From the Archives: Shane (1953)

If the 4,000+ screen opening and $85 million Logan raked in two weekends ago is an indicator of anything, it’s that, for the second year in a row, 20th Century Fox and Marvel proved the R-rated comic book film as a viable commodity. But what does it say about the Western’s place in the current mode of Hollywood production? Sure, we get a Hateful Eight, True Grit, or Magnificent Seven every now and then, but, more often than not, the majority of today’s Hollywood “Westerns” are, in actuality, films which smuggle Western mythos and iconography into a more popular, financially bankable genre — e.g. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In this case, once you slash through the superhero trappings draping the surface, Logan reveals itself as deeply indebted to that most mythic and American of all film genres; director James Mangold specifically fixates on the ideas lurking beneath the revisionist Western, mainly the repercussions of violence and past sins, by calling back to some of the cycle’s more prominent entries, such as Don Siegel’s The Shootist and Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider.

One film Logan alludes to above all, sometime explicitly, is Shane, George Stevens’ 1953 horse opera which, alongside the James Stewart/Anthony Mann collaborations of the day, helped jumpstart the Revisionist Western genre in cinema. With Logan cleaning up at the box-office, it seems there’s never been a better time to discover, or maybe rediscover, this “patient zero” of sorts. The Western had established several memorable gunslingers by the early 1950s, but Shane is one of the earliest examples to question the dubious effects a code-abiding, pistol-toting ronin can have on whatever locale into which he rides.

With an opening depicting its titular (anti-)hero on horseback, backlit by the sun, and descending toward a painterly green valley, it doesn’t take long to detect that director Stevens is indulging in the act of myth-making more than simply spinning a yarn. Shane (Alan Ladd), a tired gunfighter whose seemingly remorseful past is insinuated by actions and behavioral asides, arrives in town and settles in with the homesteading Starrett family  — father Joe (Van Heflin), mother Marian (Jean Arthur), and Little Joey (Brandon deWilde) — after bearing witness to one of many ongoing tiffs concerning land ownership between Joe and the devilish Ryker Gang. It’s not long till Shane’s presence in the valley stirs up further social unease; for some extra muscle, the Ryker Gang eventually calls on hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance, garbed and poised as if he’s the Devil incarnate).

  

Throughout the course of Shane, a thread emerges suggesting that the eponymous gunfighter’s mere presence, despite good intentions and will, effectively disrupts order and, ultimately, poisons the locals’ well-being. You could look at this literally: an early bar fight triggers Ryker to bring Wilson to town, resulting in the death of one of the homesteaders. Later in the film, while Shane and the community bury the fallen denizen, the Ryker gang set fire to property, ultimately destroying a townsman’s home and, by turn, livelihood. On a deeper level, Shane represents a dramatic rumination on how the solitary gunfighter’s bad-boy essence effectively wreaks upheaval on the family unit: Little Joey succumbs to fanatical worship of Shane, mother Marian becomes seduced by the gunfighter’s masculine prowess, and father Joe increasingly exhibits the need to assert his masculine worth. Shane may long to adapt and assimilate into the community — he trades in his guns and beige garments for dungarees, collectivist values, and a life of homesteading — yet he cannot escape his past, nor who he is deep down.

While not necessarily the definitive originator, Shane, constitutes one of the earliest cinematic realizations of the lone-wolf warrior wandering the land in search of something, or maybe nothing at all. Yet the roots for this character-type can be traced back to that Romantic figure as delineated by Lord Byron, the Byronic Hero. Endowed with a blend of mystery, remorse, and alpha-male leadership, Shane tics most of the boxes while essentially modernizing (read: Americanizing) this persona, pushing the brand into a totemic realm. In ensuing years, the mythic hero template would be adapted and reimagined by filmmakers ad nauseam, with directors such as Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo), Sergio Leone (Once Upon A Time in the West), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai), and George Miller (Mad Max) offering some of the more indelible contributions to the canon.

