by Jack Schaefer
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the Wyoming Territory in 1889; published in 1949.
A strange gunfighter with a mysterious past suddenly appears in a small Wyoming valley. After siding with a local homesteading family in their fight against a cattle baron, the gunfighter is forced to partake in a lite-or-death shootout on the homesteaders’ behalf.
Born in 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio, Jack Schaefer studied history as well as classical and American literature throughout his life. He was especially drawn to the history of the western United States, although he did not travel to that area until after he published Shane. His first novel, Shane appeared as a magazine serial before being published in its final hardback version in 1949. It is considered a classic representative of a distinct literary genre, the Western.
Cattlemen generally moved into frontier territory after explorers and trappers, but before farmers. After the Civil War, many ranchers occupied the Great Plains, moving large cattle herds from Texas to markets up north. During this time the Great Plains was a largely unsettled region with vast expanses of open land claimed by the U.S. government. Ranchers, especially in the 1870s, enjoyed free use of this government land to graze their cattle. The open range cattle herds required thousands of acres in order to survive, since ranchers left the tough breeds to fend for themselves during the winter. Depending on the quality of the grazing land, each animal required from 20 to 130 acres.
Such large land requirements compelled the ranchers to occupy more land than they could legally own. Under law, ranchers might only obtain as much as 1,100 acres. Some ranchers obtained extra land by convincing their cowboy employees to file for homesteads with the federal government and subsequently transfer the titles to the ranchers. These claims were usually fraudulent since the cowboys neither settled nor cultivated the land as required. Ranchers also obtained prime grazing land under other laws such as the Desert Act, which allowed people to purchase up to 640 acres of desert. Only one-seventh of the Wyoming Territory had been surveyed, so cattlemen easily claimed prime grazing lands as desert there. Most ranchers, however, simply squatted—that is, settled on the land without permission to do so and without paying rent—a practice considered legal until the government decided to use the surplus land. The cattle baron in Schaefer’s novel, Luke Fletcher, acquires his land in this way.
Open range grazing practices were tolerated only because there was plenty of space. During the 1880s, however, the region became overstocked and overgrazed. In 1879 Wyoming supported 450,000 cattle; only six years later, the number of cattle roaming the territory had increased to 1.5 million.
Harsh weather during the winter of 1886-87 decimated the cattle population, leaving the survivors nearly unfit for market. Some historians estimate the loss at three or four hundred thousand out of two million cattle. During this time of economic hardship, homesteaders started moving into Wyoming, placing further land pressures upon the hard-pressed cattlemen. Shane refers to the mounting tension caused by their arrival:
He [Fletcher] had been running cattle through the whole valley at the time the miners arrived, having bought or bulldozed the few small ranchers there ahead of him. A series of bad years working up to the dry summer and terrible winter of ’86 had cut his herds about the time the first of the homesteaders moved in and he had not objected too much. But now there were seven of us in all and the number was rising each year.
(Schaefer, Shane, p. 46)
Such conflicts of interest eventually generated severe hostilities between the cattle barons and the small ranchers, sheepherders, and farmers of the region. These hostilities culminated in the Johnson County War of 1892, a three-day battle in which the cattlemen and their hired gunfighters declared open warfare on the entire county in order to evict small interests.
The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres of land as a homestead in the West to the head of a family or to anyone twenty-one years of age. The act endured, with various modifications, until 1977. In order to obtain the land, the government required the homesteader to pay a small fee, live on the land for five years, and improve the property in particular ways.
Homesteading on the Great Plains proved difficult. The better lands fell into the hands of the railroads and speculators, leaving poorer, hardto-farm land for the homesteaders. In the rainy East, farmers easily profited from 160 acres. A farm of equal size on the dry plains, however, left many homesteaders impoverished. People often referred to the Homestead Act as the government’s bet: 160 acres of land against the homesteader’s survival skills.
Although the act entitling them to land was passed in 1862, homesteaders did not settle the Great Plains for several years. After 1870, however, settlers quickly spread throughout the region. Between 1870 and 1900, homesteaders occupied 430 million acres of public land. Often called “nesters,” these homesteaders comprised an important civilizing force in frontier society. Their predecessors, the trappers, explorers, and ranchers, had generally not established permanent settlements. The farmers, however, brought wives, children, and the trappings of eastern civilization. The novel Shane features a settlement in which “there were several stores, a harness and a blacksmith shop, and nearly a dozen houses. Just the year before, the men had put together a one-room schoolhouse” (Shane, p. 46).
The nesters often clashed with ranchers when they laid claim to the public lands. Accustomed to grazing their herds on these lands, the ranchers resented the homesteader’s intrusion and considered them a threat. Meanwhile, many homesteaders, such as the novel’s Joe Starrett, recognized the wastefulness of open range ranching:
Listen to me, Shane. The thing to do is pick your spot, get your land, your own land. Put in enough crops to carry you and make your money play with a small herd, not all horns and bone, but bred for meat and fenced in and fed right. I haven’t been at it long, but already I’ve raised stock that averages three hundred pounds more than that long-legged stuff Fletcher runs on the other side of the river and it’s better beef, and that’s only a beginning.
