Shane – George Stevens
Of the countless Westerns produced in Hollywood, Shane is among the most familiar and highly regarded. Its significance can be measured in terms of Hollywood’s Western past, since Shane is a film that reflects upon the Westerns preceding it. It draws on the residue of this most enduring of film genres and abstracts its standard conventions, transforming them into myth. Given that many of the film’s narrative events are seen through the eyes of a small boy, Shane further underscores the mythic status of the genre, suggesting its function as an outlet for the dreams and fantasies of youngsters.
The film’s plot is deceptively simple. Shane (Alan Ladd), a mysterious, buckskin-clad loner, rides into a Wyoming valley during the late 1860’s. He soon becomes a hired hand on the fledgling homestead of the Starrett family: Joe (Van Heflin), Marian (Jean Arthur), and young Joey (Brandon De Wilde). Shane is in fact a gunfighter who wants to change his ways; he hopes to settle down and start his own homestead. But Ryker, a cattle baron, intends to drive Starrett and the other homesteaders out of the valley, and Shane finds that he is being gradually drawn back into his past way of life. Because of Starrett’s determined leadership, Ryker is unable to harass the homesteaders into leaving, so he hires Wilson (Jack Palance), a cold-blooded hired gun, to scare them out. After Wilson taunts, then easily kills one of the homesteaders in a one-sided gunfight, Starrett decides to put on his guns and stand up to Wilson and the Ryker bunch. Shane, however, knows that Starrett does not stand a chance against these seasoned killers, so he straps on his gun again. When Starrett insists on going, he and Shane wage a furious fistfight; Shane emerges victorious and rides off to meet the killers. In the town saloon, Shane outdraws and kills Wilson, as well as the Rykers. Though wounded, Shane rides out of the valley after indicating to Joey that he will never return.
Crucial to an understanding of Shane is its depiction of a mythic genre figure who tries to adapt to changing times by divesting himself of his heroic stature. The difficulty in making this transformation is first suggested when Shane trades in his buckskins for an outfit of drab workclothes. In these clothes, Shane enters a saloon, where he orders not the traditional shot of whiskey, but a bottle of soda pop. In the garb of a homesteader, Shane is taunted by one of the Ryker bunch. Since Shane wants to avoid trouble, he backs down from a fight, which leads the homesteaders to think him a coward. Wearing the same outfit, Shane eventually returns to the saloon, and with Starrett’s help, bests the Rykers in a fistfight. The change of clothes allows Shane to initially “become” like a homesteader, but unlike them, Shane ultimately cannot back down from a fight.
Shane’s relationship to the Starretts also points to him as one outside the locus of family/community/progress which they embody. While Joe likes Shane, and Joey worships him, Shane is nevertheless positioned as an outsider to the family unit. This is underscored by the unspoken love that he shares with Marian. Marian represents the nonheroic life style Shane can never attain, and their relationship is an idealized one. She is an insider while Shane is an outsider. The inside/outside duality is pointed up during a scene in which Shane stands outside in the rain while Marian is .inside the Starrett house. The cross-cutting between the two emphasizes the inside/outside relationship, just as the gentle rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” on the soundtrack at this point emphasizes the impossibility of Shane’s transformation. When Shane finally goes to his quarters—which are, appropriately enough, away from the main house—Marian implies her love for Shane to Joey, telling him, “He’ll be moving along one day and you’ll be upset if you get to liking him too much.” She then blows out a candle, causing the room to go dark. This suggests that her own attraction to Shane is as unattainable as his desire for her.