It’s a familiar image. The screen brightens to reveal a ruggedly picturesque landscape of rolling plains, high bluffs and twisting rivers; in the distance we can see a small speck that slowly grows larger until it is identified as a lone horseman riding towards us. The origin of the horseman is unimportant. He has appeared out of the landscape, and we already know that when the film closes we will see him disappear back into the landscape: he is elemental, barely human.
It is worth noting that even those who have never seen a Western (let alone the specific one I had in mind while writing this, Shane) immediately know more or less what is coming. There will be terse masculinity, tough yet vulnerable femininity, saloons, cattle rustlers, gunfighting, and most importantly, when the dust settles, justice. The fact that we are all still familiar with the motifs and tropes of a genre that was already dying when our parent’s generation was in its youth is remarkable in this current age of instant creation and fast turnover, but I think that it owes something to the imaginative power of the Western: if we can speak of an American mythology, this is it.
As political debate heats to a fever pitch south of the border in anticipation of the coming election and the current Canadian government embarks on its own experiments in national imagination, my thoughts turn increasingly to the idea of the nation, the citizen and the significant imaginative undergirding that is needed in order to make them intelligible categories. One of the reasons I am drawn to Westerns as a means of parsing these questions is their essentially populist nature: while they can be extremely sophisticated pieces of cinema, the Western is also quintessential Americana which – at least at one time – was beloved by millions. The other major reason I am drawn to Westerns is the clear grammar developed over time of icon, trope and motif that allows for a genuine, often quite complex conversation between particular films. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, Westerns are mythic. They deal in fundamental questions of origin, change, establishment, destruction and order. In this piece and the ones that follow it, I hope to delineate the ways in which some specific Westerns engage questions of nation, individual, and social order, and in the end diagnose in some way the ideological roots of the current cultural fragmentation. Because of the magnitude of my love for Westerns and also because of my weakness for prolixity, I will sketch these questions out in several parts, each part taking as its inspiration a specific Western, starting with Shane.
As well as featuring probably the most annoying child in the history of American cinema, Shane is one of the most beloved Westerns ever made. Directed by George Stevens, the film starts with the arrival of the eponymous gunfighter Shane (Alan Ladd) at the homestead of hardworking farmer Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and son Joey (Brandon DeWilde). At the time of the film the frontier is undergoing a shift from the semi-nomadic free range life of the cowboy and rancher to the settled, agrarian life of the farmer. Unsurprisingly, this shift is fraught with violence. Both parties have a claim on the land, and the cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) has no qualms about asserting his claim at gunpoint. Shane destabilizes the situation; while he seems to be at the Starrett’s homestead to hang up his gun and live an honest life, it quickly becomes clear that he will have to fight or leave. The film ends with an inevitable showdown between Shane and Ryker’s hired gunman Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) that leaves Wilson and Ryker dead and Shane wounded. After cryptically explaining to Joey that “there’s no living with a killing” he rides off into the night.
At first glance, there seems to be little here of interest: the well-worn story of a good man who reluctantly takes up the sword in the name of justice on behalf of the oppressed. And, viewed outside of historical context and the grammar of the Western genre, this would be fair: it is highly conventional storytelling. But just as the rules of language allow for the transmission of meaning, the rules of convention allow for a dialogue between works of art that would be impossible without the archetypes and tropes they give us; I would like to draw out what I believe to be this films two most salient ideological points. The first relates to the relationship between the ranchers and the farmers; the second relates the farmer’s relationship with Shane.
The tension present between the farmers and the ranchers is in one sense quite straigthforward: both parties want the land, and there is no realistic way for them to share it. What complicates the situation is the fact that at least on a moral level, both the ranchers and the farmers have legitimate claims. The ranchers wrested the land from the natives at a great cost and see themselves as having a moral right to it. Their world is fundamentally feudal: they are conquerors who have established their claim and their legitimacy through strength and now see what is rightfully theirs being taken from them. At one point Ryker gives an impassioned speech in which he lays out his position before Starrett:
“We made this country. Found it and we made it, with blood and empty bellies. The cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers. They don’t bother you much anymore because we handled ‘em. We made a safe range out of this. Some of us died doin’ it. We made it. And then people move in who’ve never had to rawhide it through the old days. They fence off my range, and fence me off from water.”
Starrett’s response is to simply say that the government sees things differently. The farmers have the law on their side. The government has given them that land for agriculture, and they are simply using it as directed. However, we see in farmer “Stonewall” Torrey’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) funeral speech (Torrey is killed by Wilson outside of a saloon) that there is more to it. The farmers understand themselves to be agents of civilization who are building towns and establishing culture where before there was only savagery. Their efforts are much greater than themselves or their own livelihoods; they are based on a sense of the American project.
