Shane – Exploring a Hero

A man rides into a quiet little valley, possessing nothing but a six-shooter and a mysterious past. His name, we are told, is Shane. After being invited to dinner by a family of homesteaders, Shane is offered a job as a farmhand by the family patriarch: Joe Starrett. He accepts. Very quickly, the solitary figure becomes something of an idol to the little boy of the family, the young Joey Starrett. At the same time, Shane attracts the attention of Ryker, the tyrannical baron under whom the homesteaders struggle hopelessly.

The external characteristics of Shane seem to exude confidence and an almost mythic kind of perfection. He may be played by Alan Ladd, but in every other sense, Shane is larger than life. He seems to surpass all others in his physical beauty, in his talent and in his moral fortitude. It is in these ways that Shane exemplifies the flawless western hero. If one delves in a little further though, there is a fascinating conflict within his character. Throughout the film, we are slowly revealed the fundamental opposition between the light and the darkness within the eponymous hero.

The “light” of Shane, – his gentle goodness – is demonstrated from arguably the very first scene. During the opening title sequence, we see Shane ride through the countryside; he drifts across rolling hills and gentle streams and beautiful, unadulterated terrain as far as the eye can see. As we watch, a charming tune soars, accompanying Shane on his journey. Stevens creates such an atmosphere of good-natured serenity around our hero that we associate these wonderful characteristics with the Shane immediately, before even having really met the man himself.

As for the darker side of Shane, it is conveyed just as effectively, albeit slower and much more subtly. An ominous glance casted here, a few unsettling words mumbled there – nothing however is ever explicitly revealed until relatively late into the film. This brings us to one of the most thrilling scenes of Shane: the gun demonstration – the first time in the whole film that a shot is fired. Although it has been tacitly communicated that Shane intended to hang up his holster for good, when cajoled by little Joey, he finally relents and teaches the young boy how to shoot. Shane asks the boy to pick a target for him; Joey tells him to take a shot at a little white rock. Before Joey and the audience know it, a most violent bang is ringing in our ears and gun smoke overflows across our screen. We cut quickly between a close-up of the boy in shock, then a mid shot of his equally startled mother, and afterwards return to the rock – blown into absolute oblivion. Finally, we cut back to Shane. His face says it all: Shane is reminded of a time when he fired to kill. Although his guilt is evident, his talent and instinct with a gun remind us nonetheless that he was once a killer. This identity, which both his nature and his fate has sculpted, is something from which he will never be able to escape.

Despite the fact that they are distinct and disparate,  Shane’s inherent personality and external fate lead to the same conclusion. It was fate that led Shane plains of Wyoming, and to the kindly family of homesteaders who so needed his support. It was Shane’s goodness that ironically led him back astray and forced him to reach for his gun. In order to ensure the ultimate peace for the valley, Shane had to rid the land of the relics of the Old West. To pave the way for a future of families and civilised communities, Shane had to do away with the old world of individuals drifting forever through wild country. By the end of the film, we realise with regret that Shane too, the lone gunslinger belonging to nowhere, is a relic of that very world.

After saving the valley, Shane must leave the family and the community which have grown to love him. He rides up through Cemetery Hill and into the mountains, having suffered a potentially fatal wound. Some contend that Shane does not survive, and that the film’s conclusion is one of tragedy.  Personally though, I see the ending of Shane as one of enormous hope. It is true that Shane is part of a dying breed, and it is true that he will never be able to assimilate into this new world, regardless of whether or not he lives. Nevertheless though, we must remember that the final image we are left with is not Shane riding off into a sunset but into a rising sun. Bittersweet though his fate may be, Shane leaves for future generations the promise of a new dawn.

9 Comments

  • This is a really insightful review! It’s been a while since I’ve seen that film and I forgot some of the details, but this makes me want to see it again.

  • Joe says:

    Lovely piece. I haven’t watched that film for years. Now I need to again.

  • beetleypete says:

    One of Mr Ladd’s better performances. It has been on Film 4 this week, by coincidence. Perhaps they read your review! Well done with the new site, I have signed up for e mail alerts.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Thank you Pete. I’m very glad to hear that you’ll be following on – your comments never fail to make me smile (this one being no exception!). Have a good day – Rachel

  • Joseph Nebus says:

    Yeah, it’s been far too long since I saw the movie. I felt a little when I first watched it like I was being let in on a secret, since Charles Schulz’s Peanuts made occasional references to it that I didn’t understand except in a most vague way.

  • What an absolutely superb review! The text weaves so effortlessly between the description of the movie visual and the underlying philosophical message to create a panoramic feast for the reader. So thank you, I loved it.

    Shakti

  • H. Park says:

    Hello. I am coming late to this discussion, but I would like to say that I very much enjoyed your review of “Shane”.

    However, I’ll disagree with you here for just a little bit.

    The film doesn’t actually end with young Joey calling the famous “Shane! Come back.” This is *almost* the end, but the film does go on a tiny bit longer.

    Pay attention to this final few seconds of the film.

    We see Shane riding into a cemetery – not the one where the murdered homesteader is buried (Cemetery Hill) – he did not ride towards this cemetery (which was a ways in front of the town) when he rode out of town. He rode away from the back of the town, in the opposite direction from the cemetery, towards the mountains.

    So this is cemetery as allegory: Everyone dies, when it is their time. It is Shane’s time.

    Again, in the final frames of the film, we see Shane riding towards the camera, into this cemetery, a bit slumped in the saddle – he is not looking forward, he is leaning in the saddle so that we can only see the top of his hat, looking down towards the ground.

    Just as an aside: as a long-time rider of horses, this is not (as has been suggested elsewhere) a typical posture in riding a horse uphill. This is the posture of a rider about to fall off.

    At just about the moment he rides by the camera we hear, very faintly on the soundtrack (it is very soft, difficult to hear, but is included even in the English subtitles) Joey’s voice, very softly: “Bye, Shane”. The rider is now miles away from Joey and the town, Shane could not possibly hear him.

    This soft “Bye Shane” symbolizes that Shane has died.

    The very last frames of the film (only a few seconds remain) then show Shane, past the pov (point of view) of the camera now, riding towards a very bright light that illuminates a whole section of the sky, where there should be no light (the setting is dark night, it is not dawn). No moon is visible.

    Allegory again: Shane’s bright spirit is ascending into the sky [heaven – this was 1953, after all].

    Then, at the very last of the film, we see Shane and his horse *descend*, going down *between the tombstones* until both are lost from view. Shane’s mortal body has been returned to the earth.

    Fade to black.

    Again, it is no accident that Mr. Stevens, an extremely careful filmmaker, included this final bit of footage in the film. Mr. Stevens spent nearly two years in editing and post-production on “Shane”. Anything included in the final cut of the film was not accidental, it was intentional.

    If the intention was to have Shane just “ride out of town” the film could have easily ended at Joey’s “Shane! Come back!”. But it does not end here, but continues to a true denoument.

    These last few seconds of the film are extremely moving, at least they are for me.

    What puzzles me is that no one seems to see this, and most reviewers seem to think the film ends with Joey calling “Shane! Come back!” Even clips around the web that purport to show the end of the film – clips on YouTube, for example – don’t include this final bit.

    So. Yes. If you watch the film all the way to the end, it is obvious that Shane dies.

    The conclusion is inescapable. Also very melancholy, and extremely sad.

    And just about perfect.

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