Tuesday, August 18, 2020

George Stevens | Shane

redeeming families

A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Jack Sher (screenplay, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer), George Stevens (director) Shane / 1953

Quite by accident, I ordered two films from Netflix back to back that I would never have thought to pair, but which share the same narrative structures: George Stevens’ 1953 classic, Shane, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 movie, Teorema.
      On the surface these films are obviously quite different; there is no real sex, for example, in Shane, while Pasolini’s Visitor has sex with nearly all family members, including their maid. Shane, moreover, is clearly without the Marxist and Roman Catholic messages of Teorema. But for all that, the films are similar in their plots and significance.
       As in the Pasolini work, a visitor (Alan Ladd) appears out of nowhere and is quickly welcomed to live with the family, in this case working as a hired hand.
     Almost as in Teorema the young boy, Joey (Brandon deWilde) immediately takes a liking to the handsome stranger crossing his family’s land, as does the Shane to the boy. Clearly, there is no sexual relationship between the two, but it is equally obvious that Shane is absolutely worshiped by Joey, and, at one point, he tells his mother even that he “loves” the stranger. Perhaps it is just their good acting and the easy comfort in one another’s company, but Ladd and deWilde do seem absolutely delighted being together, winking and smiling every time their eyes come to rest on each other. Joey’s mother (Jean Arthur), knowing that one day Shane will have to leave, warns her son not to love him too much.
    Even the fact that it is Shane’s ability to use a gun that most attracts the boy, the obvious Freudian implications of that make it clear that it is the Shane’s western masculinity that draws the boy to him. One of my friends recently suggested that the relationship is so close to sexuality (which in this instance would be pedophilia)—the boy, dressed only in his night shirt, even visits Shane sleeping in the barn early one morning—that it is amazing that the director “got away with it.” It might have been even more interesting and controversial had Stevens been able to cast Ladd’s role with his first choice, Montgomery Clift, a gay actor.
       But Joey isn’t the only one who immediately seems to fall in love with Shane. Joey’s mother, Marian Starrett, lights up in his presence, immediately serving up a meal that her husband describes as “fancy.” It is at her urging that her husband asks Shane to stay with them. She dresses up in her “wedding” dress, primarily for Shane, it is made clear, when the hired hand joins the family for a trip into town. Although, once again, the two do not have sex, Shane’s very presence clearly provides her a sexual frisson. At the Memorial Day celebration, she dances more with Shane than with her own, quite clumsy husband.
       If her husband, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), demonstrates little jealousy of Shane, it may be because, he too, obviously is attracted to the man and enjoys his company. Hardly have the two met when Shane sheds his shirt and helps Starrett remove a front-yard stump that the farmer has been whittling away for years. Starrett, too, changes his whole demeanor whenever Shane appears.
        More importantly, as in Teorema, the appearance of the visitor redeems the entire family and their small farm neighbors. Along with the other homesteaders, who have been continually threatened by local ranchers headed by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), they suddenly feel strong enough to make a trip into town to buy goods and to celebrate Independence Day nearby.
        By single-handedly fighting and beating the entire gang, Shane emboldens the Starretts and others to remain on their land. And by determining to take on the gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) Ryker has hired to kill Starrett, Shane saves his friend’s life. Even as Shane wrestles Starrett to prevent him from going alone to Ryker’s headquarters, it appears the two are more engaged in a sexual embrace than in a true battle, and it takes a gun (again with all its Freudian associations) to knock him out. Once Shane accomplishes the act, he immediately gets water to help the loser to be quickly returned to consciousness.
       Now that he has restored meaning to the Starrett’s lives, he, like Pasolini’s beautiful hero, must leave, despite young Joey’s moan of despair: “Shaaaane, don’t go.”

Los Angeles, June 8, 2016
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2016).

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