Considering that I am quite lacking in regards to a ton of different genres and need to fill in gaps in a large range of viewing fields, I have decided to make a regular thing of having themed months, especially over the summer when I am afforded considerably more time to engage with films on an intimate and intentional level. I plan to make these varied to genres, countries and eras contingent upon funding and availability, so as much as I would love to dedicate a month to Iranian cinema it may be quite awhile before it make the list, however, I figured one of the best places to start this endeavor would be with one of my weakest viewing areas, westerns, a focus that would allow me to navigate not only a large amount of unseen films with critical acclaim, but much to my suprise also allowed will also allow me to move outside of America on more than one occasion. Furthermore, I feel as though my theoretical framework concerning westerns is lacking so I also plan to supplement my viewings with various readings about the genre, as well as the ways in which post-modern filmmaking has decidedly altered what viewers expect out of a western film. My hope is to draw some connections between its evolution while filling in the various viewing gaps I have in my must-see movies. Of course, I will not make it to every important western, nor will I be afforded the time to revisit most of the works I have already seen, such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, or the more recent Django Unchained, but know that if it seems to be an egregious omission, chances are I have probably already seen it. With all this considered I tried to find a super straight forward traditionalist western to begin the month and was able to do so with incredible and very watchable success with Shane, a early fifties western that manages to pull together many of the tropes of the genre without becoming so self-involved with these messages as to completely lose its cinematic zeal. Furthermore, aside from the presence of Elisha Cook, Jr. who seemed to be in every other movie from say 1945 to 1960, the film is relatively minimal in its use of big name actors making for a director's picture which George Stevens delivers magnificently. Shane is a western in the most classic of sense and incorporates the burning and vibrant world of technicolor to serve its thematic concepts and expansive world with great zeal.
Shane is a film that makes its theme and central figure quite obvious from the title, however, to foolishly assume that Shane is the entirety of this film would prove illogical, particularly since he is not even initially introduced in the film. Instead, the film begins with the endeavors of a pioneer family led by patriarch Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife Marien (Jean Arthur) along with their son Joey (Brandon DeWilde) as they attempt to make their own in the wild lands of Wyoming amidst the corruption and constant berating of local ruffian and town bully Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer). Accepting everything but outright failure, the family is approached by an lone rider named Shane (Alan Ladd), whose willingness to help the family is greatly appreciated and each of the family members takes a particular liking to the elusive and enigmatic rider. Of course, when faced with the absurd actions of Ryker and his group of no-good lackeys, Shane stand against them with a dignified demeanor, leading to Joe also fighting for what he believes to be right, much to the concern of fellow pioneers who see his actions as a sure fire way to get Ryker to burn down each of their settlements in the name of pride. Of course, Shane and his particularly unknown past comes with a sense of moral rightness that must challenge the wrongdoings of Ryker, even if it means placing those around him in danger, particularly when Ryker discovers that Shane has a past as a gunslinger and brings another of Shane's enemies into the picture to cause a stir. Nonetheless, inspired by Shane and the begging of his son and wife, Joe decides that he must also stand against the wrong doing, a decision that is solidified when one of his fellow settlers is killed at the hands of the hired shooter. Shane realizing that the only assurance of wellbeing for the citizens of the town will be his ending of Ryker and his men and his subsequent leaving result in him making a final stand against the gang, an act that would have proven fatal were it not for a last minute warning from Joey. As Shane leaves, and Joe has reasserted his leadership in the community, Joey begs for Shane to stay, but since he is destined to wander, he simply rides away in silence.
Shane is about as traditional as westerns come, which is great because it allows me to discuss, in considerable brevity, some of the tropes of the western. Firstly, given the moral ambiguity present in the "wild" west, the distinctions between good and evil manifest themselves in a decidedly obvious way, in the case of this film Shane proves to be the near-angelic figure of goodwill, while Ryker is bad and his subsequent hiring of a gunslinger certainly plays the devil to Shane's angel. Second, westerns nearly always contain a character in the film which possesses a problematic past for which they are desperately trying to outrun, of course in the context of this film it is obviously Shane, although in later films discussed this month it will manifest itself in multiple characters in the same film causing narrative discord and a degree of moral ambiguity, even amongst the identifiably good characters. Finally, Shane very much entrenches itself within the sort of homosocial desires and bonds present within the genre and within pioneer life as a whole. Many of the historical narratives and most westerns exist centrally in the masculine and to a considerable degree Shane is a film that entrenches itself within this world, even attributing the undeniable phallic elements of the gun, fully emphasized by Joey and his desirous gaze each time Shane engages in a feat that could relate to his gunslinger past. In fact, amidst the horses, whiskey drinking and cemetery on a hill outside the town, it is hard to find something that is against the norm within this traditional western, but considering that Joe is depicted with his wife and son is perhaps one of the most revolutionary elements of a western to date. It is a rare thing for a female presence to occupy the world of a western without being either a prostitute or a Native American and Shane possesses multiple characters who counter this notion. Sure it is problematic that Marien and Shane clearly create a degree of sexual tension, but considering that it is not acted upon and is no less intense than the sexual tension between Joe and Shane or Joey and Shane it is quite intriguing and certainly an early example of a rejection of the most base of western tropes.
Key Scene: The bar fight is over-the-top and great fun amidst and otherwise surprisingly calm film.
Shane is an excellent film and often finds itself placing well amongst the best westerns of all time, not to mention the best American films of all time. I highly recommend watching it on Netflix before it is invariably pulled off for something worse.