As directed by George Stevens, Shane is sometimes defined (and dismissed) as “a Western for people who don’t like/watch Westerns”. The great film critic André Bazin, in his essay The Evolution of the Western, criticized Shane as “the ultimate in ‘super westernization’’, claiming Stevens “set out to justify the western — by the western.” Essentially, one could surmise that, for Bazin, director Stevens’ approach implies a degree of directorial condescension toward the genre, noting the director’s insistence on working from myth alone. Employing familiar (Western) myths as a launchpad, however, allows Stevens to initiate his deconstruction of violence in the Western, chiefly its  repercussions on the greater good, before entering the second act; Stevens peppers the narrative with isolated explorations/interrogations regarding the worth of guns (“[it’s] as good or as bad as the man using it”) and the pernicious influence the gunslinger has on impressionable youth. To further underscore the film’s cautionary take on Western violence, Stevens and his editor/mixer lay sound effects complementing acts of brutality (gunshots, punches, etc.) mostly over silence while spiking the audio levels a few extra decibels, generating an aural assault of sorts on the spectator.

Texturally, Shane is a resplendently handsome studio film, an exemplar of directorial proficiency and cinematographic expertise in the 1950s Western. Shot mostly around the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, with interiors and a few select exteriors done at Paramount, Stevens and crew’s location shooting adorns the movie with a lived-in naturalism and sense of place — a stark contrast to the frequent, but charming, artificiality found in backlot-shot Western programmers. (Of course, this was the era when the Western had become “legitimized” in Hollywood, with select studios favoring the idea of a Prestige Western — and Shane most certainly qualifies as one — to compete with the ever-growing popularity of television.) What’s most striking, however, is Shane’s pictorialization of the Wyoming Valley, with Stevens and cinematographer Loyal Griggs, the latter of whom garnered an Oscar for his work, painting their canvas with a naturalistic palette while reserving some brooding chiaroscuro lighting effects for nighttime scenes and select interiors.

  

Some have waxed lengthily on the parallels and polarities between Shane and Logan, yet this almost seems irrelevant, as Logan utilizes Stevens’ film less as a template to remake than as a springboard to weave its own story. Even if some of Logan’s narrative incidents mirror those in Shane, chiefly a centerpiece wherein Logan and crew’s peaceful sojourn at a country home is disrupted, both films sport differing agendas and goals. Simultaneously, the most explicit parallel and polarity between films arises in characterizing the central surrogate parent/child relationship. In Shane, Little Joey develops an almost instantaneous and unshakable case of hero-worship, even proclaiming he loves the gunfighter as much as his “Pa”. Logan’s X-23/Laura, on the other hand, has a more tempestuous relationship with Wolverine, one which commences with mutual disinterest (even hostility) before blossoming into a more traditional father/daughter bond.

Where Shane and Logan split divisively is their respective attitudes toward the deployment/presentation of violence. If the impact of Logan’s violence dwindles as the movie progresses, even growing a bit tedious amid the finale, Shane’s aversion to extensive on-screen gunplay renders the isolated shootouts, as well as the bar fight centerpiece, explosive. Shane’s study of violence, that of past and present, as expressed physically and psychologically, provokes a more visceral viewer response, with cathartic bloodshed suppressed for long stretches, only to be realized as staccato acts of vengeance, retaliation, or cold-blooded trickery. Yet it’s made abundantly clear that Shane’s violence is enacted as a last resort and the results are messy, perhaps even ignoble. In the closing stretches of Shane, before leaving the Valley for good, Ladd’s weary gunslinger professes to Little Joey, urging him to ditch his fixation and grow up to be “strong and straight.” There’s no way back, however, for Shane, no chance to hang up the pistols and settle down for good. His trade is as much a part of him as the shadow which follows his movements every which way. As Shane, himself, observes, before riding off into the distance, “there’s no living with a killing…right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks.”

Author: Dan Santelli

Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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