A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that. — Shane
We’d all be much better off if there wasn’t a single gun left in this valley —including yours. — Marian Starrett
These quotes from Shane are 65 years old, but neatly sum up the debate over gun control raging across the United States of America today. While some believe that guns are necessary in order to protect oneself and save citizens’ lives, others believe that the key to stopping gun violence is abolishing these weapons altogether. These debates stem from opposing ideas still deeply embedded within American culture, and perhaps best represented in the Western itself.
For lack of a proper myth like Homer and Virgil benefited from, America had to invent its own. Thus, the Western was used to portray the birth of the nation. And like so many founding myths, the concept of the West as the landing stage of modern America has been revised over and over again. While many refer to the bloodbaths of Sam Peckinpah or the postmodern hijinks of Sergio Leone as the starting point of the revisionist Western, the Western has more or less been revising and critiquing itself ever since The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943. On the surface, Shane is as simple a tale as they come — a mysterious man, bound by honour, saves a farm being taken over by a ruthless cattle baron — but beyond its classical composition lies a whole host of paradoxes, unable to be resolved.
Shane has a timeless feel to it, starting on a rural farm in the middle of nowhere, with a strange man suddenly turning up for just a glass of water. After a brief, tense confrontation with the homesteaders who occupy the land, he leaves, only to later offer help once he finds out the place is being threatened by cattle ranchers. From the very start, with a basic set-up mostly the same as The Magnificent Seven and Pale Rider, the average viewer can tell more or less tell how the story will end. It’s how the film gets there that elevates it into one of the best Westerns ever made.
This is mostly down to the main character himself. Shane, played with a sense of great stoicism by Alan Ladd, is more than just a classic Western figure; he is a living embodiment of the contradictions inside any person who lives by a code of violence. Like in the best mythical epics, he is bound by his nature, which although complicated, is ultimately unchanging. It’s interesting to think that Shane only sticks around the farm in the first place when he sees the cattle ranchers threatening the family. He finds himself drawn to the predicament of the homesteaders and the violence that surrounds it, despite his determination to live a simple life with that same family. But Shane cannot do both, and by the end, something has to give. His path back to violence is painfully inevitable.
Particularly dialogue heavy, Shane has an unusual depth for a film of the period, only matched by The Searchers in its piercing insight into the human condition. Compared to the relative simplicity of High Noon (released the previous year), where the message of the movie is rather plain for everyone to see, Shane operates more like an epic poem, allowing many voices to complicate its message.
On the one hand, we have farmer Joe (Van Heflin), his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), and their son, Joey (Brandon de Wilde), while on the other we have the villain, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), and his hired gun, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). In most tales, this would set up a common divide between the little people trying to carve out a life for themselves and those opposing them. Yet, the film takes the time to allow Ryker to state his case, particularly with a memorable speech claiming that he “made this country… with blood and empty bellies,” and sees the point of view of Marian, who doesn’t condone violence in any form (it is only Wilson who is really truly evil). By allowing all these perspectives to coexist and bristle against one another, George Stevens creates a work of uncommon depth, worthy of the classical title of the epic.
Nevertheless, despite the contradictions of the characters who occupy the movie, Shane eventually reverts to form, with the titular character coming to the rescue by gunning down Jack Wilson and Rufus Ryker. After all, the Western cannot yet change from its key premise. Still, victory has never tasted so bittersweet as it does here. While murder by pistol does save the day, it comes at a heavy cost — one that cannot be washed away by simple platitudes. As Shane tells Joey, “there’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back.” Therefore, Shane — possibly dying from a gunshot wound — leaves town immediately, making himself the last gun to leave the valley. Joey doesn’t understand, hollering after Shane in those ever-so-memorable lines:
“Shane! Come back!”
Joey is the conduit for the audience, still respecting the power of the gun despite the awful power it has wrought (after all, watching people shoot each other is entertaining); he will inevitably grow up to be a gun owner of his own. The ending shows that America’s relationship with guns and violence has been and will stay conflicted, murky. Without passing judgement, the finale remains both ambiguous and tragic, never giving in to any easy answers. As a result, it is the perfect allegory for the polarized issue of American gun ownership, with neither side able to convince the other, both resolute in their philosophies. 65 years later, nothing much has changed.