Opinion: Doug Thompson

“Shane” can’t come back

“Why is ‘Shane’ considered a great movie?”
That simple question shook my easy-going, know-it-all equilibrium a bit. “Shane” was one of the first movies I ever recognized as great, long before I became a know-it-all.
Examining this previously unexamined point of faith, I had to admit that the story of “Shane” is absurd. A skilled gunfighter, Shane could have defended the homesteaders. Instead he joins them and promptly allows himself become so abused, even the farmers are embarrassed.
One person never underestimates Shane: The grizzled rancher villain. More about that later.
“Shane,” like many great action movies, depends on a hero who’s sick of violence — after attaining refined supremacy at it. You see the same thing in the recent “Bourne” movies.
OK. So he’s looking for redemption and acceptance. You can argue that Shane’s decision to stay makes things worse. The sodbusters have a gunfighter. The rancher reasonably decides he needs one too, and hires Wilson.
“Shane” is a movie with a wholesome moral that also stages the most realistic violence and best gunfight filmed to that date. Wires were used to yank actors backwards to simulate the jolt of bullet impact. Painstaking attention was paid to the sound of gunfire. The scene where Shane shows the boy how to shoot took 119 tries. Necessary evil received loving attention to detail.
So, back to the question; Why is this bundle of contradictions a great movie? Is it a great movie?
Yes, it is.
In the book “Inside the Soviet Army,” a defector describes watching an American Western. The movie’s good guy puts up with provocations, wanting to just be left alone. He gives his enemy every chance to back off. When the fight couldn’t be avoided any longer, however, there was no mercy, not even hesitation. In the Soviet system, wanting to be left alone was viewed with suspicion. Bluster was considered vital.
But haven’t other movies used the same theme more effectively?
No; largely because of the movie’s poignancy as the swan song of Westerns.
That’s a weird statement to make about a movie released in 1953. However, the death of the Western is all there, certain as the death of anything. The hero rides off, wounded and quite possibly dying. He’s gone forever either way. The boy calls to him helplessly, knowing that he will never see the like again. Shane’s so far off, there are already echoes.
The Western’s time was over. The difference is, Shane knew it. This wasn’t just a morality play. This was tragedy.
A morality play or a simpler Western would not have Shane drawn to his best friend’s wife and becoming a hero to their child. The husband sees all this — and is relieved. The farmer’s family will have his replacement in the likely event of his death. At one point, the farmer openly says his wife would be better off with Shane.
There’s one problem with the farmer’s plan. Somebody needs killing, and the boy needs a father without blood on his hands.
That’s the vital point. “Shane” is all about the boy.
That boy is each of us. We know it. Farmers and fighters, and even ranchers, created a world for us. We will never be tested like they were. We will always feel like kids when we think of them.
Notice that the sensible option of both the farmer and the Shane going to the showdown never comes up. The fact that their enemies wait in greater numbers for a lone hero is proof of their villainy, not a reasonable precaution when facing a gunfighter good enough to confront Wilson.
This is the most American part of the myth the Soviet defector described earlier. American heroes fight alone. The Russian “Shane,” for instance, is Alexander Nevsky — a prince who disregards past injustices and rallies the people while depending on them for insight and deferring to them in matters of justice.
The whole idea of fighting evil by fighting solo is absurd. It was 1953, time to put away childish things.
Some childish things, however, were beautiful.

Categories: Legacy Archive