Saturday, April 22, 2017
(April 1953, U.S.)
Next to musicals, the western is the genre I enjoy the least. With a few exceptions, the western, in my humble opinion, is a cinematic formula that almost never changes. Good guys, bad guys, simple town folk, rustlers, Indians, hero gunfighter, climactic shootout, on and on and on and on. Sometimes it's a little more on the rough edge with a guy like Clint Eastwood and sometimes it's on the lighter side of music with the singing cowboy (think Roy Rogers). In the end, for me, it all never seems to change. So, that being the case, why the hell am I attracted to a classic western like SHANE? Two reasons: the first being that with any genre that tends to continuously repeat itself, you're likely to choose at least one or two of said genre that pleases you the most in its use of the common formulaic elements; so I choose SHANE. The second being my own personal memories of childhood. You see, when I was in the eighth grade of middle school, we were required to read SHANE in our English class. Upon completing the book, we got to watch the movie over a period of several days. Naturally, it's a relief to be able to spend a few days of English class watching a movie instead of doing any actual work, but I found myself really enjoying the movie. I'd watch it again whenever it was shown on television after that, and I suppose my childhood fondness for it has never really gone away.
While hardly a unique element for a well made western, SHANE has some of the best outdoor cinematography I've seen that would easily give John Ford a run for his money. Shane himself (as played by Alan Ladd) is a mysterious character with no indications of his past. We only know that he's passing through the isolated valleys of Wyoming and that he's very skilled with a gun. Having befriended a local family headed by Joe Starrett (played by Van Heflin) and his wife Marian (played by Jean Arthur), he learns that they and many other good folks like them are engaged in a private war with a ruthless cattle baron called Ryker (played by Emile Meyer) who has hired men to harass and terrorize them out of the valley, despite them having legally claimed their land under the Homestead Acts. Though not meant to be any sort of protector for the Starrett family, Shane stays on with them for a time as a hired hand.
Upon his first visit to town, Shane is harassed and bullied into fighting, but he resists, though hardly out of cowardice. We can easily sense that Shane deliberately avoids trouble whenever possible in order to avoid what is suspected to be a violent past (Clint Eastwood played a similar sort of man in PALE RIDER). Like any man, however, Shane has his breaking points and it's exciting to watch him not only defend himself against the bad guys in a wild bar room brawl, but those he cares about also. Shane is a caring man, too, as he also demonstrates father-figure tendencies toward the Starrett boy Joey, particularly when teaching him how to shoot a gun for the first time. Joey is drawn to Shane, and to his gun, too.
As with any battle between good and evil, their reaches a point where things escalate. As Shane now proves to be a problem for Ryker and his men, he hires an outside gunman called Wilson (played by Jack Palance, who had a special fondness for westerns...even CITY SLICKERS) who proves early on that he may just be a threatening match-up against Shane. At the moment the film reaches the point where Shane will face his enemies, it's hardly what I'd call a major shootout. Shane is the easy victor and it all happens rather quickly, with little Joey watching from afar. When it's all over, the peaceful settlers have won and there will likely be no more guns in the valley. But we also discover that Shane was hit by a bullet during the final shooting and I suppose it's here that the true mystery lies. During the iconic closing moment when Shane is seen riding forever out of town and Joey cries out, "Shane! Come back!", we have to look closely to realize that Shane is not exactly leaving intact. He's slumped forward in his saddle and it's quite possible that he may not survive. In fact, if you listen to Kevin Spacey in THE NEGOTIATOR (1998), he claims that Shane is dead at the end of the movie, though we as the viewer are not entirely sure of this fact because the light and darkness of the scene won't allow us to be sure. Are we meant to understand if Shane is alive or not or is it one of those ongoing mysterious that's meant to be debated among fans of the film? Perhaps it's this mystery that also attracts me to SHANE above many other westerns.
While I certainly won't claim that SHANE is a brilliant achievement in drama and performance (in fact, Joey's little whining voice can get on my nerves at times!), it is a rather rich and vibrant portrayal of the American frontier scene, not too unlike a beautiful painting by a gifted artist. The plains, the valleys and the mountains are a form of grand beauty, even as they're accompanied by some of nature's harsher elements like darkness and rain. The tale of the gun fighter is an old cliché, to be sure, but it's a cliché that's easy to embrace with SHANE because of a tough, edgy actor like Alan Ladd, as well as the frontier spirit of the little boy who yearns to understand the mystery of a man like Shane. In the end, however, we may never understand a man like Shane. We may never even know if he survived at the end, or not. Such is the mysteries of life...and the western.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Shane: "I've heard about you."
Jack Wilson: "What have you heard, Shane?"
Shane: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
Jack: "Prove it!"