Shane, by Albert W. Vogt III

Who does not want to see a movie about the change over from free range cattle raising to homesteading in the late nineteenth century American West?  I do not know about you, but this is the kind of thrilling material I look for when it comes to the Westerns I want to watch.  To be fair to Shane (1953), number forty-five on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, there is a little more going on in it.  Yet, the historian in me could not help but fall back on my knowledge of the era and realize the real story behind what I was seeing on the screen.  Perhaps this is why I was not totally thrilled with the proceedings.  Particulars of the plot aside, it seems a pretty standard film for the genre.  In other words, I do not understand what separates it that it would be so high on the list.  Read on and please feel free to tell me I am wrong in the comments below.

One day, Shane (Alan Ladd) rides up on the Starrett homestead.  The first to spot him is little Joey (Brandon deWilde), who runs to tell his father, Joe (Van Heflin).  Inside their modest log cabin waits an anxious mother and wife, Marian (Jean Arthur).  Almost everything about Shane is mysterious, including where he has been and where he is going.  What is more readily known about him is his jumpiness, going for his pistol when something startles him.  Thus, with a cup of water, Joe requests that Shane move on as soon as possible.  Before this can happen, the Starretts are visited by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer).  Rufus is the proponent of the free range, while Joe represents the more settled existence.  In other words, the clash of worlds mentioned in the first paragraph.  Rufus comes with several armed men and threats that Joe and others like him moving into the valley need to clear out because the ranchers were there first.  Shane, standing nearby, is noticed by Rufus.  When queried, Shane says he is with the Starretts, which casts the interaction in a different light.  Rufus and his men leave, and Joe is grateful for the support.  To show his gratitude, Joe invites Shane to stay for dinner. This leads to a job offer as a farm hand, and Shane accepts.  Joey is especially keen on this as he is awed by Shane’s calm demeanor and shiny handgun.  At the same time, it is evident that Shane is trying to put a violent life behind him.  The next day he is sent into what I suppose could be construed as a town to buy supplies.  Joey asks Shane to bring him back a soda pop.  This means going into the saloon attached to the general store, and this is where Rufus’ men gather.  Despite obvious goading, Shane does not respond, withstanding having a drink thrown onto his new shirt.  Meanwhile, back on the Starrett spread, the other farmers are gathering to express their concerns over Rufus’ pressuring them for their land.  Many of them want to leave, feeling it is not worth the trouble.  When Shane returns, news of him seemingly cowing to Rufus’ cronies does not bode well for them standing their ground.  On the other side of the debate is Joe telling them that if they are able to withstand the pressure as a group, they can keep their homes.  His passion wins them over for the moment, and they all vow to go into town as a collective.  Shane is among them when this happens, but this time he fights back when he steps up to the bar and is tested.  A brawl breaks out and Joe joins him in a pretty epic fisticuff that does significant damage to the premises.  I felt bad for the bartender.  At any rate, this emboldens the homesteaders, particularly ex-Confederate soldier Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.).  Their newfound bravery has certain limits, though, and Stonewall’s next venture into town is accompanied by a neighbor, Axel “Swede” Shipstead (Douglas Spencer).  Swede is on hand to witness Stonewall attempt to enter the saloon for a drink.  Barring his way is Rufus’ hired gunman, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).  There is a brief moment when Stonewall attempts to draw his own gun on Jack, but the more experienced gunfighter is quicker.  Still, there is a pause before Jack opens fire anyway, killing Stonewall with one shot.  Swede bringing news of this death is enough to convince some to pack up, primarily Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan) and his family.  Joe manages to convince Fred to stick around at least long enough for Stonewall’s funeral, though he comes to it with a loaded wagon.  However, during the ceremony, Rufus’ men set fire to his former home.  Instead of getting more homesteaders to leave it has the opposite effect, stealing their resolve to stay.  For Joe, it all means that he must, once and for all, have it out with Rufus.  The head rancher feels the same way, sending emissaries to beckon Joe to a tête-à-tête and an obvious trap.  Marian senses the true purpose of this summons, and begs Joe not to go.  At the same time, Shane receives confirmation that it is in fact a set-up, and resolves to go in Joe’s place.  There is a short physical struggle between Joe and Shane before the latter manages to knock out the former.  It is then on to town for Shane and the inevitable gun battle you have been waiting the entire movie to see unfold.  It only lasts a few moments, with Shane taking out Jack, Rufus, and Rufus’ brother Morgan (John Dierkes) in quick succession and being only slightly wounded.  This is witnessed by Joey, who had followed Shane, and they have a tearful goodbye as the film concludes.

Despite being a pretty standard Western, there were moments in which I was puzzled while watching Shane.  There is an odd tension between Marian and Shane that had me thinking that Joe was going to die, and Shane would take his place.  Not that Joey would have minded.  Speaking of him, Shane says something that caught this Catholic’s ear in the closing minutes.  Joey wants Shane to stay, but the killing Shane had just done has the gunfighter remembering what he is truly good at in life.  While it is unfortunate that his trade is death, what he says is that a man has to be what he is.  What I hear in this is the importance of following one’s vocation.  This is a theme that I have addressed in other reviews, but rarely is it so positively affirmed as it is in this movie.  At the same time, a vocation is something with a little more spiritual weight than a job.  For Shane, it appears that the two are inextricable.  He tries being a farmhand but the violence finds him.  During the period depicted in the film, a person with skills with a gun could make a living, as awful as that sounds.  Shane does seem like a decent fellow, and I applaud his reticence to continue his deadly line of work.  I am not thrilled by his final choice.  Put differently, I see no reason why he could not have gone back to the Starrett homestead, as awkward as that might have been for Marian.  I am not sure what vocation that would mean for Shane in such a role as I doubt they had any concept of consecrated singles as we do in the Church.  Either way, I would have liked to have seen a different ending.

Shane is fine, if not spectacular.  I also found Joey to be a bit strange.  I do not know where they found this kid, but he looked insane.  Then again, I probably should not say mean spirited things about him because deWilde died tragically at a young age.  God rest his soul.


2 thoughts on “Shane, by Albert W. Vogt III

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s