Darwin's Film Club: Shane

Darwin's Film Club: Shane

It was on again the other day. I started watching idly from the scene where Shane first enters the bar, only to have whiskey thrown on his shirt by Calloway. Nice shirt, by the way!

I was really only watching because of the peculiar mechanics of the scene. Ladd was famously short. Though there is much debate about the specifics, estimates come in around 5' 6" (max.) but he was probably more like 5' 4" I'd say.

Thus his fellow actors were often instructed to walk in trenches to make Ladd seem more impressive. Watching the scene in Grafton's Mercantile with this in mind, it seems like a balancing act as Ladd negotiates his way either around pits or over planks to appear taller.

Unsurprisingly, I soon forgot about the stilt-walking, and became engrossed in the plot. If you haven't seen 'Shane' by now, you've missed a real treat. It's an iconic Western fable, groundbreaking in it's day, with many levels of serious metaphor to argue over.

The role of violence in society; the journey to manhood; the destruction and recasting of father figures; colonialism and the U.S. constitution; lawlessness vs. society; America as global police force; the birth of the Modern Age, and the closing of the Frontier; to name but a few.

Great stuff, eh!

It also marks the pivot point where John Ford and John Wayne were moving from the (excellent but) more one-dimensional plots of Rio Grande and Stagecoach, to multi-layered scripts like The Searchers and Liberty Valance. Director George Stevens, though he owes much to Ford, appears to stolen a march on them here.

In contrast to Eastwood's The Man with No Name, there is no doubt about the nomenclature of hero here. The name Shane is said 86 times in the course of 118 minutes, that's about once every 1 minute and 20 seconds. [Screenplay] What a big head! This continuous reiteration may also account for the number of people christened Shane in the 1950's.

The wife of Shane's employer Starrett is immediately attracted to his quiet intensity, and finds herself drawn to his dangerous masculine nature. It is suggested many times that they are having an affair, though it's unlikely.

Ryker: I could use a man like you.
Shane: I'm working for Starrett.
Ryker: You don't belong on the end of a shovel. Anything to stop you drawin' your time?
Shane: I like working for Starrett.
Ryker: Whatever he's paying, I'll double.
Shane: It's no use.
Ryker: What are you looking for?
Shane: Nothing.
Ryker: Pretty wife, Starrett's got…
Shane: You dirty old man!

And later Starrett himself makes it clear that he recognizes their attraction.

Starrett: I know I'm kinda slow sometimes, but I see things…
And I know if anything happened to me that you'd be took care of.
You'd be took care of, better than I could do it myself.
I never thought I'd live to hear myself say that, but…
I guess now's a pretty good time to lay things bare.

Starrett's wife Marian is played by Jean Arthur, a silent film star, who was by then 50; a full ten years older than both Shane and the aforementioned 'dirty old man' Ryker. She certainly doesn't look it.

This age difference is made all the more confusing when Ryker exclaims:

Ryker: When I came to this country, you weren't much older than your boy. We had rough times. Me and other men that are mostly dead now. I got a bad shoulder yet from a Cheyenne arrowhead. We made this country, we found it and we made it, with blood and empty bellies. Cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers. They don't bother you much any more because we handled 'em. We made a safe range out of this. Some of us died doing it, but we made it. Then people move in who never had to raw-hide it through the old days.

The old days? Jean Arthur was around ten years before Ryker!

Finally, it may be of interest to our Polish readers to learn that the artist Wojciech Wenzel designed an entirely different poster for the film, intended to appeal to the Eastern European tastes of the time. (Remind you of Worker and Parasite at all?) Can someone translate.