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No Shane in Watching

September 22, 2015

This post is in no way current. Then again, what was ever current about the Western? Anyway, I grew up flipping channels between X-Men and Bonanza on Saturday mornings, which meant I had trouble discerning between Little Joe's lost wives and Wolverine's lost memories. I talk about these things when introducing high school students to the idea that films, whether we like them or not, still deserve our attention on a variety of levels. Sometimes to help with that endeavor I write, too. That's what this was: 



The DNA of Georg Stevens’ Shane (1953) is part morality play and part epic myth. The allegorical aspects are largely Christian. The myth is largely invoked by the film’s Western setting. Because the film is both a Christian allegory and a conventional Western, the film itself is, perhaps, all these things and none of them. In this manner, too, the film exemplifies both Tolstoy’s notion of “a stranger comes to town” and “a man goes on a journey.”

Early on, Stevens’ long, establishing shots of the valley establish a sense of natural wonder that truly is Edenic, if not in truth, then at least in representation. The valley is peaceful, maybe even utopian in the hearts and minds of its settlers. At the start of the film, they reside already within the beautiful boundaries of what they believe in their hearts to be a Promised Land. 

If the film had followed their initial journey west, then perhaps this film would embody this communal pilgrimage, but it does not. Instead, Shane is a migratory hermit. When he first rides into the valley, he finds the Starrett family living in agrarian splendor. While the settlers build fences and split up the world, he in his buckskin and the deer in theirs are the only perpetrators of boundary. Yet the farmers never appear at odds with the natural world. The fence-crossing of the deer into their gardens positions these farming families at one with the valley’s wildlife.

Moreover, Marian Starrett dislikes guns and violence, which the film renders antithetical to the valley’s peaceful setting. Even as a buck’s antlers adorn the entryway to the Starrett farm, they appear to be in harmonious existence with the world around them.

When Shane arrives, however, life—even on the frontier— reveals itself to be something other than placid. The valley is also full of strife. As Ryker and his men become more prominent and powerful within the film’s plot, more of the valley’s history becomes known to the audience. The valley may have been a utopia once upon a time, but its history now full of bloodshed and lawlessness, offering up an alternative tradition to the Starretts and their neighbors.

Ryker pleads his case to Joe Starrett that the valley, indeed, belongs to the cattlemen as much as anyone. After all, they fought the Native Americans for the right to use the land. In Ryker’s eyes, the valley belongs to those who have bled for it. And, in his opinion, the Starretts and other “sodbusters” have not yet bled for the land, rendering their claims void.

Hence, the film’s climactic gunfight at the end of the film is a Christian allegory steeped in the genre conventions of the American Western. The settlers, represented most by the Starrett family, believe their values and way of life can restore the ideal of natural law to the valley for future generations. The Starrett way is intended to right humankind’s relationship with the natural world. The irony, however, is that the Starrett way also makes the natural world less free by introducing laws and order and, most of all, fences.

Without blood, though, the Starrett way possesses no catalyst for real change. None of the farmers can fight Ryker or his men and win. The scene where Jack Wilson shoots a “sodbuster” dead in the streets proves as much. Moreover, the fact that this farmer is also a Confederate veteran associates the agrarian cause with the Lost Cause of the South. Thus, Shane is the valley’s only hope for a change which will actually align the future with the utopian past that once preceded the breaking of the wilderness by human settlement, Native Americans included.

When Shane shoots his gun and kills tyranny, his victory is intended not so much to be the mere shooting of another gunfighter and a victory over Ryker. No, the triumph is over the evils of history and its violence, supposedly. And, supposedly, the film’s last frame, which is a final view of those pristine mountain peaks stretching in their stony awesomeness towards heaven, suggest so much, and so little. For in a world without gunfighters there is only Joey’s sliver of a memory, seen through the slant of a door, and the farm. Everything else is lost in the gun smoke. 

Bryan Harvey tweets about lots of stuff and sometimes Westerns @LawnChairBoys

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