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From Under A Rock: Shane

February 20, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Shane  


There is probably no genre of film that’s more classically American than the Western. Yes, some of that is the setting; all Westerns take place during a certain time and usually in the American midwest. Cowboys, outlaws, struggling for survival in the hostile world, blazing a trail for new civilization – it’s all part of the fabric of the American spirit. But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Westerns often deal with themes like revenge and a savage sort of justice from a bygone era. Today, we look at a classic Western that knows exactly what it is and has some interesting commentary on the genre.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael was the one who knocked to have Aaron watch Breaking Bad. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock and has him watch Shane.

Released: April 23rd, 1953
Directed by: George Stevens
Written by: A.B. Guthrie Jr. & Jack Sher, based on the 1949 novel Shane by Jack Schaefer
Alan Ladd as Shane
Van Heflin as Joe Starrett
Jean Arthur as Marian Starrett
Brandon deWilde as Joey Starrett

Aaron Hubbard: One of my side projects the last few months has been trying to watch as many movies from AFI’s 100 Years.. 100 Movies list as I possibly can. Shane ranked at #69 in 1998 and jumped up to #45 in 2007. For me, it’s not difficult to see why.

Michael Ornelas: Meanwhile my side project this year involves picking a director each quarter and watching their entire filmography. All I can say is: David Lynch is a weird dude. As far as this week’s pick goes, Aaron and I have different tastes, because I never would have watched this if he didn’t pick it. But it’s a film that has something to say, has a few great moments, and a great performance by Alan Ladd, so I’m glad I saw it.

Sometimes You Have to Fight to Be A Man
Aaron: The reason I wanted to watch this movie again and discuss it on this column is because I found myself drawn to the character of Shane on the same sort of level that I’m drawn to characters like Captain America and The Flash. I’ve always been drawn to characters that are essentially good people, but who won’t sit idly by when confronted with bullies who are treating people poorly. I liked Shane from the minute he stood up for Joe Starrett against the cattle ranchers, but the first moment that really caught my attention when I watched the movie was the amazing bar fight scene. That cemented Shane as one of my favorite characters, and got me invested in the rest of the film. Having seen it twice now, I’ve come to respect what Shane represents and his values, but there’s also a bit of a dark side there, just beneath the surface that makes him feel just human enough to identify with.

Michael: That “pure” good guy role is actually a major part of early Westerns. Shades of grey weren’t really a thing in the genre for quite some time (pretty much popularized by Clint Eastwood, although I won’t say he was the originator). It’s the easiest type of character to get behind but one of the hardest to get behind. It’s easy to fall into the trap of having a “goody two shoes” that audiences don’t relate to because he’s unrealistic. Shane was a character with a properly-calibrated moral compass, but it didn’t necessarily point due North. He fought for good, and knew the importance of being a role model to Joey, but it was fear of straying from this path and being the wrong kind of influence that caused him to leave town at the end, once he made sure the town dispute was settled. The depth to Shane sold his character and made him a treat to watch.

Aaron: I also think Alan Ladd was perfectly cast as the character; he’s got a charisma that projects past the movie screen. He doesn’t do or say much, but when he does take action or speak his mind, it matters. I also had to admire how Shane’s clothes and appearance helped set him apart from the thugs he was up against, and even Joe Starrett. Shane is meant to come across as this idealized version of “cool” and morality, especially to Joe’s son, Joey. Conversely, Joe is more down to earth and closer to what the reality of life in this time period was like for most people. I really appreciated how these two interacted, and the undercurrent of jealousy between them. They both have something the other can’t have; Shane is a hero to Joey right away, while Joe has the settled down family life that Shane probably will get the chance to experience.

Don’t Take Your Guns to Town
Michael: Westerns typically rely on the “showdown” trope at the end of the movie, in which the white hat and the black hat typically have a shootout, and justice is served. Shane threw that trope on its head by making an entire subplot about the fact that Marian was very anti-guns, and Shane himself wasn’t fond of the need to use them. For a movie that came out in 1953, I was surprised to see that level of commentary. It’s also interesting to me that it’s such a relevant conversation 63 years later. Regardless of your stance on guns, you can recognize the fact that they’re polarizing and while this movie isn’t saying “we shouldn’t be allowed to have guns,” it is very much making note of the fact that it’s sad we even need them to begin with.

