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.