Saturday Afternoon Matinee: Shane
Some significant and timely lines from the movie:
Marion: Guns aren't going to be my boy's life.And of course, it's Shane's gun that rids the homesteaders of being victimized. Not pacifism. Not appeasement. It's thanks to rough men, like him, who are willing to do violence on behalf of the innocents.
Shane: A gun is a tool, no better or worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel, or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.
Marion: We'd all be better off if there wasn't a single gun in this valley, including yours.
The following was written by Stephen E. Bowles:
Narrative films can be generally categorized into those that are motivated by plot and those that are motivated by character. Many American films are often cited as belonging to the former category, particularly in comparison to some of the European films. Shane is pure plot and pure American. The characters, rather than autonomous individuals, are functions of the plot and move through their respective roles with the assurance of legend. They possess no depth or dimension beyond the surface; they are always and exactly what they seem to be. And, ironically, this is their strength and the strength of the film.
The plot of Shane is a masterpiece of simplicity. The Indian Wars have been fought and won. The homesteaders have settled in to farm the land, threatening the open range of the ranchers. The law is a three-day ride from the community, and the tenuous co-existence waits for eruption into "gunsmoke." The ranchers, led by the Ryker brothers, try to intimidate the homesteaders in an effort to force them out of the valley, but the homesteaders are held together by the determination of a single man, Joe Starrett, who wants to build a life on the land for his wife Marion and young son Joey. Into this tension rides Shane, a stranger who is befriended by the Starretts. A gunfighter by profession, Shane tries to renounce his former trade and join the community of homesteaders. As the tension increases, another gunfighter is recruited to bait and kill the helpless homesteaders. When Starrett is left with no alternative but to meet the hired gunfighter, it is obvious that only Shane is a match for the final shootout. He overpowers Starrett and rides into town where he kills the gunman and the Rykers. Now that the valley is safe, Shane bids farewell to Joey and rides off into the distant mountains.
Of all American genres, the Western is arguably the most durable. The Western has tended to document not the history of the West but those cultural values that have become cherished foundations of our national identity. The Western certifies our ideals of individualism, initiative, independence, persistence and dignity. It also displays some of our less admirable traits of lawlessness, violence and racism. Possibly more than any previous American film, Shane tries to encapsulate the cultural ethos of the Western.
Rather than avoiding the clichés, platitudes and stereotypes of the genre, Shane pursues and embraces them. With the exception of a saloon girl and an Indian attack, all of the ingredients of the typical Western are present: the wide open spaces, the ranchers feuding with the farmers, the homesteading family trying to build a life, the rival gunman, the absence of law, the survival of the fastest gun, even the mandatory shoulder wound. Embodying as it does the look and feel of the Western, becomes an essential rarity; it not only preserves but honors our belief in our heritage.
As myth, it is appropriate that Shane is seen through the eyes of a small boy. Joey is the first to see Shane ride into the community, more than the others he perceives the inner strength of the man, and he's the only one to bid Shane farewell as he leaves the valley. As both the child's idolization of an adult and the creative treatment of a myth, Shane is not a story of the West; it is, rather, the West as we believe it to have been.
Everything in the film favors its treatment of the myth. Alan Ladd—with his golden hair, his soft voice, his modest manner—is more the Olympian god than the rugged frontiersman or the outcast gunfighter. He rides down from the distant mountains and into lives of a settlement in need of his special talents. A stranger who doesn't belong and can never be accepted, he is a man without a past and without a future. He exists only for the moment of confrontation; and once that moment has passed, he has no place in the community. Even the way in which his movements are choreographed and photographed seem mythic—when riding into town for the final shootout, for example, the low angle tracking of the camera, the gait of his horse, the pulsing of the music with its heroic, lonely tones and the vast, panoramic landscapes all contribute to the classical dimensions of the film.
Shane is the generic loner who belongs to no one and no place. He possesses capability, integrity, restraint; yet there is a sense of despair and tragedy about him. Shane is that most characteristic of American anachronisms, the man who exists on the fringe of an advancing civilization. His background and profession place him on the periphery of law and society. The same skills as a warrior that make him essential to the survival of the community also make him suspect and even dangerous to that same community. In the tradition of William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Shane is the embodiment of the Western hero.
Shane is a reluctant mediator. There is a moral guilt about his profession that he carries with him as clearly as his buckskins. He wants to lay aside the violence of his past, but like the Greek heroes, of which he is kin, fate will not allow him to alter what is destined for him. Although he conspicuously tries to avoid the kind of confrontations he is best prepared to face, he suffers humiliation in doing so which is mistaken for cowardice. Once again he must prove himself, as if serving as the defender of those weaker will atone for his past and his profession. Consequently, a paradox emerges; he is both necessary and a threat to the survival of the community. In the Starrett family, for example, he begins to be more important to Joey than his father and more attractive to Marion than her husband. If the community is to grow and prosper, it must do so without him. Once he has served his function, he has no place and must again move on.
Shane is a tapestry laced with contrasts. The gun and the ax, the horse and the land, the buckskins and the denims, the loner and the family. In the end, the ax (peace) replaces the gun (violence), the land (stability) replaces the horse (transience), the denims (work) replace the buckskins (wilderness), the family (future) replaces the loner (past).
The unheralded mythic god leaves and the community is safe. Good has triumphed over evil, the family has been preserved, all the guns have been silenced. And yet there is a sense of loss. We have admired and appreciated Shane, but he exists for a single purpose and a single moment. When he has departed, we know we're safer and better for his presence; but we also know that we are again vulnerable.