For a classic western, Shane has becme a coat of many colors. It was written for and still loved by adults, but is now primarily marketed for middle school students. It has been reviewed in genre but also as a romance (All About Romance: Suzanne Brockman) and even as a defense of Ayn Rand and Objectivism.
Jack Schaefer was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1907. He grew up immersed in a world of books and literature. Both his parents were avid readers, and his lawyer-father, a "Lincoln nut" as Schaefer affectionately characterized him, was a friend of Carl Sandburg's. As a boy, Schaefer read "everything in sight," from the Edgar Rice Burroughs "Tarzan" stories, early favorites of his, to the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas. In high school, following the example of his older sister, Schaefer edited the literary magazine, and as he later recalled, was well on his way to being, like her, a "literary nut."
Schaefer graduated from Oberlin College in 1929 and enrolled for graduate work in Columbia University. After a year there, he quit in a huff when he asn't allowed to write a thesis about the movies - what his professors labeled "cheap reproductions of stage plays."
Having abandoned the prospect of becoming a professional scholar, Schaefer turned to journalism. Over the next two years he wrote countless news items; scores of feature articles; hundreds of opinion columns; several thousand reviews of books, films, plays, and concerts; and some fifteen thousand editorials--or "small essays, some not so small," as he once characterized them.
Shane was first published in an abbreviated form as a serial "Rider from Nowhere" in the popular adventure magazine Argosy in 1946. Four years later a fleshed-out version was published as the novel.
"Call me Shane!"
That's the only name that the Starretts, Joe, Marion and their son Bob get from the stranger who rides onto their homestead in search of a cooling drink. The mysterious man in black receives his water, and, before the story is over, perhaps a little redemption as well. That he needs to be redeemed is clearly implied. But from what, and at what price? That's mostly left to the reader's imagination in this short novel set in Wyoming in 1889. What we do know, we learn from the memories of Bob, the story's narrator.
The Starretts, along with a few other families, are homesteaders and their fences chip away more and more pieces of the open range. Fletcher, the local cattle baron is determined to hold on to the old ways, and so Shane finds himself in the middle of this small valley's battle in the great range war.
He didn't plan it that way. He was just passing through, as he says, "on his way to somewhere." But Joe asks him to stay. It seems a strange request, because Shane has neither the look nor the manner of a farmer, and stranger still that he accepts. But Shane sees goodness in the Starretts and perhaps an illusion that he can recapture a bit of a better past and family long left behind. And in Marion he sees an impossible dream.
The actual conflict between Fletcher and the homesteaders occurs in the book's second half. The first is primarily a settling in story as Shane becomes special to each one in the family that befriends him. Both Joe and Marion sense the danger that lies just below Shane's calm exterior. Joe accepts it as a part of this man he comes to like very much. Marion is both frightened by it and attracted to it. She is also drawn to the stranger's obvious cultural upbringing, much closer to her own than is that of her rough-hewn husband. But she loves Joe and in a moving, if oblique way, she both tells and asks Shane that nothing happen between them.
Then, at about the book's midway point, the range war changes from threats and bullying to full-scale battle. Fletcher has obtained a large contract from the government for beef and is determined to force out the homesteaders and tear down the fences. For his opening salvo, he sends, Chris, one of his cowhands, to beat on Shane and scare him away, as he did an earlier hired hand of the Starretts. But in the bar at Grafton's General Store, Shane, sensing something good in the cowboy, knowing that Chris is no match for him, and wanting to keep his own demons at bay, avoids the fight.
Word quickly gets around that Shane is a coward. The Starretts, sure that it's not true, defend him to their neighbors. But the gunfighter knows that he has shamed his friend. Sorrowfully he returns to Grafton, has his unnecessary fight and beats Chris badly.
Ben Johnson as Chris
The next time the Starretts go into town, Fletcher's men gang up on Shane in the bar. They are going to beat him up and run him out of town. Joe hears the ruckus, sees that Shane is greatly outnumbered and rushes in to fight at his friend's side. Together they defeat the cowboys.
Shane and Starrett defeat the cowboys
After the fight, Fletcher, sensing that the town's people are beginning to sympathize with the homesteaders, decides that he must take desperate measures. Time is no longer on his side. So he makes a trip to Cheyenne and returns with the notorious gunfighter Wilson.
To force Starrett's hand, Wilson goads Joe's hotheaded neighbor, Henry Shipstead, into a gunfight and kills him.
Jack Palance as Wilson does in Elisa Cook
Starrett knows that he must respond or be branded a coward. That will be all the excuse his fellow homesteaders need to run. Both Shane and Marion know that he is going to his death. Down deep, he knows it too, which is why he confesses to Marion that he has sensed the mutual attraction between his wife and the man they both love. He tells her that if something happens she will be taken care of, perhaps better than even he could.
