Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 24, October 2000

 

 

Bob Sitton

Refocusing the Western

 

 

 

Edward Countryman and Evonne von Heussen-Countryman

_Shane_

London, British Film Institute, 1999

ISBN 0-85170-732-7

78 pp.

 

The lamentably scarce attention paid George Stevens's most important film

receives a major corrective with the appearance of this slim volume in the

BFI Film Classics series, which sets out to honor 360 'key works in the

history of the cinema'. Edward Countryman, University Distinguished

Professor of History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Evonne

von Heussen-Countryman, a medical researcher and victim's rights advocate

in the United Kingdom, have admirably reviewed the available documentation

and literature on the film and sought the perspective of the filmmaker's

son and biographer, George Stevens, Jr. The result is a study that offers a

close reading of the film, informative details of its production, and a

multifaceted framework for its understanding.

 

The simplicity and power of _Shane_ (1953) stands like a totemic image in

need of interpretation. How could a film with so few characters -- filmed

in such a majestic yet spartan setting, weaving an uncomplicated narrative

through laconic dialogue -- nonetheless have such impact? It must be

because the dramatic foci of the film have deeply resonant meanings. The

narrative of the film is simple: a lone rider descends from the majestic

Grand Teton mountain range of Wyoming to a valley farmstead maintained

against great odds by a man, his wife, and small son. The rider seeks only

a drink of water, but soon is drawn into the lives of the family, for a

time sharing their status as persecuted farmers subjected to the bullying

of armed ranchers who covet their property. The rider, the eponymous Shane

(Alan Ladd), is a gunfighter who would relinquish his weapons if he had the

chance. Finding mutual magnetism with the golden-haired wife of the farmer

(Van Heflin), played by Jean Arthur, he lingers in their domestic world and

becomes a role model for their pre-pubescent son (Brandon De Wilde). In the

stresses caused by the ranchers' terroristic raids upon the settlers, and

those placed upon the family by the presence of such an alluring and

charismatic outsider, Stevens finds his theme of individuals buffeted by

personal and historic forces.

 

The Countrymans are at their best when setting forth the film's historical

context. They recognize that the West of the post-Civil War period was a

place in which control of property was everything. In this they pay not

unexpected homage to the Turner Thesis, the view of historian Frederick

Jackson Turner that upon the defeat of Native Americans the old frontier --

the nineteenth century romantic ideal of an Edenic paradise -- was defunct.

[1] What remained was an unseemly scrabble for control of property and the

presumably unlimited resources of the West.

 

The Countrymans also rightly point out that race is not an issue in the

film. They acknowledge Stevens's personal belief in civil rights, and

linger briefly on the possible relevance of the film to Martin Luther King,

and end up steering possibly too widely around another epochal

pronouncement (by W. E. B. DuBois in _The Souls of Black Folk_) that the

challenge to America in the twentieth century is the problem of the 'color

line'. Stevens's film is not about race, but it is about an inseparably

connected issue: the need for resolute communal resistance to evil. In this

the film also bears relevance to another film, inexplicably ignored by the

Countrymans: Fred Zinnemann's _High Noon_ (1952), produced one year before

the Stevens picture.

 

Stevens relentlessly pares away extraneous elements to focus intently on

matters that concern him, matters about which he is at times more sensitive

than articulate. For example, the possibility that the Shane character

might fit neatly into a mould of 'giant killers', turning the film into a

fairy tale rather than a drama, was cancelled by Stevens in the editing

process. Scenes in which the story of Jack the Giant Killer are read to

young De Wilde were dropped along with allusions to the absence of giants

in the contemporary world. (This did not deter critic Pauline Kael from

dismissing the film as a shallow medieval epic). Even a cursory reading of

the film reveals a motion picture with sets and cast so minimized as to be

reaching for something universal.

 

Detecting this essence gives the Countrymans their greatest challenge.

Seemingly trying to cover all their bets, they hang interpretive overlays

on just about every character and element of the film. The villainous

rancher Rufe Ryker suggests to them a 'pagan god', as evidenced by his use

of the expletive, 'By Jupiter!' They find his accent New Yorkish instead of

Bostonian. Victor Young's music, solidly in the tradition of elaborated

American folk music going back to Virgil Thomson, Ferde Grofe, and Darius

Milhaud, is heard by them as 'Wagnerian'. Even before we learn of their

identities, the Heflin-Arthur-De Wilde trio appear to the Countrymans to

'carry an overtone of the Christian Holy Family' (14) (they do not,

however, explore the possibility that Shane might be a Christ-figure, which

is some ways he is).