(Shane, p. 7)
Sometimes, the ranchers and homesteaders quarreled over water sources. Settlers often claimed areas near streams, thereby separating the cattle from water. Cattlemen, in turn, diverted whole streams under the pretense of irrigation in order to provide water for their cattle and thus cut off the homesteader’s water supply. In fact, access to water is one reason why Luke Fletcher wants to buy the homesteaders’ land. “I’ll be wanting all the range I can get from now on. Even without that, I can’t let a bunch of nesters keep coming in here and choke me off from my water rights” (Shane, p. 95).
Women on the frontier
Although cooking and other domestic skills played an important and time-consuming role in the life of pioneer women, western life also liberated women from many traditional roles they occupied in the East. Wyoming, for example, shocked the East when it became the first state or territory in the nation to enfranchise women in 1869. On the frontier, women often worked in nontraditional roles; they labored in the fields, rode horses in pants or split skirts, and drove cattle. Many learned to shoot and hunt. At times women took up arms to protect land claims; some even turned into gunslinging outlaws. Thousands of women homesteaded their own land; in fact, by 1900,10 percent of all homesteaders were women.
Law in the Wyoming Territory
Many forms of popular culture portray the frontier as a violenceridden place. In reality, it was often quite peaceful. Theft was rare, since resources were plentiful and neighbors were scarce. Settlers, cowboys, and others generally welcomed strange travelers like Shane into their houses or settlements to eat and spend the night. Many left the doors to their houses or businesses unlocked. In fact, many houses and business lacked doors altogether. The owner assumed people were honest until proven otherwise, and society respected a person’s word as a solid bond. Vendors often sold goods on credit to both regular customers and strangers, and sometimes people rode hundreds of miles in order to pay a debt.
Formal government, however, was loose and often unavailable. As the character Bob Starrett notes in the novel:
We knew, too, how far away the government was from our valley way up there in the Territory. The nearest marshal was a good hundred miles away. We did not even have a sheriff in our town. There never had been any reason for one. When folks had any lawing to do, they would head for Sheridan, nearly a full day’s ride away.
(Shane, p. 45)
Furthermore, local governments were easily influenced by local strongmen, such as the novel’s Luke Fletcher: “Even if we had had a sheriff, he would have been Fletcher’s man. Fletcher was the power in the valley in those days” (Shane, p. 46). Under such conditions, the line between criminals and law enforcers was often blurry.
Some residents reacted by taking the law into their own hands. Such incidents in the novel as the killing (at Fletcher’s behest) of Ernie, a homesteader who refuses to sell his land, were not unusual. In 1889, for example, cattle king Albert Bothwell lynched a man and a woman, accusing them of cattle rustling. In reality, the couple had claimed a homestead on Bothwell’s open range along an important water source.
People sometimes formed vigilante groups when they thought the judicial system failed, such as on occasions when courts ignored or freed people who had allegedly committed homicide. In such instances, vigilante groups sometimes took it upon themselves to enact the death penalty. Besides punishing criminals, these groups sometimes stepped in to settle personal disputes under the guise of “justice.” When Wyoming gained statehood in 1890, vigilante groups remained active despite the burgeoning judicial system.
During the settlement of the frontier, gun ownership was much more common in the West than in the East. Some westerners became expert shooters, willing to risk their lives in gunfights for any number of reasons. These gunfighters play a prominent role in the history and legends of the West and include such infamous names as Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy.
Certain attributes became associated with gunfighters. While they came from all types of backgrounds, many, like Shane, were Southerners, since ex-soldiers from the Confederate Army headed West in great numbers after their defeat in the Civil War. Found on both sides of the law, gunfighters were admired as well as hated. They could be cattle rustlers or sheriffs; often they were both. Most preferred to cultivate an aura of mystery in order to intimidate their enemies.
Even in their own time, gunfighters inspired the mixture of fear and awe that the Starretts felt in Shane’s presence. The public often exaggerated the gunfighters’ skills and reputations. In reality, smoky gunpowder and woefully inaccurate firearms often handicapped the gunfighters. Despite wild claims, a man was considered a good shot if he could hit another man fifteen yards away.
Since gunfighters often did not care on which side of the law they fought, many worked as mercenaries. During the 1880s, cattlemen hired gun-fighters such as Stark Wilson to protect their range interests from sheepherders, small ranchers, homesteaders, and rustlers. These hired men earned good wages, taking in approximately $100 to $150 a month, three times the salary of a U.S. marshal. Some earned as much as $200 a month, while one Wyoming fighter charged a flat rate of $500 per rustler caught.