Shane returns from the stable with his .45 strapped on. This is his kind of fight, he tells Joe, and when Starrett says no, Shane knocks him out with his gun. In this way, the gunfighter explains to Marion, no one will be able to call Joe a coward for failing tot show up. In the touching scene that follows, Marion asks Shane if he is doing this just for her. He pauses before answering, then tells her he is doing it for then all, and that he would never do anything to hurt them as a family.
Shane heads for town and showdown. Bob follows and witnesses all that happens. Shane outdraws and kills Wilson and also kills Fletcher who tries to shoot him from ambush.
as Shane takes care
of Wilson and Fletcher
He is wounded but mounts his horse and rides away. Bob tries to persuade him to stay but the gun fighter tells the boy that there is no going back from a killing and, when the boy pleads that his family still needs him, adds that leaving is the best thing he can do for them now.
The story should have ended there, but Schaefer tacks on an unnecessary chapter in which Joe, guilty with the pain that his fight has brought to one they have learned to love, wants to pack up and leave. Marion dissuades him, reminding her husband that Shane will always be a part of this place they love so well.
Despite this small flaw, the book is a western classic, It is a simple tale told simply but with great style and beauty.
In 1953, Director George C. Stevens transferred Schafer's great small book into a great, large film, arguably the finest western in film history. Actually the largeness is in the cinematography. The west has never looked so grand or so realistically plain in the same 118 minutes span. The sets are simple and true to life - the homesteads small, the town, a few ugly buildings turned uglier still by mud and violence. And yet all sit in the shadow of the magnificent Grand Tetons, which seem to reach from here to everywhere.
Stevens is wise enough to stick closely to Schaffer's story, although he moves the action, which is primarily in the novel's second half, so far forward that the first confrontation between Starrett and Ryker takes place within the film's first ten minutes.
No, this is not a misprint. The cattle baron, Fletcher in the book, is Rufus Ryker in the movie. And Joe Starrett's son changes from Bob to, what seem to me, a more appropriate Joey.
And, yes, if you look carefully in the opening long shot of Joey watching Shane ride towards him, you can see the reflection of the sun on a car passing in the far difference. But greatness needs a flaw less it be perfection.
As in the book, Shane stops for water, but while he is talking to Joe and Joey, Ryker's men are seen riding up. Starrett mistakes Shane for one of Ryker's new men and orders him off his property. The gunfighter seems to leave. But when Ryker announces his new contract with the government for beef and promise to run Joe and the other homesteaders off the land things edge toward ugly. At that moment Shane steps from behind the house and backs Starrett. Ryker and his men ride off, Shane agrees first to join them for dinner and later to work for Joe, and a deep friendship is born.
As I alluded to earlier, the major difference between the film and the book is that Schaefer mostly separates the back story (the developing relationship between Shane and all three Starretts) from the action by making it the main theme of the book's first half. The second half is virtually all action. Stevens, on the other hand, constantly mixes the two.
Shane helps Joe chop out the huge stump. Shane goes to town, is confronted by Chris and avoids the fight. The other homesteaders put Shane down as a coward - which is somewhat jarring in that most of them show cowardly traits themselves. Stevens then combines two of the novel's fight scenes into one. Shane has his fight with Chris at Graften's saloon. Impressed, Rufus Ryker offers Shane a job and when he refuses, hints that the gunfighter is interested in Marion Starrett. Shane calls the rancher a "dirty old man" and is immediately jumped by Ryker's brother and several others. At first he holds his own, but there are two many. Joey, who has been watching summons his dad and they make short work of the cowboys. While Marian patches up "her" two men, Ryker sends a hand to Laramie to hire the noted gunfighter Jack Wilson.
Emile Meer as Rufus Ryker, Jack Palance as Wilson, and John Dierkes as Morgan Ryker.
There are a few other differences. In the book, Wilson is something of a dandy while Shane wears black. In the film, it is Wilson in black and Shane in buckskin. Also, in the movie it is the hotheaded rebel Tory and not Shipstead who is goaded into a suicidal gunfight with Wilson.
But other than moving the action forward, the biggest difference between novel and film is the fight scene between Shane and Joe. The argument between Starrett and Shane about who will ride into town for the showdown with Ryker and Wilson ends with the same blow of Shane's pistol to Joe's head but not before the two have a huge fight filmed memorably between the legs of frightened horses. If you remember. Stevens has set this up early in the film when Joey asks his dad if he could lick Shane. Now Joey yells out his anger at Shane for cheating by using his gun. But Marion calms him and Joey rushes after the gunfighter to apologize.
He never quite catches up (he does in the book) but arrives in town just in time to witness, the shootout in which Shane although wounded kills both Wilson in a straight gun fight and then Ryker who tries to kill him from ambush.
There is no repeat of the novel's after story. The movie ends with Shane riding away despite Joey's plea to stay - "Dad needs you, mom needs you."
So you have book and film - the same and different - and both at or very near the top of their genre.