Its two voices are those of the director’s son, George Stevens, Jr., and the film’s associate producer, Ivan Moffatt. Stevens is solid, in terms of imparting background information when he speaks, such as detailing his father’s World War Two experiences, and how he chose to portray violence realistically, and the literal handful of times that Moffat speaks are literally to append or amend a point made by Stevens. A film like this could really use the expertise of a good film critic and/or historian.
Shane has so many elements that modern cineastes tend to look down on- a defense of basic human virtues, a hero that is not tortured nor clay-footed, and a triumph of real honor, yet it is a better, and, yes, greater, film than just about any other western directed by anyone not named Leone, and is certainly greater than any of the westerns that starred John Wayne in them; which, by comparison, almost always reek of artifice, on some level. In many ways, it is a filmic myth that shares many elements with the myth delivered in Herman Hesse’s novella, Siddhartha; which features a similar hero encountering his own rather diurnal opposition, but in a manner that elevates him, and his tale, to something more. But it also features a child-like perspective that wipes away any possible excesses of these pre-Modern ‘sins,’ and in this regard the film joins two other worthy and underlooked films as classics of filmic child portrayals: Toho Studios’ 1969 Godzilla’s Revenge and 1944’s The Curse Of The Cat People, directed by Robert Wise and produced by Val Lewton. Its mythic realism is so endemic to Shane that, strange as it sounds, the first and greatest film that comes to mind in matching it, in that regard, is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, one can also see direct influences from it: note the scene where the family goes to sleep, and Joey and his parents say goodnight, along with each other’s names, and Joey ends the scene by shouting out to Shane, who sleeps in the barn, ‘Goodnight, Shane!,’ and one can see where the 1970s television drama, The Waltons, got its episode ending sequence of family members shouting goodnight to each other.
Shane is a film that spans the range of the human and cinematic experience, and it does so in a way that is classic, in the best sense of the word; from a scene where Shane and Starrett remove a tree stump and bond to the final image of Shane’s lonesome ride back to the mountain skies, and is a pure fable. But it’s a great one, and that’s not an understatement.