«_ ABSTRACT: The western is the only fully-fledged film genre defined by geographical location. Yet does this mean that place, or a sense of place, ...»
A Western Sense of Place: The Case of George Stevens' Shane
Jeff Malpas – Tasmania/LaTrobe
ABSTRACT: The western is the only fully-fledged film genre defined by geographical location. Yet does this
mean that place, or a sense of place, plays a more significant role in the Western than in other film genres? On
the face of it, it would seem that it does not. For the most part, place typically appears in the Western as little more than the scenic background to the action that is the real thread of the film – and sometimes, even the generic character of many Western locations, it is not even especially scenic. Yet there are aspects of the way place figures in the Western, or in particular Westerns, that does suggest the possibility that place can take on a more significant and complex role in the Western, and that there may, after all, be such a thing as a “Western” sense of place. Taking George Stevens' Shane as an example, this essay will explore the way place figures in one of the classic films of the genre.
… it is hard to be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the pattern that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery – Wallace Stegner Although there is debate as to what defines the 'West' as it figures in the 'Western' – and so debate over what exactly counts as a western and what does not (whether, for instance, a movie such as Last of the Mohicans, can properly be counted as part of the Western genre) – the Western is nevertheless a genre of film, unlike almost every other, that is defined first and foremost by its place. This is not diminished by the fact that the place of the Western is, in many respects, a mythical place. The Arthurian cycle that marks the British landscape of England, Wales, Scotland, and Brittany, and that is also articulated in both literature, and over the last hundred years, in film (and is capable of comparison with the Western in other respects also), may be viewed as even more the stuff of myth than is the Western, and yet it too is embedded in a place and a topography. To say that the Western belongs to and evokes a place is not to say that the Western is only to be understood as belonging to a certain part of geographical space. The place of the Western encompasses a certain time no less than a space. This is an inevitable consequence, quite apart from any other consideration, of the fact that the spatial and temporal are not independent modes of dimensionality, but rather belong together within the compass of the topographic. To talk of the place of the Western or of a Western'sense of place' is thus not to talk only of the space to which the Western belongs, nor just of a certain time, but of both taken together – something especially evident in the way Frederick Turner's work is so often invoked in discussions of the nature of the Western, its origins, and its characteristic preoccupations.2 Moreover, although tied to place, the place of the Western is nevertheless essentially indeterminate. The geographical space of the Western thus spreads out from what might be viewed as its exemplary location "west of the Mississippi, south of the 49th parallel, and north of the Rio Grande",3 and although the time of the Western seems to belong primarily to the period of American history following the Civil War up until the official end of the frontier in 1890, it also seems to spill over these bounds both before and after.
If we turn from questions of geographical or historical locatedness to the issues of thematic characterisation, still the theme of place remains. Consider the passage from Don
Delillo that appears as the epigram to an essay by Scott Simmon on My Darling Clementine:
People talk about classic Westerns. The classic thing has always been the space, the emptiness. The lines are drawn for us. All we have to do is insert the figures, men in dusty boots, certain faces. Figures in open space have always been what film is all about. American film. This is the situation. People in a wilderness, a wild and barren space. The space is the desert, the movie screen, the strip of film, however you see it. What are the people doing here? This is their existence. They're here to work out their existence. This space, this emptiness is what they have to confront.
Here Delillo provides us with a characterisation of the Western and not only the Western, but American film, or perhaps film itself, that not only presents it as essentially existential, but takes that existentiality to be worked out and portrayed through the actions of figures in an essentially empty space. The emptiness of the space, its character as wilderness, is directly tied to the existentiality of the situation: human existence, as Dellilo sees it, is just a working out of existence in the midst of emptiness, in the face of nullity. The place of the Western for Delillo becomes almost a non-place, a place from which meaning has been erased, and in which meaning becomes problematic. One might take this understanding of place in the Western to be present in its starkest form in the films of Sergio Leone or Sam Pekinpath – films in which the landscape stands as the empty and inhospitable counterpart to the existential situation that the characters confront. Elsewhere, notably in the films of John Ford, the existential charter of place may be less obvious, but the expressive character of place is to the fore. In Ford's films, the grandeur of Monument Valley reinforces the epic quality of the action, while also resonating with larger themes belonging to the American sense of national identity as defined in its relation to the landscape.5 Yet it should also be said that for many Westerns, in spite of their character as Westerns, the place and sense of place that on which they depend and which they evoke is often highly generalised – little more than a standardised and unremarkable backdrop, a bland background of generic desert or brush. In many cases this undoubtedly reflects the fact that so many Westerns, especially given their character as B-grade productions, were shot on Hollywood back-lots and in the hills of Southern California. Nevertheless, the fact that not all Westerns engage with place in a significant way does not take away from the centrality of place in the Western as a specific genre. Moreover, in some Westerns, there is indeed a thematisation of issues of place that go beyond its existential or expressive roles alone. Particularly notable in this respect is George Stevens' 1953 movie Shane.