The conflict played out in Shane is the movement from a feudal, pre-modern world in which society is organized around individual power and held together by a complex system of loyalties and fealty which is at once medieval and surprisingly capitalistic, to the world of the nation-state in which society is based in the rule of law, the dignity of the individual and a deeply rooted sense of the communal that invests its citizens with responsibilities as well as rights. Ryker surrounds himself by cowboys who are bound to him by his ability to give them a living through employment in his cattle empire, and when people cannot be bought he hires a killer to protect his interests – there is here no acknowledgement of a power beyond either wealth or violence. The farmers, on the other hand, led by Starrett, are rooted in notions of fairness, honesty, decency and co-operation which they understand to be transcendent of their own personal good. When dealing with the ever-more serious threats from Ryker, the farmers hold councils, speak democratically, employ diplomacy and understand farming almost as a moral calling.
And yet they remain ineffectual and entirely in Ryker’s power, despite the fact that many of them have military experience from the civil war and none lack bravery. The problem for the farmers, I believe, is that their martial experience is entirely based on a military model of violence which is predicated fundamentally on law, order and the state. When Torrey attempts to confront Wilson, the whole tragic exchange is presented as a grotesque comedy. He tries to outdraw Wilson outside of a saloon and by the time his hand is halfway out of the holster, Wilson has drawn a bead on him. Wilson sardonically lets Torrey realize precisely how inadequate he is before gunning him down. Whatever Torrey’s abilities as a soldier, the violence in Shane is feudal violence between individuals, not the orderly “legal” violence of warfare. Torrey is literally unable to fight alone.
This leads us to the interesting part – Shane himself. Shane belongs to Ryker’s world, but is trying to become a member of Starrett’s by giving up his gun and taking up farming. The problematic nature of this move becomes apparent almost immediately; everyone falls in love with him. He eclipses Starrett in the eyes of both his son and (though this is more subtly revealed) in the eyes of his wife as well. While Shane is accepted presumably because he has renounced his old ways, it is precisely the old, gunsfighting Shane who is revered, just as it is his abilities as a man of violence which are most respected. The idealistic community of farmers is obsessed with the violence which they are morally opposed to, and rightly so: it is only Shane’s violence which can save them from Ryker.
This is where the film becomes subversive. Though Starrett is willing to face Wilson, Ryker’s hired killer, it is clear that this cannot be. On a practical level, Starrett lacks the skill to survive such an encounter; but more importantly, if Starrett were to drive Ryker out of town by violence it would be absolutely impossible for him to continue living the life he has chosen. His entire being is justified by adherence to the law, and to use the feudal violence of a gunfight to defeat Ryker would be to accept the nihilism that defines Ryker’s world and become like Ryker. This is what lies at the root of Shane’s ambiguous last line – there can be no living in the place where one has killed, because to do so is to accept power over life and death. If Shane remained, he would be just as much a feudal lord as Ryker even if he never killed again simply because he would have gained his power by killing his predecessor; a magnanimous autocrat is no less above the law for being magnanimous.
If we step back from the film, then, and view it as a cultural object, a few things become clear. Though this film takes the side of the farmer’s fairly unambiguously and therefore accepts their formulation of the world as primarily mediated through law and government, it is sophisticated enough to realize that in order for the farmers to be true to themselves, there needs to be an agent of violence who is outside of their world. Note again how the film starts and ends – Shane rides out of the wilderness and returns to it. There is a fundamental dishonesty here; when the film ends the farmers have been given their land without having had to conquer it. The conquest is done for them by the shadowy and mysterious Shane, who exists outside of the established categories.
This is precisely the heart of the American myth – that one can arrive in the new world and not have to compromise one’s democratic principles in order to succeed. The hardworking, fair minded pioneers can build their civilization innocently, because the necessary violence is done by another, marginal force. While the film is not naive enough to suggest that no violence is necessary, the violence is not done by “us”, even though “our” lives would be impossible without it.
I started this post by claiming that I would try to delineate understandings of nationhood through the lens of the Western; what Shane gives us is the advent of citizen as a category. In this film, the citizen is embodied by Starrett, with all of his attendant virtues. What is important to notice is the fact that Starrett narrates a shift from feudal violence, which is between individuals and which is employed for personal reasons, to an understanding of violence which sees it and everything else mediated through law and the state. Thus, if Shane is a film about American-ness (and I believe it is) the message is ambiguous – America has an idealistic moral code which requires a significant compromise in order to be realized. America needs a scapegoat, and that scapegoat is Shane.
This film came out in 1953. In it America is imagined fundamentally as a land of principle, a land ruled by law and communal decision-making embodied by democratic government. It buys this self-image at a cost, however; the founding violence that lies at its heart is shuffled off to an outsider not part of the American project, though midwife to it. But we cannot escape the fact that there is no Starrett without Shane.
What I will try to chart next week is the fraying of this certainty that America is good and built on principle rather than violence through John Ford’s remarkable film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.