In the summer of 1889, Bob Starrett, the young son of homesteaders Joe and Marian Starrett, observes a mysterious, well-dressed stranger riding into the small Wyoming valley in which his family lives. The stranger’s worn yet elegant appearance and his courteous behavior impress the Starrett family. Although the stranger merely requests the use of their water pump, Joe invites him to dinner and to spend the night. The stranger, who introduces himself simply as “Shane,” accepts the invitation. Although Shane is amiable, the Starretts also perceive him as a mysterious and somewhat dangerous man. Despite this impression, however, they and Shane take an immediate liking to one another. Shane converses with Marian about the latest fashions in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and talks with Joe about the farm. Bob simply holds Shane in awe.
The following day, Joe shows Shane his farm, pointing out a particularly strong and heavy stump that he has not yet uprooted. “That was the one bad spot on our place. It stuck out like an old scarred sore in the cleared space back of the barn—a big old stump, all jagged across the top” (Shane, p. 12). Ledyard, the local salesman, arrives and attempts to sell Joe a cultivator (a farm tool used to break up the soil) at an unfair price. Shane says that he has recently seen the same cultivator for sale at a much cheaper price. Taking Shane at his word, Joe refuses to buy the cultivator at Ledyard’s inflated price. The incident begins a long-lasting friendship between Shane and Joe. Ledyard huffily leaves, and soon afterward Shane picks up an ax and starts to hack at the stubborn stump. Joe picks up a second ax, and the two men cement their friendship by working together the entire day to uproot the old stump.
As Shane prepares to leave the next day, Joe tells him of the current land disputes between homesteaders, such as himself, and Luke Fletcher, a large rancher who grazes his cattle on public land. Noting that his previous farmhand left town after a brawl with Fletcher’s men, Joe asks Shane to help him for the summer. Shane agrees.
Tensions between Fletcher and the homesteaders mount toward the end of the summer, when Fletcher obtains a beef contract and insists on his right to graze his cattle on the homesteaders’ land. He offers to buy their farms, but the homesteaders, several of whom now own their land, decide not to sell. Shane comes to represent the homesteaders’ resistance, and the group rallies around Joe Starrett, their reluctant leader.
One day, as Shane sits in the town saloon, one of Luke Fletcher’s cowboys insults him and challenges him to a fight. Shane realizes that Chris, the young cowboy, is only acting on Fletcher’s orders, and he leaves the saloon in order to avoid fighting. Both sides misinterpret Shane’s reaction. Convinced that Shane does not have the stomach for a fight, Fletcher and his men begin to harass and insult the farmers with greater frequency, and the farmers soon resent Shane. Their resentment forces him to return to the saloon to face Chris. Shane demonstrates his deadly prowess by breaking Chris’s arm and knocking him out cold in approximately thirty seconds.
Although Shane’s quick disposal of Fletcher’s henchman brings temporary peace to the valley, violence soon flares again. Five of Fletcher’s men attack Shane at the saloon. The din of the pitched battle attracts Joe, who helps Shane win the brawl. The victory, however, only further angers Fletcher, who realizes that none of his men can beat Shane. Fletcher finally hires Stark Wilson, a gunslinger with a murderous reputation, to intimidate and even kill the homesteaders if necessary.
Eventually Wilson and Fletcher arrive at the Starrett farm. Fletcher offers to buy Joe’s farm and hire him on at his ranch, stating that he will wait for Joe’s answer at the saloon. Shane recognizes that if Joe refuses the offer, Fletcher and Wilson may kill him. Shane subsequently knocks Joe out and goes in his stead to meet Wilson and Fletcher.
The climax of the novel is a classic gunfight. Wilson accepts Shane’s challenge to a duel in the saloon. When the smoke clears, Wilson is dead and Shane is wounded. Fletcher shoots at Shane from a hiding place on the balcony, but misses. Shane promptly kills him too. He then leaves the saloon, remarking to the stunned crowd that “I’ll be riding on now. And there’s not one of you that will follow” (Shane, p. 112). Young Bob, who witnessed the whole scene, realizes that Shane is badly hurt and runs after him. But Shane simply and gently says good-bye, and rides off.
Jack Schaefer worked as a journalist and edited a small magazine when he wrote Shane in 1945 and 1946. He often relaxed by reading American history as well as writing short stories. Schaefer noted, “I was getting books to review, and I was happiest and felt most at home west of the Mississippi River. Out here it is so neglected—one of the greatest periods in history, neglected by historians and writers alike. … I was not reading Westerns then. I read history” (Schaefer in Nuwer, p. 278). Schaefer decided to write a basic legend about the West. The characters are fictitious and little information is available about their possible origins. Shane, however, is similar in character to Schaefer’s father, and may have been based on him.
Westerns and pulp literature
During the early 1900s, popular fiction became widely available to the reading public in the form of cheap fiction magazines, commonly known as pulp magazines. In 1896 Frank Munsey established his magazine Argosy as one that would carry only adult fiction. Printed on wood-pulp paper, the magazine sold for a dime on the newsstands and ushered in the era of pulp fiction. Generally, pulps were slick-covered magazines that contained illustrations. Their stories were often sensational, exploiting themes of sex and violence. Detective stories and Westerns quickly became standard pulp fare in the early 1900s, while later pulps developed the genres of romance, horror, fantasy, and science fiction.