 

Such metaphors need not be blocked, as the old _The New Yorker_ might have

put it, given that they are offered as speculations by the authors and are

quite innocuous, although a reader seeking for the gist of the Countrymans'

interpretation can be led down some unproductive paths. The sheer number of

interpretations do, however, betray a reverence for Stevens that misses,

somewhat, his true achievement as a director and credits him for things he

did not achieve alone.

 

Although George Stevens was not, as one might conclude from the

Countrymans' book, single-handedly responsible for the film's austerely

beautiful cinematography (Loyal Griggs won an Oscar for it, as the book

mentions but does not elaborate). Undoubtedly, 'Stevens paid great

attention to the costumes on the film' (34) and may have vetoed Van

Heflin's request to wear an expensive Abercrombie and Fitch shirt as part

of his costume, but nowhere in the book is the name of costumer Edith Head

even mentioned. Likewise, the total mise en scene of frontier austerity so

marvellously achieved by the film must have owed some debt to the art

direction of Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler.

 

Such omissions, however well-intentioned, fail to recognize one of

Stevens's most admirable traits: his distinguished career as a

producer-director, marked by an uncanny ability to select and work well

with talented collaborators who could help him realize his purposes.

Stevens produced all but one of his own films between 1938 and 1965 (he

co-produced _Giant_). His genius lay not in hang-loose improvisation but in

a clear understanding of what he wanted to achieve, combined with a

dedication to work and re-work his films in post-production with a

thoroughness bordering on the obsessive.

 

I don't believe this is news to the Countrymans. I think in their effort to

honor George Stevens and to recognize the fullness of his achievement they

have placed him on a pedestal slightly different from the one he deserves.

 

The Countrymans are right-on in their view that the film is centered on the

Turnerean problem of property use. To their excellent discussion of this I

would only add that they sketch, but do not fully delineate, the argument

that the film makes about the need for communal action in the face of evil.

Given that the use of open space is the critical challenge facing American

expansion, Stevens also hints that little help is to be found from rank

capitalists in the process. The store owner in the film, a man with the

suggestive name of Grafton (Paul Mc Vey) who is fond of inquiring, 'What

can I do you for?', is actually the one unqualified villain of the film.

Even the hired gunman, Wilson (Jack Palance), is viewed more as the

professional opposite of Shane (both are referred to as passe) than as the

film's true 'heavy'. Jean Arthur is described in the book as having found

'the heavies . . . the most interesting people in the picture' (56). In

fact the true 'heavy' of the film is indifference, as exemplified by the

store owner Grafton's willingness to trade with both sides of the divided

town without taking a stand. He tells the ranchers that he 'likes' Joe

Starrett, the Heflin character, but his affections prove meaningless in the

face of violence.

 

Violence, of course, is central to the film and to Stevens's intent, which

the Countrymans dutifully report. 'We had a shooting . . .', they quote

Stevens as saying in 1973,

 

'that we wanted to make something out of [notice the generous and accurate

use of the inclusive pronoun], because the film was really about shooting.

The film was really for the deglamorizing of the six-shooter that was

becoming a graceful object in the fictional hands of the illustrators and

particularly the film people. And it was a time, I remember, when kids had

gone very Western. There were Western chaps and hats and cap guns

everywhere . . . . We wanted to put the six-gun in its place, visually, in

a period, as a dangerous weapon. And we did.' (42)

 

Stevens's intentions are realized through some of the most stark, corporeal

violence ever filmed, in which bullets entering men's bodies propel them

across rooms or into the mud, and the sounds of gunfire, both real and

simulated (by De Wilde) are amplified by echo chambers and the use of Army

howitzers.

 

Stevens's concerns about violence gain contemporary urgency when one

considers the role of handguns in American life. In the film one of the

townspeople remarks, 'I don't want no part of gun-slinging. Murder's a

better name for it.' In fact, as Michael A. Bellesiles reports in _Arming

America_, [2] the myth of America as having been 'settled' with the aid of

guns is countered by the fact that sidearms were largely unreliable until

the invention of the Colt revolver after the Civil War, and virtually every

call to arms issued in the United States until after World War II revealed

a largely unarmed citizenry. Murder, indeed, was the principal function of

the handgun, then and now.

