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Western Approaches : Episode 6

Reasons to Love Shane:

3. The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. (But it’s not quite as simple as it seems)

Shane is the classic western hero. Good people are fighting an unfair battle with bad people. Mysterious hero rides in, sorts everything out and rides off again. It’s only after he’s gone that you realise that you know absolutely nothing about him; except his name; if it is his name. He says “You can call me Shane” he never says “My name is Shane”. There is a difference. Shane is an name of Irish extraction, meaning Gift from God.

Two questions need addressing here; one mythic and one historic. Has Shane been sent from above to help mankind sort out their differences? What is the exact nature of this unfair battle? Lets see if we can do this without sententious moralising and over-simplification.

John Gast: American Progress 1872

John Gast: American Progress 1872

In holy books the arrival of a prophet is often foretold. There is no prophet Isaiah in the film to predict the arrival of the one who will rid the world (of the film) of sin. But there is Manifest Destiny. The belief or conviction (it certainly enters the realms of theology rather than remaining strictly political) that not only could the United States extend westward and ‘civilise’ the country, but that it was its destiny that it should. The West was the American land of opportunity: if not a land of milk and honey, then certainly one of beef, gold, silver and good rich soil. But this led to conflict as the land inevitably belonged to someone else.

The federal government needed settlers to populate the new territories which were becoming states at a tremendous rate: the physical, political and human expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century was one of the whirlwind wonders of the modern world. The wild west wasn’t allowed to remain wild for long. And driving the taming process was not the imposition of law and order (that came along in the second wave) but eastern money. Parts of Wyoming became  embroiled in a new conflict. The first to settle here were cattle ranchers who fed their vast herds on the open range that had once been home to millions of migratory buffalo. For a short while a lot of money was made by local cattlemen and eastern investors. Among those travelling east to try the life of cattle ranchers was a young Theodore Roosevelt. By the time Shane rode over the mountains the good days had passed and many cattlemen were facing hard times. The major factors in this were overstocking, harsh winters ( the winter of 86-87 being particularly bad and became known as the Big Die-Off), competition for the land from homesteaders and a big fall in the price of beef due to a surplus of supply.

Homesteaders : A tough life

Homesteaders : A tough life

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered land of up to 65 hectares to any adult who had never taken arms against the United States. This offer was open to all regardless of race or gender. It drew settlers from all parts of the country and from Northern Europe and has always been attractive to film makers…as recently as last year, despite the genre being unfashionable, two major westerns were released (Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman and Kristian Levring’s The Salvation) both of which deal directly with the lives of homesteaders.

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in The Homesman

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in The Homesman

The conflicts had a habit, as in Shane, of getting out of hand. Historian Richard White wrote that “Large cattlemen were probably the most prone to violence of any economic interest group in the West…Cattle ranchers’ predilection for violence largely resulted from the tenuousness of their legal claims to the land.” (A New History of the American West: University of Oklahoma Press) This is the situation we find at the beginning of the film. The homesteaders have a strong legal claim, backed by federal legislation. The ranchers, in this case Ryker, have assumed a right to the land on the basis of little more than “We were here first”. An argument with huge holes in it under most circumstances but all the more so on land that has so recently been forcibly taken from the native people who had lived on it for thousands of years.

Real life and art. A settler's wagon under the Teton Range 1890s

Real life and art. A settler’s wagon under the Teton Range 1890s

Part of the greatness of Shane is that it is able to run two parallel, potentially contradictory, stories. A straight fight between good and evil as portrayed by Shane and Wilson and a morally ambiguous telling of the battle between rancher and farmer. On the one hand we are shown the Starretts as an almost perfect family: maybe even a nineteenth century version of the Christian Holy Family: and yet there seems a disconnect between what they say and the underlying reality of the film. They see the Rykers as ruthless, stop-at-nothing bullies trying to force them off their land. They also say they are struggling to survive against the odds yet their lifestyle seems almost idyllic. On the other hand the Rykers are portrayed outwardly as the bad guys and yet whenever the old man talks it is in the spirit of compromise. They only resort to bringing in gunslinger Wilson after the Starretts have produced their own Achilles.

John Dierkes Emil Meyer and Jack Palance (plus one) in Shane

John Dierkes Emil Meyer and Jack Palance (plus one) in Shane

After Shane has bested Ryker’s man, in a fist-fight, he is offered a job at double whatever Starrett is paying him. Here we have the old storyline of the power of money to buy or corrupt but it is also an opportunity to show that Shane is above being bought. His fight is for a better world. Money isn’t his idol. Despite this, Ryker’s offer is essentially an honest one.

