Monday, September 01, 2008

My Favorite Western


A while back, Frank W. James had a post up asking what was our favorite western? His is The Wild Bunch. While it is a movie that I enjoy, it isn't my favorite. That would be Shane.

Some time ago, I was watching Rear Window on television, and during the breaks the channel had a running commentary from Brent Spiner - Data on Star Trek The Next Generation. He commented on the opening shot and how it showed Hitchcock's mastery - there was a several minute sequence with absolutely no dialog, but we learned all kinds of information. It was a hot morning looking out at the rear of apartments across a plaza, the hero was a photographer for a national magazine injured getting a great shot of a race car crash, among other details. Spiner said that was a far more effective way of using film to tell a story rather than have someone narrate. That always stuck with me, and I look for that sort of thing in films I watch.

Now, I've never had any sort of film appreciation training, or any sort of higher education related to film making what so ever. But, I do notice certain things, and Shane was a pioneer in a lot of ways.

For instance, if and when you view the movie, watch the dogs. It seems there is a mutt somewhere in a scene, and it isn't accidental. When one of the homesteaders is buried, his dog is right there at the grave, whining at the death of his master. Joey's constant companion is a dog that helps convey emotions - particularly during the fight between Joe and Shane, when he breaks his leash to be with Joey. Most telling is the dog in the bar. When Jack Wilson, the gunfighter, first shows up at Grafton's, check out how the dog slinks away. We now know for sure Wilson is a bad guy, and we didn't have a bunch of dialog to explain it. The dog did that for us.

Another touch I "got" was the opening part of the clip above, right at the end. We see Shane, riding into town to meet his destiny. Joey and his mutt are chasing him, and he runs through the graveyard. The scene freezes on the tombstones - one with a big cross. The scene fades to Shane, his horse at a fast paced walk. Shane, death, and moving with a deliberate purpose, showing no fear. Again, no dialog.

Of course, the acting is superb. Apparently,
George Stevens originally cast Montgomery Clift as Shane, and William Holden as Joe Starrett. When both decided to do other films instead, the film nearly was abandoned before Stevens asked studio head Y. Frank Freeman who was available. Upon seeing a list of actors with current contracts, Stevens cast Alan Ladd, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur within 3 minutes.

Alan Ladd was too short (5'6"), Jean Arther was too old (over 50), and Van Heflin wasn't a big star. This was Arthur's last film. But, their performances and the supporting actors made this flick a classic. Jack Palance, the gunfighter, was a relative unknown. Dad told me men copied how he put his gloves on for years after the movie came out to show how tough they were. Ben Johnson, one of my favorite character actors and a longtime film companion to John Wayne, portrayed a young cowboy who saw the light. Edgar Buchanan (Uncle Joe in the Beverly Hillbillies/Petticoat Junction/Green Acres universe), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Icepick in Magnum PI), Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton), and even Nancy Kulp (Miss Jane on the Beverly Hillbillies) makes an appearance. Brandon De Wilde, who died far too young, plays the boy Joey.

It doesn't hurt that the story is pretty good, too. A gunfighter looking to escape his past ends up at the Starrett place and finds a home, helping on the burgeoning farm. He puts his gun away. He becomes the boy's hero, and there is an attraction between he and Marian, the wife and mother. He is also fast friends with Joe Sr., the man of the house and the leader of the collection of homesteaders. But, the local cattle baron - Riker - wants them gone. He needs unfettered access to the river to water his cattle. The "squatters" have fenced him out, their farms with barbed wire shutting off his cattle. The cattleman's point of view is presented somewhat sympathetically as well - Riker makes a valid case. But he crosses the line when he hires a gunfighter to run the homesteaders out of the valley. This part of the plot is reminiscent of the Johnson County War in Wyoming. There is a great scene where Shane and Joe fight the Riker boys at Grafton's, bonding as friends and destroying some furniture in a classic battle. There are some great lines as well - Shane shows Joey how to shoot, and Marian objected, not appreciating Shane glorifying guns to Joey:

A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.

The movie is a gradual slide into requiring Shane to strap on his gun again. Riker wants to eliminate Starrett, because he correctly determines he is the glue that holds the homesteaders together. Shane knows Starrett will die if he confronts Riker and his hired gun. Shane, with his innate sense of "all that is right and good," knows the job has to fall with him. It means a fight with Joe, who won't let Shane fight his battles. Shane has to fight "dirty" to win against the larger and stronger Starrett.

So, we find ourselves at the beginning of the clip above, Shane on his way to meet his destiny. Shane conquers all, but is wounded. There is some debate on whether Shane lives or dies - I'd like to think he lived. The story was deliberately vague. You think what you want here.

Also, the most famous lines were uttered by Brandon De Wilde, when he calls to Shane: Shane, come back! Mother always cried when she watched this movie at this point.

So, while I am a total John Wayne westerns fan, and really like a bunch of the "classics," Shane will always be at the top of my list.


Jerry in Texas said...

I'm embarrassed to say, I've never seen Shane. Except for the ending which is one of those classic endings. I actually think I may have it on VHS. I had "free" cable back in the day and taped a bunch of stuff and never watched them.

I'll have to see Shane now. Thanks for the film critique.

Dad Bones said...

Now that's a western! Hope I get a chance to see it again some day.

Earl said...

I must be a true believer, I have my copy of Shane, and view it once a year at least - and I always think I am Shane - except I got lucky and didn't have to ride off after wiping out the bad guys in real life - but then I always had that sad feeling about having to wipe them out, and knowing that the nice people don't really want that kind of a killer sitting next to them at a dinner table. It is a great read, too.