Sunday, 28 February 2010
Shane is another movie - a Western this time - that has a child at its heart whilst not actually being a story for children. The child in question is a boy called Joey who lives with his mother and father on a small homestead in Wyoming. Shane is a mysterious stranger who gets pulled into the increasingly violent conflict between the homesteaders and the local cattle baron. It makes brilliant use of the landscape and glows with the almost Renaissance blues and reds of Technicolour. It is directed by George Stevens.
Joey is captivated by the charismatic gunslinger Shane who also casts a rather different spell over Joey's mother (Jean Arthur). Joey's decent, hard-working but otherwise unremarkable father (Van Heflin) forms an uneasy friendship with Shane and the two men become opposing role models for the impressionable Joey.
The movie has many similarities to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another movie I watched with my son recently. Both movies feature a demonic bad man. In Liberty Valance, it is the psychotic Lee Marvin and his whip. In Shane it is the satanic black-clad and grinning Jack Palance. Both movies suggest that the days of the gunfighter (including Shane) belong to the past, with the additional world-weary message in Liberty Valance that politicians get the credit for the dirty work done by others. Both movies subscribe to the view that there comes a point when you must stand up to a bully - if not for your own sake, then for the sake of others. Both movies offer different models for what it means to be a man.
It is arguable that my generation of men - the generation that is on power in so many places - watched too many westerns in their youth. Perhaps that is where Tony Blair and George Bush developed their foreign policy. But I think good westerns - and Shane is one of those - are invariably more complicated and thoughtful than may appear at first sight.
Bravery is an interesting theme for one thing. Like The Magnificent Seven, it makes it clear that it is easier to be 'brave' when you have nothing to lose. Is Shane braver than Joey's father? No. Joey's father is prepared to fight even though he is ill-prepared and almost certain to lose. How brave is it to wear a gun wherever you go? There are different types of bravery - as Charles Bronson points out to the children he spanks in The Magnificent Seven for calling their fathers cowards. Sometimes it is brave not to fight. Sometimes it is brave to farm and raise a family.
There is a nostalgia for me in watching these movies. They remind me of Sunday afternoons with my dad when I was my son's age. The interesting thing about watching them now, is that I am aware that they ask quite a lot from the young viewer, particularly in regards to the relationships between men and women. In Liberty Valance it is Jimmy Stewart's decent, good-hearted Stoddard who gets the girl, but she still clearly loves the bluff John Wayne/Tom Doniphon character who did the actual cold-blooded shooting of Liberty Valance.
Tom Doniphon helps Stoddard even though he is losing the woman he had planned to marry. Shane helps Joey's father even though it is not his fight. He seems to crave a family to defend. He is a man with nothing and like the hired gunmen in The Magnificent Seven (or the samurai in The Seven Samurai from which it was adapted), the selflessness of the act gives his life some meaning.
The famous final scene still gets me, every time. Shane rides away with Joey shouting after him, begging him to stay. Brandon De Wilde is very good as Joey and there is such longing in those final moments. Shane has been shot - possibly fatally - and is riding away from the gunfight that Joey has witnessed. He tells Joey to take care of his parents and then simply rides off with Joey shouting after him.
'Pa's got things for you to do! And Mother wants you, I know she does.'
I love the ambiguity of 'Mother wants you'. The movie ends with Joey yelling 'Shane! Come back!' The Amazon review said: his parting scene with Shane is guaranteed to draw tears from even the most stony-hearted moviegoer. I looked at my son (choking back my usual sobs) and there was nothing.
Kids these days. . .