40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Great Movies: "Shane"

The Western as metaphor has been a staple of American -- and, indeed, international -- filmmaking, from the very beginnings of the cinema to the great "spaghetti" westerns of Italian director Sergio Leone (and, recently, directors like Kevin Costner and the great Clint Eastwood). We know all of the staples, from the villain with the black hat and dual pistols to the heroic cowboy figure and the rugged families who tended the land.

In George Stevens' 1953 film Shane, the Western genre is used to introduce an almost Christ-like mythos in the title character. It's a captivating film that still holds emotional power more than fifty years after its release.

We meet Shane (Alan Ladd) in the opening titles: a lone figure on horseback, up on top of a hill, carefully making his way down into the valley. He is dressed in a simple buckskin outfit. Loyal Griggs' wonderful cinematography gives us a real feeling of time and place, an unspoiled wilderness of nature. Does Shane seem to have a bit of a glow about him, almost like a halo? I think he does.

Shane's journey through the valley brings him to a simple homesteading family, the Starretts: Joe Starrett (Van Helfin); his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur); and young son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde). At this point in the film we do not know anything about Shane; nor does the Starrett family. The family and Shane connect and Shane decides to stay and help Joe with tending to the land.

Young Joey is immediately fascinated by Shane, and as Shane's relationship with the family grows, we also realize that Shane and Marian are attracted to each other. Shane, the loner, does not act on his feelings, but it's obvious to Joe that his wife has her own fascination with the handsome stranger.

In town, a man named Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) is not so fond of the homesteaders, driving his cattle through their fences and gardens. There is a small, close group of families that Brutus bullies to get them to leave.

The good vs. evil scenario is beginning to take shape, as are the parallels to the Christ mythos. After deciding to stay with the Starrett family, Shane travels into town to purchase working clothing -- an act of humbling himself, as Christ would have in ministering to the poor. Shane has promised Joey that he'd pick him up a bottle of soda pop, which Shane has to order in the saloon. The local toughs hang out there, and one of them, Calloway (Ben Johnson), immediately challenges Shane; the toughs snicker when Shane orders the bottle of soda pop and Calloway wants Shane to have a real drink; Shane refuses, and Calloway tosses the drink on Shane's new shirt. Like Christ, Shane turns the other cheek (this time), takes the soda, and leaves.

We know that a confrontation is brewing, an inevitable show-down between the homesteaders and the toughs in town. Western justice is the rule of the day, since there is no law enforcement in the community.

Meanwhile, Ryker has brought in a hired gun, the mysterious Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a Western villain with a black hat and few words. Shane seems to know who he is.

At the Starrett home, young Joey is wanting Shane to show him how to shoot a gun, which he does, to Marian's objection; she doesn't like guns. "A gun is a tool, Marian, no better or no worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that," Shane tells her.

Shane is becomming a surrogate father figure to Joey, who follows Shane around like a puppy, and his hero worship is upped tremendously after watching Shane beat up the toughs at the local saloon (no turning the other cheek, this time).

As the film nears its inevitable climax, one of the homesteaders, Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) has had enough of Ryker's bullying, and heads into town to confront Ryker. Torrey is viciously shot dead by Wilson, and Torrey's death is the catalyst for the other homesteading families to leave. Joe Starrett does not want to leave, and he too prepares himself for a confrontation in town. Shane stops him -- Shane knows his destiny and the battle is not Joe's to fight. Shane must battle evil, a destiny we know he cannot escape or shape. Shane may have pretended to be a normal man during his stay with the Starretts, but we know that he knows he cannot escape his destiny, and must fulfill it -- again, as Christ must fulfill his destiny. "There's no living with a killing. There's no going back from it. Right or wrong, it's a brand, a brand that sticks," Shane explains to Marian. Meaning, after dealing with the evil in town, he'll have to leave (if he's still alive); he cannot return to the simple family life of the Starretts, especially in the case of Marian.

There is a lot going on below the surface of Shane. It would be easy to dismiss it as a product of the 1950s, an "oat drama," but there's many layers to this film. Shane is an enigma from beginning to end, a man with a past we do not know, facing an unknown future. Even the cries of Joey, begging Shane to stay, cannot sway Shane from changing his mind (because he cannot), as Shane rides off into the distance.

Shane is a wonderful experience, thankfully preserved through the format of DVD. A must-have for any film collection.
**** out of ****

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