The popularity of pulps declined rapidly after World War II, when paperbacks emerged as a cheap alternative to hard-bound books. In 1945 Argosy changed into an adventure magazine, but it continued to publish books in traditional pulp genres such as the Western. Shane was originally published in Argosy in 1946 as a three-part serial called Rider from Nowhere. Argosy marketed Rider from Nowhere as a pulp Western, using traditional pulp illustrations and captions designed to sell magazines and capture the reader’s attention. Shane was released as a hardback in 1949 and maintained a prominent place in Western literature thereafter.
Although Shane has been translated into over thirty languages and more than seventy editions have been published, it has never been classified as a bestseller. Yet the novel has continually received praise when reviewed. Over the years many authors and critics have cited Shane as one of the best representatives of the Western genre. In 1985 the Western Writers Association voted Shane one of a handful of the most important Westerns of all time. The comments of Al Chase of the Chicago Sunday Times, writing in 1949, typify reaction to Schaefer’s novel:
Altho ‘Shane’ is not another ‘Virginian,’ it has the same quality, dignity and appeal which made Owen Wister’s famous novel of years ago read by people who scoffed at ‘Westerns.’ It’s a tragic, taut little tale of a grim, unforgettable, mysterious and at times sinister figure of a man.
(Chase in Jones, p. 813)
World War II constituted a time of great uncertainty and change for many Americans. Not surprisingly, at the end of the war Americans renewed their focus on home and family, values that permeated the late 1940s and 1950s. People emphasized materialism and consumerism as well as social and familial stability. The age at which the average woman married dropped nearly a full year, from twenty-one to twenty. Between 1940 and 1960 the birthrate rose rapidly, creating the baby-boom generation. Advertisers and other shapers of popular culture cultivated the image of the housewife, and public figures extolled the virtues of motherhood and the importance of a woman’s devotion to house and home. Jack Schaefer’s Marian Starrett character seems to directly reflect the domestic emphasis of this period. Marian’s chief occupation and first love is cooking, an activity that keeps her close to home.
Despite the emphasis on domestic roles, however, greater numbers of older married women began to enter the labor force in the post-World War II period. By 1950 the number of American wives working outside the home had risen to 21 percent. Unlike the mavericks on the 1880s frontier, however, most of these working women stepped into jobs considered appropriate for females, securing employment as garment workers, salespersons, teachers, or nurses.
Jones, Mertice M., Dorothy Brown, and Gladys M. Dunn, eds. The Book Review Digest. Vol. 45. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1950.
Larson, T. A. Wyoming: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.
Myres, Sandra L. Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
Nuwer, Henry Joseph. “An Interview with Jack Schaefer: May 1972.” In Shane: The Critical Edition. Edited by James C. Work. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Shaefer, Jack. Shane: The Critical Edition. Edited by James C. Work. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Trachtman, Paul. The Gunfighters. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.
Director: George Stevens
Production: Paramount Pictures; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 118 minutes. Released 1953. Oscar for Best Cinematography-Color, 1953.
Producer: George Stevens; associate producer: Ivan Moffat; screenplay: A. B. Guthrie, Jr. with additional dialogue by Jack Sher, from the novel by Jack Schaefer; photography: Loyal Griggs; editors: William Hornbeck and Tom McAdoo; sound recordists: Harry Lindgran and Gene Garwin; art directors: Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler; music score: Victor Young; special effects: Gordon Jennings; costume designer: Edith Head; technical adviser: Joe DeYong.
Cast: Alan Ladd (Shane); Jean Arthur (Marion Starrett); Van Heflin (Joe Starrett); Brandon de Wilde (Joey); Jack Palance (Wilson); Ben Johnson (Chris); Edgar Buchanan (Lewis); Emile Meyer (Ryker); Elisha Cook Jr. (Torrey); Douglas Spencer (Shipstead); John Dierkes (Morgan); Ellen Corby (Mrs. Torrey); Paul McVey (Grafton); John Miller (Atkey); Edith Evanson (Mrs. Shipstead); Leonard Strong (Wright); Ray Spiker (Johnson); Janice Carroll (Susan Lewis); Martin Mason (Howell); Helen Brown (Mrs. Lewis); Nancy Kulp (Mrs. Howell); Howard J. Negley (Pete); Beverly Washburn (Ruth Lewis); George Lewis (Ryker man); Charles Quirk (Clerk); Jack Sterling, Henry Wills, Rex Moore, and Ewing Brown (Ryker men).
Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson, The Western: FromSilents to Cinerama, New York, 1962.
Babcock, David, The Hero, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1968.
Everson, William K., A Pictoral History of the Western Film, New York, 1969.
Richie, Donald, George Stevens: An American Romantic, New York, 1970, 1985.
Bazin, Andre, What Is Cinema? 2, edited by Hugh Gray, Berkeley, 1971.
Cawelti, John, The Six-Gun Mystique, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1971.
Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson, The Western: FromSilents to the 70s, New York, 1973.