 

Here one finds a difference of perspective that, if readjusted, might have

made the Countrymans' book even better. In their historical analysis, they

focus largely on the relevance of _Shane_ to 19th century dilemmas, whereas

in its heart and sensibility the film reflects Stevens's deeply felt

ambivalence toward contemporary matters about which he has proven

prescient. The issue of gun control has become an even more pressing matter

for concern in our own day, and Stevens's call for morally driven

collective action is central not only to the witch-hunting period of

McCarthyism and the later civil rights movement through which he lived, but

his skepticism of the moral leadership of business raises questions about

the contemporary benefits of a global economy.

 

Another of the interpretive overlays the Countrymans place on _Shane_ is

the lens through which the film views gender. Here, again, the authors

offer valuable insight. Young Brandon De Wilde (who is identified in the

book as 'the best child actor available', despite the fact that _Shane_ was

his first film) is wonderfully androgynous (which the Countrymans point

out) as, indeed, is Alan Ladd himself (which they do not), and in the

relationship between the male gunfighter and the impressionable boy-child

the coming-of-age dynamic is fiercely at work. The boy identifies

gunfighting and fisticuffs with being manly, and despite his obeisance to

his more taciturn father, it is clear who the father-figure really is. The

boy's reverence for the exotic older man has distinct homophilic

undertones, lending significance to Shane's parting advice to grow up

'strong and straight'.

 

At the same time Stevens continues his focus on independent women (_Alice

Adams_, 1935/_Woman of the Year_, 1942) by evoking from Jean Arthur her

most complex and interesting performance as the strong but discontent

frontier wife who stands by her husband while at the same time recognizing

his male pridefulness and the obvious allure of a beautiful rival like

Shane who draws her femininity out like an opening flower. This is a

wonderful dilemma: how, given marriage vows and dependent children, can two

people made for each other find happiness? The potentialities are alluring.

Young Joey (De Wilde) could have the real dad he wants, Shane could settle

down and end his fugitive existence and Arthur could have a man who

understands and loves her.

 

That Stevens draws this real-life conflict out with such power attests to

its importance to him as the film's maker. He wanted to make a statement

about the irony of relationships, about how in reality questions of

fidelity and honor supervene strong human desires. Here the

backward-looking orientation of the Countrymans' historical perspective

causes them to miss a critical aspect of Stevens's sensibility. Stevens was

profoundly influenced, as were so many of his generation, by the world war

just ended. He had seen others make, indeed himself made, the difficult

choice of leaving home and family for higher responsibility; he also

experienced the pain of a dissolving marriage in his divorce from his wife,

Yvonne.

 

Among the many intriguing documents referred to by the Countrymans is an

interview with Stevens on deposit at the Margaret Herrick Library of the

Motion Picture Academy. In it Stevens calls marriage 'the greatest of all

human -- I'll say human problems. You know the problem of the male and

female relationship . . . Now, the only solution we know in our community

is marriage and marriage takes much else with it. It means a lifetime of

companionship and association, you know, not just for the purpose of

bearing a child. So to protect the child, to conceive the child, you need a

lifetime of association.' (62)

 

Clearly, the state of being married meant a lot to Stevens. It rendered

ideal realignments of personal relations unrealizable, despite the pain

their impossibility might entail or the greater good they might portend.

This, exactly, is the point-of-view of _Shane_. It is, in a broad sense, a

Kantian argument for the supervention of duty over pleasure.

 

Steven's personal beliefs found their way into the film in several ways. It

is evident in the choice of the hymn, 'Abide With Me', which, curiously

enough, is sung both on the occasion of the couple's tenth anniversary and

at the funeral of a settler (Elisa Cook, Jr) shot down by the hired gun,

Palance. Most forcefully they surface in the dialogue between Jean Arthur

and Van Helflin when their marriage reaches the crisis point (when he

decides to risk certain death to kill Ryker and she charges him with

pridefulness and confesses that she hates their meager frontier existence

and willingly would pull up stakes). Heflin's counter that honor is worth

dying for is unflinchingly delivered along with a statement that his wife's

attitude wouldn't 'make any difference' to his decision. This is stark

domestic conflict. Its unvarnished realism places the film in the forefront

of post-war, 'psychological' Westerns.