Later the old man visits the Starretts and the terms he offers go further than meeting halfway. He offers Starrett a job on “top wages”, the right to run his cattle with “mine” and to buy his homestead at a price to be set by Starrett. He makes it clear that his offer to Shane still stands and then he goes further, in appealing to the boy Joey, of offering a partnership.

Starrett says. “You’ve made things pretty hard for us Ryker. And us in the right all the time.”

"There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

Ryker, who has been reasonable in tone throughout the conversation, or as reasonable as you can call a man who has arrived mob-handed with a professional killer in tow, suddenly takes exception and we get a double-sided history lesson. We are told what the ranchers did to create a place where cattle may safely graze. Starrett in turn points out that trappers and Indian traders did far more to tame the country. Ryker expresses his resentment of people who then come along and fence off the range, divert the water and claim it without having done any of the work. Starrett responds by bringing the discussion slap-bang up to date:

“You talk about rights. You think you got the right to say that nobody else has got any. Well, that ain’t the way the government looks at it.”

In any western set twenty years earlier such a mention of government would have been laughed to scorn. Here, in 1890, in a particularly aware and intelligent western, it carries weight. Ryker changes his tone, appeals first to the emotions and eventually resorts to veiled threats. The key issue here from our perspective is that the film-makers included this debate in the dialogue. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, the film disguises its treatment of adult themes by viewing events through the eyes of a child. It is a very grown up movie. It invites the audience to engage rather than to accept.

The conversation is closely watched by Shane and Wilson, and by Joe’s family who offer moral support and give him a reason for holding his ground. It’s a remarkable scene shot in the  gloaming with the horses and cattle and the disputed countryside providing an astonishing backdrop.

The dominant character isn’t the rancher or the homesteader. Neither is it the threatening presence of the smiling assassin. It is Shane, and he never says a word.

Shane is ever thus. He’s always polite but so tight-lipped in most scenes that you feel the family might find him awkward to have around. He seems to spend his time brooding or in contemplation yet when he has cleared his head he is always ready to help.

Van Heflin and Alan Ladd in Shane

Van Heflin and Alan Ladd in Shane

The closest we get to finding out about him is when Joe asks him where he’s heading.

“One place or another. Some place I never been” he says while looking down at the table.

At the end of the meal he quietly excuses himself with

“Ermm, It was an elegant dinner Mrs. Starrett”. (awkward pause) “Excuse me”.

An interesting  and revealing choice of words. They are not the words of the traditional western gunman. The usual way of complimenting the cook in a western is by saying, “Mighty fine stew ma’am!” while making full use of the table napkins to wipe mouth and chin.

As for the Starrett’s level of creature comforts. Well, we have ample evidence that they are hard-working and persistent. That they have made what they have though their own efforts. But where has it come from; the comfortable home with a stove and barns and horses and herd of cattle? Did the Starretts head west to take advantage of the Homestead Act or were they already there? We are never told. All we are told is that this is “The first real home” they have had. We also note that Emil Meyer (Ryker) placed a special degree of emphasis on the word “rustlers”.

Rustling was the major cause of trouble between ranchers and small-holders. Many homesteaders were ex-cowboys, who set up their farms thanks to government policy and then stocked them from unbranded calves from the range (mavericks). Where have Starrett’s cows come from? It’s unlikely that he drove them west as he brought his family out. It’s equally unlikely, given his claims to be struggling, that he has bought them off Ryker or any other stockman in the area. Certainly he has been there long enough to have bred a few but cows don’t proliferate like rabbits and Starrett has a healthy herd.  I think the film leaves this question open. There is no intention to suggest guilt by implication. It’s more that the film’s greatness rests upon hitting the right balance of ambiguity and moral certainty.

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Where does all of this leave Shane? He arrives in the hour of need. He solves the problems faced by the settlers and leaves. He’s a man of deep thoughts but very few words. He’s obviously troubled by his past and wants to leave behind his life as a gunfighter but can’t. He’s idolised by everyone he comes into contact with; either immediately (Joey and Mrs Starrett) or after he has demonstrated his abilities. He always fights for what he sees is right and never for personal gain. It is almost as if he is destined to do this or under some form of chivalric obligation. He is the direct descendant of Theseus and Ajax, the Knights of the Round Table, Childe Roland or Caius Kent from King Lear. After much debate I have finally come down on the side of saying that the stunning portrayal by Alan Ladd is down to his skills as an actor rather than by chance. Shane is a remarkable character who straddles the boundaries between historic narrative and mythology.

He is Shane.