Aaron: I think the movie’s clear message is that we shouldn’t romanticize guns. Joey is rarely doing something besides playing with either an unloaded rifle or else a toy wooden gun, unless he is pestering his father or Shane to teach him how to shoot. On one hand, it’s understandable; Joey’s the son of a farmer and doesn’t do much in the way of “exciting” things, so he has this idea that guns are cool. But the movie does show us that being obsessed with guns without understanding their consequences is harmful. Something that stuck out to me on this second viewing was that Joey doesn’t understand what his father means by “a pine box”. The movie is basically saying that Joey doesn’t quite have a grasp on the concept of death yet. Another thing I noticed is that while Joey is very much a point of view character for the audience, he never actually learns his lesson. It’s Shane, the grown man, who makes the tough call to remove the bad influence from Joey’s life, even if he’s part of that bad influence.

Michael: And I think that’s the takeaway: be like Shane. When it comes to guns, understand their power, don’t be obsessed with them, and use them only when necessary. This movie should be required viewing for gun owners, specifically highlighting how Shane views them. But that’s getting political, so that’s for another time.

Off Into the Sunset
Aaron: Here’s the thing about Shane that really stood out to me on this second viewing; he makes good decisions throughout this film, but we don’t know anything about him before he runs into the Starretts. We come to learn that he’s exceptionally skilled with a gun, but also doesn’t like using them. But there are two key moments early in the film where small noises cause Shane to get a little trigger happy, and while he doesn’t actually shoot, he very nearly pulls his gun on Joey in the opening minutes. Then he’s horrified by it. I realized that Shane probably has done some things in his past that he’s very ashamed of, that have damaged him and put him on edge. We don’t know what Shane has done, but we know that he’s trying to be better.

Michael: You know, now that you say that (“we know that he’s trying to be better.”), I’m reminded of Timothy Olyphant’s portrayal of Raylan Givens on the FX series Justified. He’s a U.S. Marshall who only draws his gun with the intent to kill so essentially many standoffs in the series come down to “don’t make me do this; I don’t want to do this.” There’s plenty of death in the series (especially death caused by Raylan), but he too has a sound moral compass…for the most part. It almost feels like that show is a direct descendant of Shane now that I see it. Watching a movie like this have a historical impact on the future of the genre raises its stock with me.

Aaron: I think the discussion that piqued my interest the most in this movie is when the Starretts and the ranchers finally discuss their problems with each other like civilized people. The ranchers have a legitimate point, but they are bullies who are using force to try and get their way from the peaceful, more civilized farmers that are settling in the area. It’s pointed out that while the ranchers and gunslingers who “tamed” the West were needed at one time, that time is effectively over. There’s no room for killers and vigilantes in a civil society. And again, what separates Shane (the character) from the rest, is that he’s aware that his time has past. It’s time to ride off into the sunset and stop playing cowboy. But we can still have a certain respect and admiration for them, as long as it’s tempered with reality.

Aaron: Some movies aren’t necessarily the most flawless masterpieces ever made, but don’t have to be in order to make an impact on you. Now, Shane is an excellent film with good acting, a solid script, and pioneered techniques with landscape shots. But that’s not really what speaks to me in Shane is the consequences of hero worship, both in specific incidences and on the grander scale of holding up the American Cowboy as some wholesome symbol of simpler times. I went from liking this movie to loving it with this second watch, and I’ve fully absorbed it into part of my identity as a film viewer.


Michael: I appreciate everything this film brought to the table, and find the themes interesting and the characters well-done. But the primary plot of the film is one of a bygone era that doesn’t hold as much cultural relevance, and I wasn’t particularly engaged by the film. None of this is to say it’s a lesser movie, but just that it didn’t do as much for me as it did for Aaron. Alan Ladd was incredible and it was better-shot than I expected it to be though.


Aaron: Hmm. I don’t think we’ve had that drastic a difference in ratings in a while. Actually kind of cool, to be honest.

Michael: And last time we had drastic differences, one of us didn’t even like the movie. At least this one just had “varying levels of like” behind it.

Which Westerns are your favorites to watch?

Next week:

Michael: This next pick is a movie I personally just saw for the first time last year, but I thought it was full of so many great performances, that we needed to do it for the column.


Aaron: I’ve watched an awful lot of movies about finances lately. Perhaps that explains why I have none.

Michael: It’s actually a genre I used to hate (largely because I just didn’t understand what was going on), but I’ve grown to appreciate it, and Glengarry Glen Ross may very well be at the top of the pile for me.

Are you a closer?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane


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The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Shane is a legendary Western movie, and while it's more of a hit for Aaron than Michael, we both think it holds up pretty well 63 years after its release. The cast of characters, led by Alan Ladd as the titular character, tell a compelling human drama with themes that still feel relevant today. If you're a fan of the genre or are looking to get into it, Shane gets a solid recommendation from us.