 

The psychological complexity of _Shane_ is worked in two other ways the

Countrymans only implicitly acknowledge: it daringly took the perspective

of a child at a time when children were still thought of as better seen

than heard (two years before Nicholas Ray's epochal acknowledgement of the

'generation gap' in _Rebel Without a Cause_), and it distilled to a

chilling essence the World War II experience of facing death at the hands

of tyrants. Loyal Griggs, Stevens's cameraman, no doubt at the director's

bidding, filmed most of _Shane_ from the point-of-view of the boy, giving

audiences a subjective vulnerability only to be found elsewhere in the work

of Yasujiro Ozu. This amplifies the empathy one feels for the young person

and gives poignant resonance to De Wilde's plea at the end that Shane not

leave, that his mother 'wants you, I know she does!'. Secondly, the film

reflects in its inert citizenry both American reluctance to go to war (the

isolationist United States entered over six years after Hitler took charge

in Germany), and the particular horror, experienced in the jungle warfare

of the Pacific island campaigns, of the difficulty of standing up against

seemingly insurmountable odds. These lend _Shane_ a maturity shared by many

post-war films, whose anti-heroes and ambiguous good and bad guys reflected

a world sobered by war.

 

Finally, there is the film-historical overlay. In this I feel the

Countrymans most unfortunately come up short. _Shane_ is indeed a major

film, but the yardstick used by the authors manages to diminish its

stature. The Countryman's idea of film-historical scholarship seems to be

to look up contemporary reviews of the film, which of course can be

revealing. But one begins to squirm when reading that 'the other major film

about end-of-the-frontier Wyoming is Michael Cimino's _Heaven's Gate_'

(71), that 'Warren Beatty (and not Arthur Penn) drew on the Stevens

howitzer technique for gunshots in _Bonnie and Clyde_' (74), or that

Stevens was both a 'master improviser' and 'as in control as either Ford or

Hitchcock' (26). One is tempted to completely lose heart at a statement

like: 'If _Stagecoach_ marked the onset of the Western's great cycle and

_Josey Wales_ marked its conclusion, _Shane's_ release in 1953 came at the

cycle's mid-point, not strictly in chronological terms, but rather in terms

of the genre's development.' (32) Please, _Stagecoach_ was made in 1939,

and Clint Eastwood's _The Outlaw-Josey Wales_ came out in 1976, not at all

a meaningful time-frame for understanding the Western.

 

It becomes apparent that the Countrymans believe that the film-historical

significance of _Shane_ lies principally in the influences the film seems

to have had upon filmmakers who came *after* Stevens, thus ignoring the

fact that Stevens himself was an astute observer of film history and sought

a role in it. Hence they note the debt of Sam Peckinpah, who in _The Wild

Bunch_ tortured Stevens's pacifism into a blood-splattered travesty, or

point out that Clint Eastwood, who has consistently respected film history,

remade _Shane_ as _Pale Rider_ in 1985. This, however, is movie trivia. (I

like to play, too, and wonder what the Countryman's would think of the

transformation of Shane's pre-fight remark, 'Are you speaking to me?' into

Robert DeNiro's ominous inquiry in _Taxi Driver_ (1976), 'Are you talkin'

to me?') More importantly, _Shane_ has a place in film history left

undelineated by the Countrymans.

 

'Is it merely a coincidence,' William K. Everson and George N. Fenin wrote

in their excellent study, _The Western_, 'that some of the best Westerns of

recent memory -- particularly John Ford's superlative _Wagonmaster_ (one of

the few sound Westerns to really deserve the description, 'poetic') and

George Stevens's _Shane_ -- have still been Westerns basically in the old

mood, stressing the austerity of the frontier, and telling their stories in

a superbly pictorial manner? The other Ford Westerns of the same period

(_Fort Apache_, _Rio Grande_, _She Wore a Yellow Ribbon_, _The Searchers_)

and, to a lesser degree, Zinnemann's _High Noon_, Jacques Tourneur's simple

and very pleasing _Wichita_, and John Farrow's _Hondo_, were also devoid of

sensational eroticism and, significantly, can be counted among the best

Westerns of the period.' [3]

 

It was Everson and Fenin who identified the skein within the Western genre

that _Shane_ so admirably fits. _Shane_ is what they would call a

'reluctant gunfighter' film, a film about a proven warrior who wants

nothing more than to lay down his weapons and settle in with wife and

family. This, of course, is impossible. Everson and Fenin quote the actor

Tom Mix, who spoke for all reluctant gunfighters when he said: 'I ride into

a place owning my own horse, saddle, and bridle. It isn't my quarrel, but I

get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it's all

ironed out, I never get any money reward. I may be made foreman of the

ranch and I get the girl, but there is never a fervid love scene.' [4]

Stevens's film is among the great examples of the 'reluctant gunfighter'

genre, a realistic streak of Westerns going back to the films of William S.

