Like all the best mythical heroes, Shane has only one name, and it’s no coincidence that Jack Schaefer, the author of the novel Shane, studied Greek and Latin literature in college. I’ve read that the movie is routinely used in classics courses, to make the lessons of great epics such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid accessible to undergraduates. Achilles, the hero archetype of Homeric legend, is isolated, set apart by his divine origins. Too perfect for the ordinary world.
“It turns out to be the same for Shane as for Achilles,” Carl A. Rubino tells his students at Hamilton College. “Just as the Greeks need Achilles, Shane’s potent presence and help are necessary if his newfound comrades are to survive the deadly violence represented by the ranchers, whose unbounded and increasingly obsolete way of life they threaten.” Shane too is a loner, unfit by his very nature to rejoin the society of the Wyoming homesteaders after he has killed. “A man is what he is, Bob (the name of the kid in the novel), and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost.”
Schaefer originally published Shane in 1946 as a three-part serial (originally titled “Rider from Nowhere”) in Argosy, a pulp magazine that specialized in tales of adventure: crime, science fiction, Westerns, and, in its early days, romance. Tarzan, Zorro, Fu Manchu and even Dr. Kildare first appeared in its pages.
1946. The year is significant. American GIs have returned from the war and are doing their best to reenter civilian life. The Good War is over, the Allies have won, and the world is once again safe for democracy. But demobilization has brought its own share of problems. The same postwar malaise that was revealed in noir films of the era has crept into the Western. Shane (1953) is not as dark as The Searchers (1956), but its moral message is more ambiguous than the pre-war Western’s. Jack Palance’s hired gun may be truly bad, but Shane is complicated, unknowable.
He cannot get beyond his violent past, the reflexes that make him jumpy, mistrustful. We wait for the final confrontation, when he can kill righteously, save the town. Then we watch him leave. Sure, he’s a legend, but his type is not suited to the day-to-day. Watch him ride off alone.
Shane, Shane. Don’t come back.
3 thoughts on “Shane”
I didn’t know that the story of Shane began in Argosy or that the movie is used to teach ancient epics. I can see the comparison with Achilles now that you’ve pointed it out, though.
Fascinating, what you can learn from a Google search. I’m actually intending to use the parallels with heroic Greek epics in the next Cara Walden mystery. Imagine, if you will, a Vietnamese character who was educated in the French lycée system, imbibing the classics, and then ended up at university in Paris in the mid-1950s, where he fell in love with American Westerns, skipping class to watch great films like Shane.
I like your idea. By the way, your comment reminds me indirectly that Ho Chi Minh was at the Versailles peace talks in 1919, as part of a group seeking to eliminate French colonial rule in Vietnam. When I heard that, in some TV documentary or other, it threw into doubt all the Western interventions in the country.
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