When I think of gun culture in America, I spin off to the Wild West and that makes me think of the book(1949) and movie called “Shane”(1953). Book and film merge in my mind. Shane can only look like Alan Ladd. Shane is the laconic, reluctant gunfighter, a man with shadows living in the shadows of silence. In the book he doesn’t even tote a gun until after the real danger has arrived. One feels this kind, dangerous man wants to retreat from some earlier, deep melancholy of his own. He’s trapped in his past. “A man is what he is,” Shane says to Joey(the little boy played by Brandon DeWilde), ” and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost.” *
And in the uncivilized West, Wyoming Territory in particular, self and home defense were absolute necessities. The Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) family, homesteaders, live out on the plains, a hundred miles from a sheriff. And while the Indian threat doesn’t seem to be serious in this story, a farmer still needs firearms for hunting, varmint control and self-preservation in an essentially lawless land. The looming threat here is Ryker and his hired cowboys. Ryker is acattleman who wants to rid the range of sod busters so he can create his cattle empire. Sooner or later fear will becomes palpablel in the person of the gunfighter, Jack Wilson. No one could play stark evil better than Jack Palance.
In the book the first suggestion of guns appears when Joey Starrett starts to help Shane stow his gear. Shane quickly relieves the boy of his saddle roll in which Shane’s grand, single action Colt is wrapped. And later when Joey is playing with an old broken down Colt, Shane says, “Listen, Joey, a gun is just a tool. No better and no worse than any other tool, a shovel — or an axe or a saddle or a stove or anything. Think of it always that way. A man is as good and as bad as the man who carries it.” Of course, Shane has become an awesome model for Joey.
Shane the reluctant, anti-hero boasts only once when he wants to dissuade Joe Starrett from taking on the gunfighter Wilson. Shane’s gun is a fact of life and an icon of Shane’s very being — but nothing to be worshiped. In the end after Shane triumphs he refers to the gun he has just used as a “good tool.” Here is the epitome of a good man with a gun. He is not a paranoid or a romantic avenger. Good Shane’s gun is a good tool — like the axes he and Joe Starrett use to passionately remove an old tree stump and like the stove Marian Starret(Jean Arthur) uses to bake her apple pie — especially after the failure of her first effort. In some ways the stove is a very effective weapon against rampant testosterone in the Starrett home. We all have good tools.
Having viewed the film many times, I’ve finally read the book. Until recently I did not know the film was based on Jack Shaefer’s novel. Anyone who enjoys the film, should read the novel. Neither is better than the other. They are different and both are superb, simple, classical works. If I needed a good man with a gun, it would be Shane. I would want him to come back and ride by my side. Violence in “Shane” amounts to verbal bullying, fist fighting and one final gun duel. Good wins. Bad loses. Bullying gets its comeuppance. And yet, Shane, expert gunfighter himself, projects a grim outlook on violence. The justness of his cause cannot be denied. Rancher and gunfighter deserved their fates.
But this is art and a far cry from some stupid, raging domestic shooting in a kitchen between feuding spouses. It has nothing to do with a gun left carelessly within reach of a child. I can’t imagine Shane using his gun under the influence of anything but his skill, principle and will. Shane’s gun is not an indispensable extension of his ego. In fact Shane would forsake gun fighting if he could. A gun in “Shane” has noble use. At the same time there’s reality in the despicable meanness, ambition and greed that threatens a prairie village. Only a gun can clean it up.
* I refer to the book and use quotations from it.