French, Philip, Westerns—Aspects of a Movie Genre, New York, 1973.
Phillips, Gene D., The Movie Makers: Artists in the Industry, Chicago, 1973.
Nachbar, Jack, editor, Focus on the Western, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1974.
Parish, James, and Michael Pitts, The Great Western Pictures, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1976.
Henry, Marilyn, and Ron De Sourdis, The Films of Alan Ladd, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1981.
Petri, Bruce, A Theory of American Film: The Films and Techniquesof George Stevens, New York, 1987.
Stern, Nina, in Films in Review (New York), April 1953.
Luft, H. G., "George Stevens," in Films in Review (New York), April 1953.
Time (New York), 13 April 1953.
Martin, B., in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 8 August 1953.
Houston, Penelope, "Shane and George Stevens," in Sight andSound (London), Fall 1953.
Archer, Eugene, "George Stevens and the American Dream," in Film Culture (New York), no. 11, 1957.
Stang, Joanne, "Hollywood Romantic—A Monograph of George Stevens," in Films and Filming (New York), July 1959.
Warshow, Robert, "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner," in The Immediate Experience, New York, 1962.
Roman, Robert C., "Alan Ladd," in Films in Review (New York), April 1964.
"Viewing Report of Shane," in Screen Education (London), September-October 1964.
McVay, Douglas, "George Stevens—His Work," in Films andFilming (London), April 1965 and May 1965.
Silke, James R., in Cinema (Beverly Hills), December-January 1965,
Stanbrook, Alan, "The Return of Shane," in Films and Filming (London), May 1966.
Vermilye, Jerry, "Jean Arthur," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1966.
"Stevens Issue" of Dialogue on Film (Washington, D.C.), no. 1, 1972.
Albright Jr., Charles, in Magill's Survey of Cinema 4, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.
Miller, G., "Shane Redux: The Shootist and the Western Dilemma," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1983.
Desser, D., "Kurosawa's Easternd 'Western'," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Fall 1983.
Dominicus, M., and S. Daney, in Skrien (Amsterdam), November-December 1985.
Zizek, S., "Looking Awry," in October (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Fall 1989.
Ronald, A., "Shane's Pale Ghost," in New Orleans Review, no. 3, 1990.
Holtsmark, E. B., "The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema," in Bucknell Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 1991.
Reid's Film Index, no. 12, 1993.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), vol. 279, no. 3648, 4 December 1993.
Berthomieu, Pierre, "L'homme des vallées perdues: Le passage du cavalier," in Positif (Paris), no. 397, March 1994.
Flora, J. M., "Shane (Novel and Film) at Century's End," in Journalof American Culture, vol. 19, no. 1, 1996.
Cieutat, M., "'L'homme des vallees perdues' ou le western retrouve," in Cinemaction (Conde-sur-Noireau), vol. 86, no. 1, 1998.
Nichols, Peter M., "Restoring What Time, and Editors, Took Away: Renovated Film Classics Find Their Way Back Onto Big Screens and Video, Often In Version Never Seen Before," in The NewYork Times, vol. 147, section 2, AR28, 17 May 1998.
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Narrative films can be generally categorized into those that are motivated by plot and those that are motivated by character. Many American films are often cited as belonging to the former category, particularly in comparison to some of the European films. Shane is pure plot and pure American. The characters, rather than autonomous individuals, are functions of the plot and move through their respective roles with the assurance of legend. They possess no depth or dimension beyond the surface; they are always and exactly what they seem to be. And, ironically, this is their strength and the strength of the film.
The plot of Shane is a masterpiece of simplicity. The Indian Wars have been fought and won. The homesteaders have settled in to farm the land, threatening the open range of the ranchers. The law is a three-day ride from the community, and the tenuous co-existence waits for eruption into "gunsmoke." The ranchers, led by the Ryker brothers, try to intimidate the homesteaders in an effort to force them out of the valley, but the homesteaders are held together by the determination of a single man, Joe Starrett, who wants to build a life on the land for his wife Marion and young son Joey. Into this tension rides Shane, a stranger who is befriended by the Starretts. A gunfighter by profession, Shane tries to renounce his former trade and join the community of homesteaders. As the tension increases, another gunfighter is recruited to bait and kill the helpless homesteaders. When Starrett is left with no alternative but to meet the hired gunfighter, it is obvious that only Shane is a match for the final shootout. He overpowers Starrett and rides into town where he kills the gunman and the Rykers. Now that the valley is safe, Shane bids farewell to Joey and rides off into the distant mountains.
Of all American genres, the Western is arguably the most durable. The Western has tended to document not the history of the West but those cultural values that have become cherished foundations of our national identity. The Western certifies our ideals of individualism, initiative, independence, persistence and dignity. It also displays some of our less admirable traits of lawlessness, violence and racism. Possibly more than any previous American film, Shane tries to encapsulate the cultural ethos of the Western.