Although an immediate box-office and critical success, Shane has not garnered the same level of attention in the period since its release as have other films from the same era – especially when compared with a movie such as Ford's The Searchers (a movie sometimes seen as itself developing themes present in Stevens' own film). One reason for this is undoubtedly that Shane was Stevens' only genuine Western, and so, unlike Ford's film, Shane does not figure within a larger body of work within the same genre. Moreover, while often cited as a 'classic', Shane also exhibits some anomalous elements. Alan Ladd is a strange, withdrawn, and as often pointed out, almost feminised, figure (something that reflects the portrayal of the character in Jack Schaefer's book on which the movie was based6) – his relative slightness in physical terms seemingly at odds with the usual image of the Western hero as portrayed by such as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. The film is also shot in a somewhat stylised fashion, with a strong sense of artistic direction, and with a complex set of ideas worked out in relatively explicit form in the film's dialogue. In addition, although the film deploys many classic Western motifs – the reluctant gunfighter forced to return to his trade to defend a community from which he is inevitably alienated, the cattle rancher exercising his power through violence directed at a group of homesteaders who threaten the openness of the range – it does so in a way that also complicates the ways in which those motifs appear. The ambiguous manner in which Shane himself is portrayed is one such complication. Even more significant, however, is in the portrayal of Rufe Ryker (Bert Freed), the landowner who is the immediate instigator of the conflict on which the film centres. Rather than presenting Ryker as a figure of unmitigated malice, the film offers a picture of Ryker as only reluctantly forced to killing as the means to resolve matters, and in a long speech near the heart of the movie, Ryker is allowed to present, in clearly argued fashion, the rationale behind his actions, and the justification for his own right to the land as taking precedence over the claims of the families who threaten that right. These and other factors give the film a somewhat old-fashioned look to a modern audience used to rather less dialogue than Shane offers, to more spectacular action, and to a more straightforwardly realistic mode of filmic presentation.
Nevertheless, Shane remains a film worthy of critical attention precisely because of the way the simplicity of its story belies the complexity of its structure and underlying ideas, because it does indeed offer a singular representation of classic Western themes, and because, from the perspective of a Western 'sense of place', it is unusual among Westerns for the way in which place is thematized and deployed. Moreover, Shane also has an important role in Western movie history. It was the first big-screen colour western ever produced, winning an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Colour (Loyal Griggs), as well as five other nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Shane has influenced, and been invoked by, a number of subsequent films, not only Westerns, from Bonnie and Clyde to The Deer Hunter, as well as taking an iconic place in popular culture, and stands in an intriguing relation, not only to the Clint Eastwood remake from 1985, Pale Rider, but also to the 1963 production, the 'post-Western', or even 'anti-Western', Hud, starring Paul Newman.
The basic story of Shane is simple to tell. A passing buck-skin clad, gun-toting stranger, Shane, is drawn into the life of a homesteading family made up of Joe Starret (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur), and their young son Joey7 (Brandon Wilde). The family, and the community of which they are part, are threatened by the local cattle rancher, Ryker, who brings in a gunfighter from Cheyenne, Wilson (a young Jack Palance), to help him force the homesteaders off the land. After Wilson brutally kills one of the homesteaders, Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.), the other homesteaders are set to abandon their claims, but are persuaded against it by Starrett and Shane. Starrett decides to resolve matters by taking on Ryker himself. Knowing Starrett would be walking into a trap, Shane fights Starrett, incapacitating him, then riding into town himself, where he fights and kills Wilson, Ryker, and his brother Morgan (John Dierkes), but is himself wounded. Watched by the young boy Joey, who tries to persuade Shane to stay ("Shane! Shane! Come back!"), Shane rides off into the hills from which he came, his future as enigmatic as his past. Based on Jack 's novel of the same name, loosely inspired by the Johnson County Range War of 1892 (the subject of Michael Cimino's ill-fated 1980 picture Heaven's Gate), Shane was shot in Wyoming, near a place called Jackson Hole, in the Grand Tetons National Park. The action takes place in what is presented as a well-watered valley (actually a high mountain plain that is much less hospitable than it may appear in the film) with the snow-covered peaks of the Grand Teton range looming behind.
The opening sequence of the film, one of the most famous of any Western, shows Shane riding down out of the mountains into the valley below ("almost floats down" is how Philip French describes it8). The film thus begins, as indeed so many Westerns do, with a figure in a landscape, and in this case the landscape is powerfully present. The valley is set against the massive mountains behind (deliberately filmed so as to make them appear closer than they really are), and we see a deer drinking from the river that runs near a logcabin homestead, a young boy with a rifle (unloaded as we later discover) plays at stalking the animal, and through a window in the cabin a woman sings while she attends to household chores. Shane is a film that takes as one of its main themes the relation between a place and the people who live in it. Some of those relations are already prefigured in the film's opening sequence, but that sequence also indicates the human relationships (between Shane, Joey, and Marian) that will contribute to a large part of the film's central narrative. The intersecting relationships at issue here are presented through the intersecting shots of the landscape from which these opening scenes are composed. Shane is also a film about belonging and the establishing of home (and, in Shane's own case, about the impossibility of such a home), and about the founding of a community in the place that is depicted in this opening sequence – about the transition from wilderness to cultivation, about the transition from a relationship of individual appropriation of land to one in which the land becomes a place of communal engagement (in this latter respect, the story of Shane fits neatly into Turner's account of American society and history).