Shane

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.Shane3 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.

Shane still2

The Searchers

For Chris, Peter, Jim, and Max

Watching my dog forge her way through chest-high (to her) snow in our driveway this morning, I was reminded of the scene in The Searchers where John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, forces his horse down a snowy slope in New Mexico (actually Canada, I believe). searchers snowEthan’s adopted nephew, Martin, follows closely behind with the pack horse. He’s narrating this sequence, and we are soon made to share his horror as the pristine snow gives way to trampled ground and a scene of utter devastation.

The two men have come upon the aftermath of a U.S. calvary raid on a Comanche encampment. Dead horses, dead braves, burning teepees. Among the bodies they find is that of “Look,” a Comanche woman who’d taken a liking to Martin and offered herself to him in exchange for a hat. “What did those soldiers have to go and kill her for, Ethan? She never done nobody any harm.”

In fact, we were given the answer to this question just a few scenes earlier. Ethan goes berserk and starts killing buffalo—more meat than he and Martin need for themselves—knocking the younger man to the ground and stealing his rifle when his own ammunition runs out. “Least they won’t feed any Comanche this winter!” he says savagely.

We understand Ethan’s rage. His brother’s family was slaughtered by the Comanche, one niece raped and murdered, the other taken captive. He has no hope, really, of saving the girl: “They’ll keep her to raise as one of their own until . . . till she’s of an age to . . .”  And yet he and Martin will devote five years of their lives to finding her, sheerly for revenge. Ethan has nothing else to live for but vengeance.

Dealing with “savages” has reduced the Texas pioneers to their most primitive elements.  In the strong sun that bakes this barren landscape dry, only a strong hate like Ethan’s survives. Time and time again, his style of frontier justice wins out over the more civilized morality upheld by the settlers. Ethan’s brother’s family gathers around the dining room table, eating supper off of blue willow china. There he sits among them, tightly coiled, venting his racist fury on poor Martin, the baby he rescued after his (white) parents had been massacred by Indians.

“Hell, I could mistake you for a half-breed,” he says, and seems displeased when Martin confirms that he is an eighth Cherokee. One drop of Indian blood is all it takes to taint a white man, and any white woman of an age to . . .  is as good as dead.

The trailer for The Searchers plays up Wayne’s character’s courage, passion, tenderness, and love. This seems to be trading on Wayne’s reputation from earlier pictures. The decency of the character he played in Stagecoach, or his gentlemanly conduct in Sands of Iwo Jima toward a women forced by circumstances to sell her body after her baby’s father was killed.

searchers final shotI’d say John Ford was trading on Wayne’s reputation to encourage audiences in 1950s America to examine their own racial attitudes. In an often-imitated shot at the end of  the picture, Ethan is framed in a doorway, excluded from the warm domestic scene inside a settler’s home. His style of frontier justice is no longer needed and his values are revealed for the anachronism they are.