Sunday, July 22, 2012

Revisiting "Shane"

This remote suburb in Northern California has a sweet yet frustrating sameness to its everyday life.  It seems to be the kind of place folks wanted to live in so they could have that sameness, that predictability that implies guaranteed peace and a trouble-free existence.  A warm, clear Saturday night found me watching a 1953 classic western on DVD while family members went to a drive-in movie to see a double feature of animated characters from Medieval days and comic book action heroes banded together to save New York City.  I watched Shane, a fine film directed by George Stevens.   I was awed by how powerful it was in the wake of America's movie theater tragedy.  You could take dialogue out of this western, say it in TV news soundbites relative to the Colorado crime, and the words would sound fresh.  Alan Ladd owned that lead role.  Perfectly cast.
Shane is a good man.  He's a mysterious, world-weary gunslinger who rides into the life of the Starrett Family.  Jean Arthur and Van Heflin star as Marian and Joe Starrett, a couple of homesteaders in Wyoming who married on the 4th of July.  Young Brandon De Wilde was Joey.  We'll see the story of Shane from little Joe's hero worshipping point of view.  His loving parents will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary during the course of the story.  Shane's spirit is uneasy because a gun has given him a personal brand he'd rather not have.  He finds peace, for a time, living with and helping The Starretts.
Joey is fascinated with guns.  The movie opens with a beautful pristine, serene wide shot of America's natural splendor -- a vast wilderness, a mountain range, blue skies, crystal clear waters and a deer sipping some of that water.  Stevens then cuts to a little boy with a rifle.  There's Joey playing "make-believe" as he aims an unloaded gun at the deer.  He'll later mutter this complaint about his parents:  "I wish they'd give me some bullets for this gun."  The opening moment visually sums up a theme we'll get in Shane -- the rights of the innocent on the land of the free vs the power of guns when they fall into the wrong hands and how that power affects the rights of the innocent.  A strong vein of gun debate
 runs through Shane.  When Joey finally succeeds at coaxing Shane to show him how to shoot, we are just like Joey.  We aren't prepared for how rapid-fire, how quick a draw Shane is.  This gunslinger is legend.  And the gunshots are jarring.  This movie was re-released when I was in middle school.  I went to see it on a big screen for a Saturday matinee because my dad and a couple of other neighborhood dads raved about it.  I'd never heard movie gunfire that loud.  It was like stereophonic cannons going off near your theater seat.  In college, we studied Shane in one of my film journalism classes.  The professor told us George Stevens' purposely increased the gunfire sound effects to make it jarring.  He was making a point about gun violence.  He also made the point with dialogue when Shane's gunshot demonstration for Joey raises concern from Mrs. Starrett.  She knows how her little boy feels about Shane.  She's fond of Shane too.
Marian doesn't want guns becoming important in her son's life.

Shane:    "A gun is a tool, Marian.  No better or no worse than any other tool -- an ax, a shovel or anything.  A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.  Remember that."

Marian:   "We'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley.  Including yours."

Later, the violent Ryker crew drives more homesteaders off the land.  Think of the opening scene.  The settlers are like the deer sipping water, causing no harm.  The angry ranchers are the gun pointed at the deer.  Ryker feels he has the right to use guns to get what he wants claiming that he's entitled to the land.  Joe Starrett calls him on that claim saying " didn't find this country."  Mr. Starrett reminds him that Indians were on it long before he was.  Starrett adds, "You talk about rights.  You think you got the right to say that nobody else has got any.  Well, that ain't the way the government looks it at."

Doesn't that dialogue from a post-Civil War story sound like it came from today's national debate about guns and civil liberties?  A. B. Guthrie, Jr. wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay.

Ryker recruits Wilson, an evil gunslinger, to help him intimidate and remove the homesteaders.  This menace is played by Jack Palance when he was new to the movies and billed as Walter Jack Palance.
Palance and young Brandon De Wilde were both Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actor thanks to George Stevens' Shane.  Palance, after years of excellent work, would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1991's comedy send-up of classic westerns, City Slickers.  As Wilson, even animals can sense what a dark force he is.  When Wilson walks into a room, dogs get up and leave.  They don't want to be near him.
Twisted Wilson brings terror into the town at angry Ryker's invitation.  Good people are emotionally beaten down.  Settlers are leaving because of the assaults and destruction.  Shane is forced to strap on his guns and do something to protect people dear to his lonely heart -- Joe, little Joey...and Marian.  He wants Joey to grow up to be safe and good.  This is a great Hollywood western, one with a social conscience, one that makes an impact today.  Shane is the middle story of Stevens' American trilogy.  In came in between 1951's A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters and 1956's Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.  All three films focused on the clash of classes and cultures in America and the obstacles in making the American dream come true.  All three films earned George Stevens Oscar nominations for Best Director.  All three films earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture.
I have seen Shane before.  On a big screen, on the small screen, in a college classroom.  Saturday night, it moved me yet again.  Last week at cineplexes, I saw two new releases that weren't even half as good as this old Hollywood film.  My brother and his family were at the drive-in movies last night while I watched Shane.  They told me today that there were police at the box office inspecting each vehicle of ticket buyers.  The kids told me that the cops were checking for weapons.  That never happened at the drive-in when I was a kid.

One day, I'd like for my nephews to see George Stevens' Shane.  I'd urge many adults to see it too.

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