Rather than avoiding the clichés, platitudes and stereotypes of the genre, Shane pursues and embraces them. With the exception of a saloon girl and an Indian attack, all of the ingredients of the typical Western are present: the wide open spaces, the ranchers feuding with the farmers, the homesteading family trying to build a life, the rival gunman, the absence of law, the survival of the fastest gun, even the mandatory shoulder wound. Embodying as it does the look and feel of the Western, Shane becomes an essential rarity; it not only preserves but honors our belief in our heritage.
As myth, it is appropriate that Shane is seen through the eyes of a small boy. Joey is the first to see Shane ride into the community, more than the others he perceives the inner strength of the man, and he's the only one to bid Shane farewell as he leaves the valley. As both the child's idolization of an adult and the creative treatment of a myth, Shane is not a story of the West; it is, rather, the West as we believe it to have been.
Everything in the film favors its treatment of the myth. Alan Ladd—with his golden hair, his soft voice, his modest manner—is more the Olympian god than the rugged frontiersman or the outcast gunfighter. He rides down from the distant mountains and into lives of a settlement in need of his special talents. A stranger who doesn't belong and can never be accepted, he is a man without a past and without a future. He exists only for the moment of confrontation; and once that moment has passed, he has no place in the community. Even the way in which his movements are choreographed and photographed seem mythic—when riding into town for the final shootout, for example, the low angle tracking of the camera, the gait of his horse, the pulsing of the music with its heroic, lonely tones and the vast, panoramic landscapes all contribute to the classical dimensions of the film.
Shane is the generic loner who belongs to no one and no place. He possesses capability, integrity, restraint; yet there is a sense of despair and tragedy about him. Shane is that most characteristic of American anachronisms, the man who exists on the fringe of an advancing civilization. His background and profession place him on the periphery of law and society. The same skills as a warrior that make him essential to the survival of the community also make him suspect and even dangerous to that same community. In the tradition of William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Shane is the embodiment of the Western hero.
Shane is a reluctant mediator. There is a moral guilt about his profession that he carries with him as clearly as his buckskins. He wants to lay aside the violence of his past, but like the Greek heroes, of which he is kin, fate will not allow him to alter what is destined for him. Although he conspicuously tries to avoid the kind of confrontations he is best prepared to face, he suffers humiliation in doing so which is mistaken for cowardice. Once again he must prove himself, as if serving as the defender of those weaker will atone for his past and his profession. Consequently, a paradox emerges; he is both necessary and a threat to the survival of the community. In the Starrett family, for example, he begins to be more important to Joey than his father and more attractive to Marion than her husband. If the community is to grow and prosper, it must do so without him. Once he has served his function, he has no place and must again move on.
Shane is a tapestry laced with contrasts. The gun and the ax, the horse and the land, the buckskins and the denims, the loner and the family. In the end, the ax (peace) replaces the gun (violence), the land (stability) replaces the horse (transience), the denims (work) replace the buckskins (wilderness), the family (future) replaces the loner (past).
The unheralded mythic god leaves and the community is safe. Good has triumphed over evil, the family has been preserved, all the guns have been silenced. And yet there is a sense of loss. We have admired and appreciated Shane, but he exists for a single purpose and a single moment. When he has departed, we know we're safer and better for his presence; but we also know that we are again vulnerable.
—Stephen E. Bowles
In 1945 Jack Schaefer, an editor and reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, wrote and published the story "Rider from Nowhere" in Argosy magazine. Houghton Mifflin released a revised and expanded version of the story as Shane in 1949. Based somewhat on the Johnson Courty War in Wyoming in the early 1890s, it was Schaefer's attempt to reduce the legend of the West to its basic components, and to elevate it to the level of Homeric mythology. It remains a simple tale of a mysterious stranger who descends into the valley in the midst of a conflict. Choosing sides, he removes his godly raiment to mingle with the common people. He crosses a body of water to challenge the enemy and then, after donning again his godly clothes, recrosses the body of water to vanquish the enemy, before ascending from the valley into the night. The novel has sold over 6 million copies in over 80 editions in more than 30 languages. The resulting movie rendition remains the ultimate statement of the legend of the American West.
Young Bob Starrett watched the lone rider make his way slowly across the valley toward the cluster of small farms. "Call me Shane," he said. He was from Arkansas. At 15 he had left his Arkansas home to wander. He did not say where. The Starretts, Joe Marion, and Little Bob, invited Shane to stay on with them as a farm hand. There was something about him, something mysterious and terrifying, but Joe Starrett sensed they had nothing to fear. "He's dangerous, all right … but not to us."
The West was changing. The frontier was gone. Homesteaders were fencing off the land in 80 and 160 acre lots. But the old ways die hard. The Fletcher Brothers, owners of the biggest ranch in the valley, had recently contracted with the Army to supply them with beef, and they needed the range land. This precipitated the conflict between the Fletchers and the farmers that led to several confrontations. Joe Starrett, the strongest willed of the farmers, became their leader, and Shane, sensing the danger of the growing tension, supported Starrett and the farmers.
