Thursday, 11 May 2017

Shane (4 Stars)

Like many other people, after watching "Logan" in March I was curious what the western film was that was being shown on the television in the hotel. It's common for the television to be running in the background in film scenes, but this was more, because Charles Xavier talks about the film, saying that he watched it when he was a child. So what was it? "Shane", a western made in 1953. Moreover, the eulogy held by Laura at Logan's grave is a speech quoted verbatim from "Shane". This made me even more curious.

"Shane" is recognised as one of the greatest western films, but I'd never even heard of it. It's based on events that took place in Wyoming in the late 19th Century. In 1862 the Homestead Act was passed, offering free land to anyone who would work on the land to improve it. The land was given mostly to poor immigrants from continental Europe. This invoked the anger of the large cattle owners who had been using the land unofficially for decades. They didn't recognise the Homestead Act and called the homesteaders squatters. This led to the Johnson County War in 1889, in which the cattle owners hired gunmen to drive out the homesteaders.

That's the setting for the film. Small homesteads are scattered through a valley in Wyoming. The nearest town, if it can be called a town at all, consists of only three buildings: a food store and saloon in one, a hotel and a stable. The town is too small to have its own sheriff. An old cattle owner, Rufus Ryker, considers himself responsible for law and order, which means evicting the squatters from his grazing land. At first he uses cattle stampedes to ruin their farmland. When this doesn't work he resorts to other methods, such as setting their houses on fire.

Enter Shane. It's not clear if that's his first or his last name. He obviously has a past that he's trying to leave behind, but we don't find out what it is. He's just passing through the valley. After receiving a warm welcome on the homestead of Joe Starrett and his family he offers to work on the farm for a few weeks. He has considerable skill as a gunslinger, but he prefers not to carry a gun and leaves it in his room whenever he rides into town. We can assume he's lived a life of violence, but he's made a new beginning.

Joe's nine-year-old son, Joey, is fascinated by Shane. He wants to learn how to shoot, much to the dismay of his mother. Shane recommends a life of peace, but when it comes to a showdown between Ryker and the homesteaders he's prepared to protect his friends.

The film is described as a classic western. I don't think that description is appropriate. It was the first western film that portrayed violence realistically. In previous westerns violence was abstract and stylised. One gunshot and a person fell over dead. One punch and a person fell unconscious. The fights in "Shane" are realistic. There's a fistfight that lasts five minutes, unheard of in westerns at the time. Of course, "The Wild Bunch" takes violence further, but this was the first step in that direction.

An important part of the film is the relationship between Shane and Joey. This is what sets the film apart from other emotionally shallower westerns. After watching it today I can see the parallels between "Shane" and "Logan", not just in the quotes, but in the themes of the two films. "Logan" is a respectful homage to "Shane".

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