Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Western Heroes Dual Part II

Directed by George Stevens and featuring Alan Ladd in the title role, Shane tells the story of a mysterious gunfighter who comes to the aid of an oppressed group of homesteaders. The film maintains much of the traditional iconography of the genre, from vast, sweeping landscapes to a sinister, gun-slinging villain. While consciously working within this set of images, Shane produces a vision of the West in which savage means are necessary for civil progress. The title implies that Shane, the almost miraculous gunfighter, is the main protagonist, but there are in fact two: Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), leader of the homesteaders, is equally important. These two protagonists are inexplicably linked, but embody certain opposing semantics of the West.

Shane is portrayed as a weary gunfighter, a wanderer with no place to hang his hat. He literally rides in from nowhere, his past a mystery never discussed. From the first shot of him riding on his horse, it is clear that Shane represents a dying breed of cowboy. Conversely, Joe Starrett is a family man who believes in the notion of private property and democratic organization. He represents civility, a new order of prosperity. Much of the narrative structure of the film relies on their relationship, their strengths and their weaknesses, to shape meaning.

Though wary of each other at first, the two are quickly presented as a team, working together to mutually improve quality of life. Joe hires Shane as an extra hand on the farm, providing him a temporary home, and the film shows how Shane’s cowboy qualities come in use. One scene boils it down into an easy metaphor: a tree stump too heavy for Joe to move by himself is lifted, with some strain, when he works with Shane. This scene could be interpreted as a summation of the movie; Joe can’t seem to shake the ranchers that want him off the land, but together with Shane, the two manage to put up a fight.

The oppression from the ranchers is much greater than that of a stump, however, and develops a much more complex relationship between the two protagonists. Both Shane and Starrett can fight physically – an extended fight sequence in the saloon exhibits this fact – but Shane’s quick-shot skills are necessary in keeping the film’s ultimate villain, a gun-for-hire named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), at bay. Conversely, Shane’s presence irks some of the homesteaders, some of which feel they “don’t need no bodyguard” while others simply want to pack up and quit. Starrett’s unending optimism and oratory skills, coupled with his American ideals of individualized prosperity, manage to keep the homesteaders aligned even in the darkest of times, something Shane could not do. In turn, Shane and Starrett bridge together traits from both the savage and civil West that are necessary in accomplishing the plots ultimate goal – winning the land for the homesteaders.

However the narrative also pits the two characters in competition with one another, especially in relation to the Starrett family. Joe’s young son is constantly sizing his father up in comparison to Shane. He asks Joe many questions – “Could you shoot better than Shane? Could you whip him?” – that elaborate upon why Shane’s presence is so necessary for the homesteaders. Likewise, Joe’s wife, precautious but intrigued by the gunfighter, develops a flirting infatuation for Shane, which Starrett comes to recognize towards the end, admitting that if something were to happen to him, he’d at least know she’d be “taken care of and in good hands”.

This competition elaborates upon why the savage Westerner was so crucial, and helps glorify his nature, but the film remains conscious that he is a dying breed. Shane’s gun-toting way of life, though helpful in the circumstances, cannot work in the civil setting. He is conscious of this: “There's no living with a killing. There's no goin' back from one,” he says. “Right or wrong, it's a brand... a brand sticks. There's no goin' back... And there aren't any more guns in the valley.” The film ends with Shane riding back into the wilderness, but the shouts from Starrett’s son are a reminder that he is one cowboy that will not be forgotten.

Such is not the case for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance...

Check out Part I
The Western Heroes Dual Part III coming soon!