In two preliminary bouts with the Fletcher cowhands, Shane humiliated them. The first was a fist fight with Chris, a man whom he admired, in which he broke the man's arm. In the second, a barroom brawl at Grafton's Saloon, Shane and Starrett soundly defeated a group of cowhands. In the days following the brawl, young Bob noticed a growing restlessness in Shane, a gradual loss of the serenity that had come over him after he hired on. Fletcher's response to the brawl was to call for a hired gun, Stark Wilson, to come to the valley as their enforcer. When Wilson instigated a face-off with Ernie Wright, and then killed him before Ernie could clear his holster, Shane knew that the conflict had gone far beyond what the farmers could manage. He decided that the time had come to act. "You seem to know about that kind of dirty business," said one of the farmers. "I do," responded Shane.
Fletcher arranged for a meeting with Joe Starrett. But Shane, knowing that it was a trap, knocked Joe unconscious and went to Grafton's alone, followed by Little Bob. Shane killed Wilson and Fletcher in a gun fight. Then he rode out of town, but not out of memory, as the stories of Shane were told and retold for years after in the valley.
The 1953 film version was produced and directed by George Stevens for Paramount. Alan Ladd played Shane, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur played Joe and Marion, and Brandan DeWilde played Little Joey Starrett. Jack Palance played Wilson and Emile Meyer and John Dierkas played the Ryker Brothers, Rube and Morgan.
In this beautifully filmed movie, the basic elements of Schaefer's story are presented as a mythological tale set in the West. The simple American theme of good winning over evil, and the more complex themes of unstated love, the virtue of economic progress, and the inexorable progress of the order of civilization superseding the chaos of the frontier, are unfolded beneath the dominating peaks of the Grand Tetons.
A lone rider descends into the valley. As a stag bends down to drink from a stream and then raises his head, the rider is framed by the antlers as he comes on slowly toward Little Joey, who is watching him. The audience knows that this is no ordinary drifter. Where is he from? "Here and there." Where is he going? "Someplace I've never been." He learns of the conflict between the homesteaders and the Rykers, who own the largest cattle ranch in the valley. The Rykers want the range opened up and the fences torn down. They are standing in the way of progress. The old ways of open range ranching and cattle drives are inefficient in the face of feed lots and fenced off farming. Shane, in a melancholy surrender to changing times, sees his world coming to an end. The open range is gone. The presence of women and children in abundance requires the banishment of guns and the violent way of life in which he flourished. Reluctantly, he sheds the buckskins of the trail and adopts the drab homespun of the farmer and becomes Starrett's farm hand.
Marion, who watched him ride up, is immediately taken by this handsome Apollo who stands in stark contrast to her dull, dependable husband, Joe. Although she is committed to her family and the farm, she is in love with Shane, as he is with her. Their love, however, is unfulfilled passion, chivalric and pure. This upholds Shane's heroic stature and sets him apart from ordinary men. Little Joey is mesmerized by Shane and his obvious proficiency with guns. He loves his parents, seeks their advice and counsel, and obeys their directives. But he worships Shane. He is a fantasy hero, a little boy's dream.
In the confrontations with Ryker's men, Shane at first backs down. This makes some of the farmers question his dependability. To counter this, Shane picks a fight with Chris Calloway, the ranch hand who first challenged him. The fight turns into a brawl in which Joe and Shane defeat a large group of Ryker's men. Ryker, rebuffed angrily when he offers to hire Shane, responds by sending for Wilson, an evil gunfighter. Played by Palance as a morose, quiet spoken, calculating killer, he personifies evil. As he strolls into the darkened saloon, a dog gets up and walks away, adding an exclamation point to this evil presence. Wilson baits and then kills Torrey, one of the farmers. This prompts an attempt at negotiation between Starrett and Ryker, but Shane is worried that the confab is a set up, that Joe will be killed. Shane then knocks Joe unconscious and rides to meet Wilson at the Saloon. In a beautifully choreographed scene underlined by Gordon Willis' point-of-view photography, Shane kills Wilson and both Ryker brothers in a poetic replay of Wilson's murder of Torrey.
In keeping with the innocent-eye narrative of the novel, the film is presented from little Joey's point of view. Many of the scenes were filmed in low angle camera shots, as if the audience were viewing the action from Joey's level. This technique also solved the problem of photographing the short, 5-foot-5 Ladd in fight scenes with the much taller Heflin and Ben Johnson. The low camera angle makes Ladd look much taller. Joey is presented as an observer in most pivotal scenes, and as such, Ladd is filmed in a manner that depicts Shane as a god-like figure, looming over the action of the story.
Both the novel and the film succeed in transforming the Western legend into a pure and simple tale of the triumph of good over evil. Shane is presented as an incongruous hero, out of his element, in desperate search for a new existence. His world is ending. He tries farming, but he cannot change what is. He appears hopelessly out of place in the family scenes and in the burial scene. He is forced to revert to an existence he realizes cannot exist anymore. He is an ambiguous hero who desires to eliminate violence and killing from the valley, but he must kill to accomplish his objective. Then he must leave the valley. "There is no living with a killing," he tells Joey, "It's like a brand."
