Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Shane (1953)

Dir. George Stevens
Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon deWilde

A man rides out the the great expanses of the West. He wears buckskins and totes a sixshooter. He is Shane (Alan Ladd), a Man With A Past. The kindness and hospitality shown to him by the Starretts, a small-holding family he happens across, offers him a chance of redemption.

The Starretts and their fellow homesteaders are being oppressed by Ryker (Emile Mayer), the local cattle baron. He wants to graze his herds across the open range; the little farms of the “Sodbusters” prevent him from doing this. He wants the farming families out – by fair means or foul. The homesteaders are determined to resist. It is into this combustible mix that Shane rides. By signing on to work for Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) Shane makes their concerns his own. 

The background noise has featured before in the Westerns I have watched this year – the conflict between the Old and the New West. We saw this in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The trailblazers move in, take the risks and make the West habitable. Then the new forces of order come in to set the law the way it will benefit them. In Shane we see Wyoming on the cusp of that change. Ryker complains that he took all the risks to clear the land for habitation: “We made this country. We found it and we made it, with blood and empty bellies. Cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers; they don’t bother you much any more because we handled ‘em. We made a safe range out of this. Some of us died, but we made it.” He now cannot get his herds to water because of the little farms that have claimed areas of his “open range”. It is rare to hear the villain of a movie get to outline his (actually very reasonable-sounding) concerns in this way. But as Joe points out Ryker’s rights would come at the expense of theirs; and anyway, wasn’t it the Indians and the French trappers who really tamed the land before Ryker rode in? Ryker’s way is that of a bully. The homesteaders are the aspiring middle classes. They work hard to grow something – to grow a family. In town they frequent Grafton’s store to buy seed and barbed wire; Ryker’s cowboys frequent Grafton’s saloon next door. The homesteaders believe in the value of honest labour and community. They celebrate the 4th of July and – whether Yankee, Confederate or immigrant – believe in American values. Their problem is that they have outpaced the law. There are no Marshals or Sheriffs this far out west. There is only the Law of the West – if the other feller drew first you are entitled to shoot to kill. The homesteaders are not violent types. It therefore means that Ryker’s hired-in gunslinger Wilson (a grinning Jack Palance) needs to taunt the farmers into reacting. 
Chris could never get the hang of tequila shots
The threat of violence simmers beneath the surface. It is implied that this is the sort of world Shane is trying to leave behind. If he enjoys working alongside Joe, he revels in the chance to swap his buckskins for the garb of a labourer and lay his gun to one side. When he walks into Grafton’s to buy Joe’s son Little Joey (Brandon deWilde) a soda-pop he is mocked by the cowboys. Yet he doesn’t react when Charlie (Ben Johnson) throws a drink over him. It is only on a second visit when Charlie swings at him that Shane finally fights back. Joe comes to his aid against the entire band of Ryker’s rowdies. In the middle of the brawl Joe and Shane exchange a grin. They may not want violence, but they still enjoy it when their blood is up. But Shane recognises the threat Wilson represents. The loyalty he feels towards the Starretts prevents him from letting Joe walk into a trap. He has to embrace the past he tried to leave behind – represented symbolically by him changing back into his buckskins. He tells Ryker straight that “You’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.” The same goes for him – “The difference is, I know it.” They are both products of a West that no longer exists. Shane also realises that he cannot change his background. There is a fight, shots are fired, and Shane rides away into the night. 

And to my joy, Shane has an ambiguous ending. He wins his fight, but he himself is shot. We know he is bleeding when he mounts his horse. The very last shot shows horse and rider picking their way over Cemetery Hill. Shane is unmoving in the saddle, head down. The question persists: is he alive or dead? The very fact that there is ambiguity means that to me the answer is clear. Shane dies. The fact that the shot takes place in the graveyard is enough of a hint. If this was meant to be a rousing, joyous finale we would have seen Shane galloping into the sunset. Instead he is on the voyage of the dead. He has no place in the New West. All he can do is sacrifice himself to protect the Starretts and the other homesteaders. 

Shane is a classic Western that I like. Its morals may be conservative and its hero might be too good-looking for words, but it has an elegiac quality. Yes, trailblazers like Ryker did tame the West. But then they had to be tamed themselves. Joe’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur – last seen as the sparky Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) tells Shane that she wishes there wasn’t a gun in the valley. She gets her wish. Shane is a story about not being able to escape your past. We never know what Shane’s past is. But he is jumpy and he knows how to handle himself in a fight. We gather that he finds the peace with the Starretts he is looking for. In particular he attracts the open-mouthed adulation of Little Joey. But he and Joe are able to inspire their fellows to make a stand and not run. They are responsible for the survival of America in a lawless world. 

What have I learnt about Wyoming?
Ryker gives us a potted history of Wyoming. The first settlers chased off the Cheyenne and the other natives to claim the land as their own. Yet they didn’t act too much differently to the Indians. They used the whole expanse of the plains to graze their ever-expanding cattle herds. Then families moved west in search of a plot of land they could call their own. They fenced in their own homesteads, sowing crops and raising their own cattle, chickens and pigs. They did not want all the land, just a piece of it. But it nibbled at the edges of what the cowboys felt was legitimately theirs and deprived them of some of the best grazing. So conflict grew and turned into violence (in fact Wyoming’s Jackson County War featured just such tensions). 

Despite the soil being the source of so much bloodshed, the terrain looks quite scrubby. Deer can graze there however, and farmers’ wives can always provide hot apple pie. The land wanted is the wide flat valley bottoms threaded through by the shallow streams that run down from the ice-capped mountains – it looks like a glaciated landscape. The weather can vary from tinder dry to thunderstorms which leave the roads ankle-deep in mud. And snow is present on the mountain peaks at all times of the year. 

Can we go there?
The actual location in Wyoming is never specified. It takes a ride to get to Cheyenne, where any old low-life can be hired. But the movie was filmed in the valley of Jackson Hole. While most of the sets were built specifically for the movie, the house of Ernie Wright actually was once an actual frontier homestead. Its remains can be found just past Kelly. Other period homesteads can be found scattered around the area. The soaring jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons can be seen in the background of many of the shots.  

Overall Rating: 4/5

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