Westerns. They don’t make ‘em like they used to, but last year’s remake of “True Grit” came close.
I can count my favorite movies from this genre on the fingers of one hand. That movie-digital palm would include Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Chuck Connors, Jean Simmons, and Charles Bickford in “The Big Country” from 1958; John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood in “The Searchers” from 1956; Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Walter Brennan in “Gunfight at the OK Corral” from 1958; John Wayne (again), Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan (again) in “Red River” from 1948; and lastly, my all-time, by-a-landslide -favorite-for-its-narrative-theme-and-dialogue-detail, I pick Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon de Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, and all the others who made 1953’s “Shane” my greatest western of all time.
The narrative themes were all present and accounted for – and clear as day: (1) the west is big; (2) cowboys and farmers can’t always be friends when it comes to their different ideas on how all this big land should be used; (3) farmers aren’t always the greatest conversationalist; (2) farmer’s wives get bored out there on the plains; (4) straggling ex-gunfighters who suddenly drift into the farm as temporary workers can look pretty good to a bored housewife; (5) even the ten-year old son of the stoic farmer sees the drifter worker as an intriguing role model, based on his demonstrated ability for shooting a gun; (6) now run all these little intrigues smack dab into the side of the fact that the area’s main cattle baron is aiming to run this farmer and all other “sod-busters” off the plains just as soon as possible by whatever means it takes.
An old gunfighter is sort like baseball’s modern designated hitter. Even though he’s aging, and wants to quit, sure as fire, people keep coming up with money and reasons for him to step up to the plate one more time and take a few final whacks. It doesn’t take long for Alan Ladd as “Shane” to find himself in that spot. In the old west, “DH” stood for “designated hero. or hellion,” depending on your point of view.
Wouldn’t you just know it? The farmers have to do their Saturday shopping for supplies at the same little combination store and saloon where the cowboys also like to drink the weekend away. Talk about a setup for a gunfight. You’d almost think the scriptwriter had some “this can’t be good” outcomes in mind when they designed the little combo market and joy juice joint they named “Grafton’s.”
Sure enough. The first time in the store, and all dressed up in a sodbuster blue jean outfit, Shane goes through the swinging door that separates the store from the bar, but not to buy a drink of alcohol. Shane is going in there to buy a “sody pop” to go for the kid they call “Joey.”
Big mistake. Cowboy Ben Johnson leads a big several round laugh track worthy belittlement of Shane for walking into a man’s saloon and ordering a soft drink. Man! It’s a good thing Shane didn’t ask the bartender at Grafton’s if he had any Coke Zero! Ordering plain old root beer was bad enough.
Still, not wanting to start a war, Shane keeps himself in check, leaving the impression with one and all, including little Joey, that the big mouth of Ben Johnson was wide enough to “put the run on another sodbuster.”
While Shane sits on his bruised ego for a week, a lot happens. Ranch King Ryker takes the Shane backdown as a sign that he is safe to make things worse for the sodbusters, He accelerates the random destruction of their crops and property. A different Shane goes to market with the farmers the next Saturday. He’s still dressed in work jeans, but his mind is all guns-and-fists guy.
Returning to the bar, Ben Johnson walks over to resume his round of insults. “What are you doing here, Shane?” Johnson asks. “Did you think we was going to let you come in here and drink with the men?”
Shane is cool.
“I came in here to buy you a drink,” Shane answers, as he takes a drink and throws it on Johnson’s shirt, right before he punches him to the floor with a hard right cross. A big fight breaks out between the farmers and the cowboys, with the sod-busters getting the best of the bout at fist’s end.
Farmers are fickle. The previous Saturday, they left Grafton’s in fear that they had not done enough. This time they left fearing that they had done too much. And they were probably right, if you want to measure things by the short-term reaction from rancher Ryker.
Ryker first reacts as though he were the George Steinbrenner of the Plains. Sensing Shane as new competitive trouble, he tries to buy him,, but the old old DH turns him down. As a first result of rejection, the burning of sodbuster crops and homes picks up.
Then Ryker gets serious.
He hires another still active DH, the serpentine gunfighter known as “Jack Wilson,” played so beautifully evil in his ways by a young Jack Palance. Well, sir, I got to tell you. Old Jack Wilson promptly goes out of his way to kill a blow-hard Alabama farmer named “Stonewall,” played by Elisha Cook, Jr., after the poor misguided farmer had the nerve to go to town alone, except for one buddy, to shop for supplies during the week. Wilson baits Stonewall into drawing his gun and then shoots the fear-frozen farmer to death in the muddy soil of a rainy day on the only street in town.
The news of Stonewall’s death is all that Shane needs to release the soul of his inner killer. He first has to knock out dull farmer Heflin to earn the title shot, but he then rides back to town in the dark wearing his own DH buckskins and his trusty Colt .45. Little Joey and his dog follow Shane to town on foot and they get there just in time to hear this encounter between their hero and Mr. Wilson.
Shane is standing at the bar, but he turns around to speak to the man sitting alone at a table by the far wall.
“So you’re Jack Wilson,” Shane says, “I’ve heard about you.”
“What have you heard, Shane?” asks a smiling sinister Wilson, as he stands and drops his hands by his sides.”
“I’ve heard that you’re a no-good, low down, rotten Yankee liar!” Shane answers.
“Prove it!” Wilson demands, as he prepares to draw fire.
‘KER-BLOOEY!” answers the Colt .45 of DH Shane – and its out of the park!
Jack Wilson is blown away for good.
Unfortunately, Shane also has to shoot Ryker and his little brother before he can escape Grafton’s Saloon with his own life, but he is also hit by a cheap shot from above by the brother that would likely have been fatal too, had it not been for a “look out, Shane” warning yell from little Joey.
Injured, but restored, it is time for Shane to go, and he knows it. Ignoring the pleas of little Joey to stay because “mama’s got things for you to do,” Shane advises Joey to mind his parents and “grow up straight and strong.” Then Shane rides off into the high country, with little Joey still calling, “Come back Shane,” until the hero disappears.
Whatever Mama needed, it now will have to be provided by the sodbuster she married. Shane has taken his DH/gunfighter mystique powers and vanished over the mountain.
If they ever made a finer western than “Shane,” I just never saw it.