George Stevens’ film Shane presents itself in modern criticism as an artifact of an American bygone age. Upon it’s initial release it received acclaim amongst a sea of A-list and B-list westerns, and spoke to an America on the matter of its moral and social values.
The anti-thesis to this, something Norman Mailer was quite fond of pointing out at the time, is that the media of the early fifties, including Shane, worked only to aid the oppression of liberal creative expression in the arts. It was the age of the Red Scare, the fall of East Berlin, and the decline of the old Hollywood studio system. Perhaps no film illustrated these principals, these ideals of that time better than Shane.
In Shane, Alan Ladd is the archetypal hero of the western; blonde wavy hair, white cowboy hat, buffalo Bill costume, and shiny six-shooter. And Shane, like the American government at the time, rode out alone to save the good Christian white folk from a violent tyranny. The metaphors are almost painfully obvious, America is Shane, the settlers are those countries threatened by communism and the cattle baron Ryker (Emile Meyer) is the USSR. In turn the message of the allegory is equally as absurd, conservative and base. The “good guys” will win despite the odds if they can stick together and if one brave man can stand the test, which may just be Stalin’s iron curtain.
Shane does a hardy job of simplifying the political situation of the early fifties, but no more so than what will be able to reassure it’s American audience. The film is so conservative and American in its world view that it’s no wonder other westerns, the more cutting edge westerns like Man Of The West, were more widely popular outside Paramount’s’ domestic distribution.
As an artist writing about Shane, what becomes even more aesthetically troubling is that so much which is fundamental to good filmmaking has been neglected or compromised in favor of this veiled propaganda. Each character is given his or her own archetype, carefully crafted out of years of B-movies and audience conditioning. Then these watered down characters engage themselves in a story as old as the genre itself, doing little to re-invent the narrative, which Cimino did, graciously in abundance with Heaven’s Gate. What is then left in Shane is something not human or behavioral, but completely a product of a mythos. A mythos employed to aid the conservative American agenda of the early fifties.
One must also consider how dangerous a word “mythos” is to the Western movie genre. It speaks either to the deconstruction of the genre or an exercise in exhausted cliché. The former being more preferable in that it makes way for authenticity and narrative inventiveness, whilst the latter boycotts both in its very nature.
Fundamentally, Shane is more successful as a political film, inspired by a crusade for democracy, than as a Western genre film. Its success here does not merit it an engaging experience, since its views are two dimensional, run of the mill, and conservative. Consider in contrast a western like Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid. Ulzana’s Raid is a film whose very core is a critical analysis of American military policy in Vietnam. Whilst the story that contains this scrutiny is not that out of the ordinary, it does however serve up a multi-dimensional portrayal of the Apache tribe and the brigade dispatched to eliminate them. So the real question becomes why did it take some thirty years to interestingly portray the west as a political metaphor? Simple answer, the American public didn’t want anything in the fifties that Shane didn’t give them in its first ten minutes. Shane is a film made by and for a nation of sick and fearful people, afraid to question authority and take any kind of stand.
Ironic it then seems, that the American audience for whom Shane was catered is synonymous with their counterparts within the film, the settlers. It is these reasons that Shane is truly important, and deserves an analysis by anyone interested in this country’s heritage. Has one film ever so skillfully blended the contemporary political ideals with its own origin mythos before? Only Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible comes to mind.