Sunday, May 30, 2010

Shane (1953)

Myth, reality, and 20th-century history meet in this classic western from the 1950s. In Jack Schaefer's postwar novel Shane and the Hollywood adaptation by George Stevens, a gunfighter appears out of nowhere, befriends and eventually defends a frontier family, and then disappears again. In a way, he represents every returning soldier from the killing fields of WWII and Korea who needed to be reintegrated into the communities they came from. The difficulty of this process is reflected in Shane's hyper-vigilant behavior and unwillingness to talk about his past, in both the book and the film, which suggest a man more than a little afflicted with PTSD. So the coming together of the western-movie gunslinger and the peaceable nuclear family in this story was surely a way for audiences to understand in fictional form the real drama going on in so many of their personal lives. That the gunslinger disappears, the family is saved, and the next generation is now free to grow "strong and straight" must have been greatly reassuring.

Meanwhile, the actual historical context of Schaefer’s story is the time of the Johnson County War of 1892, as Wyoming cattlemen attempted to force out rustlers, homesteaders, and other intruders on the open range. Cattleman Ryker (aka Fletcher in the novel) and his cowboys come riding up in the opening scene of the film to begin making their threats to the Starrett family to get off their land. So what we see in the film as the pressure on the homesteaders becomes increasingly violent has some basis in history.

Schaefer’s drawing of the gunman Shane is arguably more faithful to reality. He is far more dangerous-looking and acting than Alan Ladd's warm and friendly portrayal of the man, dressed in buckskin and tan hat instead of the much darker outfit and black hat that the boy Bob, who narrates the book, describes. As some have said, Jack Palance would have been a better choice for the role - able to convey the more sinister aspect of the character conceived by Schaefer. But on the big screen, this would have given 1950s movie audiences a more troubling image, especially as the attraction builds between Shane and the farmer’s wife Marian. The erotic appeal of a dangerous man would have converted this family-friendly entertainment into something a bit different.

The original Shane refuses to wear his gun through most of the story, a sign that he has a violent past to hide, while at the same time preventing another man from drawing on him. (Code of the West: never shoot an unarmed man.) Since the brandishing and use of firearms is a prominent feature of movie westerns, Shane's gun and gunbelt are on full display in the film, where Joey can show his open fascination with them, and Shane uses the gun to give a lesson to Joey in drawing and firing it. Of course, the emphasis is on speed and amazing marksmanship rather than the reality of carefully aiming and firing a heavy weapon at a distant target. The final shootout in the saloon is all movie-western as well. True to form, Shane fires with the deadly accuracy of a sniper and takes down two armed men.

Likewise, a good western requires at least a couple good fistfights. Schaeffer includes a rousing one in the saloon, and the film follows suit. However, near the end when there is a conflict between Joe Starrett and Shane about who will go to town to confront Ryker/Fletcher, the novel has Shane simply pistol-whip Joe. The movie, true to the genre, has a protracted fistfight between the two men.

Schaefer also set his story in the Powder River region of Wyoming, south of Sheridan, within sight of the Big Horns, the actual site of the Johnson County wars. Director Stevens, wanting a more picturesque location, went to the area around Jackson, within view of the much grander Tetons, in western Wyoming. A small matter, maybe, but it demonstrates how historical accuracy in movie westerns is typically neglected for the sake of cinematic effect.

One last word or two about movie adaptations. Much is lost in the telescoping of Schaeffer’s novel into 90 minutes of screen time. Sacrificed are the many nuances of the shifting relationships among his central characters - the male bonding of the two men, the emotional attachment of Marian to Shane, and the hero worship in the boy Bob/Joey, who is torn in his admiration for his father and this friendly stranger.

The character of Chris, a young cowboy (played well but by Ben Johnson in the film), also is diminished. While an antagonist of Shane and the Starretts throughout the story, in the denouement of the book he appears at the Starretts, offering to work as Joe's hired hand. It's a touching moment that shows the maturing of a character who has been awed by the integrity and honesty of Joe and Shane. The film, of course, ends before this, with the iconic scene of Joey calling out as his hero rides off, "Shane, come back!" While the film works well as a kind of time capsule of the early 1950s, it seems dated fifty years later. The novel has stood up much better with time. I encourage readers to give it a try.

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