Hart (_Hell's Hinges_, 1915, and _Tumbleweeds_, 1925) extending through the

work of John Ford, which spanned both silent and sound periods, and

distinguished by the films of Henry King, Fred Zinnemann, and Howard Hawks.

 

That Stevens was deliberately paying homage to this genre is evident in the

austerity with which he approached his subject. Long ago William S. Hart,

who grew up among the Sioux and spoke their language, had set an example of

dedication to realism Lars von Trier and the Dogma group would admire

today. He despised the glamorization of the West, the fancy chaps and movie

six-guns that led to the fad for kiddie cowboy suits that stuck in

Stevens's craw. He felt a need to portray the West straightforwardly,

showing all the dust and heat and deprivation the Western settlers had

experienced. George Stevens knew about Hart. It is apparent in his film. He

also knew about the great Westerns to immediately precede him on the scene:

Henry King's _The Gunfighter_(1950), in which Gregory Peck turns in what

may well be the best reluctant-gunfighter performance of them all, and Fred

Zinnamann's _High Noon_(1952), in which Gary Cooper 'get(s) into trouble

doing the right thing for somebody else' (ref???)[5] as a sheriff trying to

marshall a passive citizenry into action against a trio of killers coming

in on the noon train.

 

What is fascinating is what Stevens adds to this: he amplifies the

reluctant gunman theme by placing the hero in a mature domestic dilemma,

and shows unflinchingly how guns and fists can harm a man, who is, after

all, a mere mortal. He demythologizes the genre like nobody before him,

and, also unnoticed by the Countrymans, he does so by giving the reluctant

gunman a measure of revenge.

 

In 1950 Henry King had top gunslinger Jimmy Ringo, the Gregory Peck

character, ride into town in hopes of anonymously paying a visit to his

estranged wife and the child who never knew him. He sets up in the town

hotel, and orders steak and eggs in the hotel bar from an old acquaintance

(Karl Malden), now the town bartender. With his trademark cup of coffee

before him, sitting with his back to the wall much as Jack Palance does in

_Shane_, he coolly outfoxes young wannabe Skip Homier by calmly holding a

gun on him from under the table before Homier can get the drop on him. Well

and good. Age and skill pays off. But after Peck has his visit with his

family, and his hope of settling down proves as hopeless as does Shane's,

he is brutally shot down by a towns person seeking to make a name for

himself. The fatal blow comes from a shotgun secreted on an upper story, a

cowardly undercutting of the cowboy mandate to face one's opponent squarely

and draw. George Stevens settles this score. His reluctant gunman is not

leaving town humiliated. The De Wilde boy may call after him, and the boy's

mother may want him badly, but Shane leaves town on the terms he rode in

on: his own.

 

In a larger sense George Stevens himself is a victim of the auteur theory.

The view that motion pictures are the product of a single mind, a director

who also controls the total mise en scene, lingers on in the propensity of

film scholars to elevate the director to the status of a god. But although

many great films can be viewed from this perspective, and the theory itself

can be illuminating, in fact a great deal of filmmaking is collaborative.

It is naive to think that an art form involving the related fields of

literature, drama, visual art, and music -- whose content can span the

intellectual and historic spectrum -- can in all its aspects be controlled

by one man or woman. The feature film is notoriously complex. As such it is

time for us to acknowledge its true nature, and to recognize as one of the

geniuses of collaborative art, George Stevens.

 

Marylhurst University, Oregon, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See Frederick Jackson Turner, 'The Significance of the Frontier in

American History', in Richard Etulian, ed., _Historians at Work: Did the

Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?_ (Boston, Mass.: Bedford-St

Martins, 1999).

 

2. Michael A. Bellesiles, _Arming America: Origins of a National Gun

Culture_ (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

 

3. William K. Everson and George N. Fenin, _The Western: From Silents to

Cinerama_ (New York: Orion Press, 1962), p. 275.

 

4. Ibid., p. 117.

 

5. Ibid., p. 117.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Bob Sitton, 'Refocusing the Western',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 24, October 2000

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n24sitton>.

  

 

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