There’s a reason it’s considered a classic…
First off I wanted to again take a moment to thank everyone who voted in last week’s poll. I did my best to hold back my own opinions until the results were in, so as not to influence anyone, but it looks like the majority shared them: the zombie background won out, and several of you who voted for it stated reasons in line with my thinking on why. New poll is up this week letting that cover compete with two other alternates Dawn put together, so check it out!
Now that said, I put another notch in my western viewin’ gunbelt recently, and it’s a big one; name of “Shane“. If you start delving into the western genre in cinema in any depth, you run across that name, held up time and time again as an archetype, a movie that has inspired countless others.
Now I’m not the type to go watch a film and call it a classic just because it was labeled as such. Probably because, for me, “classic” when applied to a film means I better feel it was good and timelessly relevant, not just old. This means I can get very subjective about my viewings of old movies. For every “Casablanca” (which was every bit as good to me as its hype), there are other films like “Gone With The Wind” where I end up checking my watch (frankly, my dear, after two hours I didn’t give a damn); or “Support Your Local Sheriff”, which despite having James Garner in the lead I didn’t feel was either all that funny or all that great.
This is not meant to run down anyone who likes movies I don’t, just basically what I’m getting at here is that I’m picky about this stuff: and at about the two-thirds mark of Shane’s runtime, I breathlessly declared out loud, “I love this movie.” If you’ve seen it or plan to see it, it was right at the close of the scene where Ryker has come out to Starrett’s homestead for a last attempt at negotiation, also allowing Shane and Jack Wilson to meet each other for the first time. There are two choices here that floored me with both their presence and how well they were done:
– First, that the dueling philosophies of the old rancher and the upstart homesteader are given an equal footing, to where you are allowed to see and even perhaps empathize with where the “villain” of the movie is coming from. So many movies would be content to simply paint the antagonist as greedy or otherwise sinful and simply leave it at that, that they oppose the protagonist because they are bad. There is arguably a sincere gesture of good faith given, a compromise offered to avoid bloodshed that’s so tempting it leaves you and Starrett both in hesitation, wondering which path should be taken. Keep in mind, this is a movie made in 1953, an era of America that we of the cynical modern age like to think was full of uncomplicated, Us vs. Them attitudes. Here I was again, like with “The Searchers”, being proven dead wrong in my naive thoughts that westerns prior to “Unforgiven” were free of grey areas.
– Second, while Ryker and Starrett are negotiating, Shane and Jack Wilson, the proverbial two sides of the same gunslinger coin, size each other up in a way that’s completely casual, subtle, and silent, and yet brings to mind nothing less than circling attack dogs. There’s none of the posturing that you might expect (and that goes on in other scenes in the film), no words exchanged, but just the act of getting a drink from a water barrel becomes supercharged.
Basically, two scenes are going on at the same time, both of which would have been fantastic on their own, except they also mesh together perfectly.
So simple, Shane is, and yet so finely crafted. On the surface, Shane is the movie that established the myth of the mysterious stranger who comes from nowhere to assist a community against oppression, then disappears once his job is done. That’s the legacy everyone remembers and has homaged down through the decades, to the point where Dawn started to watch and commented, “Wow, I think ‘Vampire Hunter D’ ripped off this plot.” Homaged, my dear, I corrected. Homaged. I mean, so many hundreds of others have used the basic structure of Shane that for all we know Vampire Hunter D thought it was referencing “Yojimbo”, or “High Plains Drifter”, or… well, you get the idea.
I’m not even 100% sure that Shane was the first of its kind, but the consensus seems to be that it was. Frankly, even if it didn’t inspire such a legacy, for me Shane is a movie that stands on its own merits as a fine piece of cinematic storytelling. It’s interesting to read through some of the reviews that have been penned regarding it and find people who I feel are either reading too little into the characters or are reading too much into them, but I suppose that’s a byproduct of another of Shane’s strengths, an art largely lost in modern filmmaking: that not everything needs to be explained. Shane and Jack Wilson have been criticized for being ciphers, a symbolic white hat and black hat with no backstories and nothing to connect them to humanity. I argue that they do have backstories, but they don’t need to talk about them and we don’t need to know them, any more than we need to go into the motives and pasts of the homesteaders and cowboys. We get all that we need, and no more than we need.
Well, except perhaps for Ryker getting to speak his piece and put us all on an uncomfortable moral footing that only a stranger who feels he’s already lost his soul can resolve.
This movie is fantastic. The cinematography, the use of scenery and environment to externalize the internal, the slow-burn, realistic escalation of violence between stubborn people with clear motivations… it’s a very mature, artfully told story wrapped in the veneer of a simple morality play. Often imitated. But rarely, if ever, duplicated.