Shane's desperate struggle to escape his past thus ends tragically. In order to save the lifestyle he sought to embrace, he was forced to revert to his past life. "I tried it. It didn't work for me," he explains to Joey. As Shane rides off, Joey begs him to come back. "Shane, come back!" he yells into the night. It is a plaintive cry for a return of his lost innocence, of his fantasy hero, and of his hero's way of life. Before civilization came to the West, life was simple and predictable, pure and unambiguous. Personal honor and the law of the gun marked the difference between right and wrong. In the final analysis, Shane appeals to that nostalgic longing in urban society for a time long past when life's options remained open, where men were dominant, and where ethical gray areas did not exist. The invocation of a person's moral code was abrupt and final.
This is a towering, landmark Western film. It is the final statement of the legend of the West, reduced to its simplest components and elevated to the status of myth. Yet it is flawed. It is slow and pretentious; it is studied and self-conscious. It lacks spontaneity. At times, the understated dialogue and suggested themes of unfulfilled love, hero worship, male bonding, and the adherence to moral codes seem stagey and lacking in vitality. But these are trivial points. After Shane, the Hollywood Western became less and less viable as a genre and, except for The Searchers (1957), it remains unmatched in stature or influence by any later Western films.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nominated Shane for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing (screen adaptation by A.B. Guthrie). Brandon DeWilde and Jack Palance were both nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award. Loyal Griggs won an Oscar for his superb color photography. Shane was remade by Malpaso Productions in 1985 as Pale Rider, starring Clint Eastwood as a lonely preacher riding in to help a group of miners. It is a gritty film and in places almost a frame by frame clone of the original. It marked Eastwood's return to the Western genre after a nine year absence.
—James R. Belpedio
Hine, Robert V. The American West: An Interpretive History. 2nd edition. Boston, Little Brown, 1984.
Petri, Bruce Humleker. "A Theory of American Film: the Films and Techniques of George Stevens." Ph.D. dissertation. Harvard University, 1974.
Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier on Twentieth-Century America. New York, Athenaeum, 1992.
In 1953, George Stevens (1904–1975) directed the classic Western (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) Shane. The movie was a critical and popular success in its own time, but over the years its place in popular culture has grown even stronger. The film has an enduring ability to tap into Americans' nostalgia for a simpler, less complicated time, in which good and evil were black and white and the little folks could win out over the big guys.
The film's title character, played by Alan Ladd (1913–1964), is among the most symbolic of Western heroes. He is individualistic and self-sufficient, arriving alone and ultimately leaving alone. He is a friendly and well-mannered buckskinned gunslinger. He does not quite fit into society but is still able to walk the border between the wild and civilization. Although not a lawman, over the course of the film Shane becomes a force for moral justice who acts because the law cannot.
Shane was among the first of a new kind of Western that emerged in the 1950s, the "adult" or "psychological" Western. Simply put, these films concentrate on the psychological and moral conflicts of the hero and his relationship to society. Shane presents a dirty and unrelenting portrait of the harshness faced by settlers in the American West. This view is perhaps best highlighted by a scene in which the evil Wilson shoots down the inexperienced Torrey. Moviegoers heard Wilson's laughter and saw the overmatched Torrey falling dead face first in the mud. They could not help but think that this was a much more likely scenario for a gunfight than the cleaned-up versions of shootouts presented in earlier Westerns.
Shane wins out in the end, protecting the values of civilization against brutality, but he gets shot. As he rides off into the distance, viewers do not know whether he'll live or die. The young boy Joey Starrett cries out after him, "Shane, come back!" It is a mythic ending, but it is also tinged with tragedy. The self-sufficient and nonconformist Shane simply does not fit in the society he has helped to protect. Shane's departure signals the death of a part of America's collective past; like Joey, audiences are left hollow, lamenting his passing and longing for his return.
—Robert C. Sickels
For More Information
Countryman, Edward, and Evonne von Heussen-Countryman. BFI FilmClassics: Shane. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.
Hine, Robert V. The American West: An Interpretive History. 2nd ed. Boston: Little Brown, 1984.
Stevens, George, director. Shane (video). Hollywood: Paramount Home Video, 1979.
Shane ★★★★ 1953
A retired gunfighter, now a drifter, comes to the aid of a homestead family threatened by a land baron and his hired gun. Ladd is the mystery man who becomes the idol of the family's young son. Classic, flawless Western. Pulitzer prizewinning western novelist A.B. Guthrie Jr. adapted from the novel by Jack Schaefer. Long and stately; worth savoring. 117m/C VHS, DVD . Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon de Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, Elisha Cook Jr., Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer; D: George Stevens; W: Jack Sher; C: Loyal Griggs; M: Victor Young. Oscars '53: Color Cinematog.; AFI '98: Top 100; Natl. Bd. of Review '53: Director (Stevens), Natl. Film Reg. '93.