«_ 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, ...»
It is often said, and Stevens' himself evoked the image, that the figure Shane represents is that of the knight errant of Arthurian legend (the relationship that develops between Shane and Marian Starrett also suggests shades of Lancelot and Guinevere), but in other respects Shane's role is that of the city-founding hero of classical mythology (Schaefer was himself trained as a classicist) – the hero who slays the monster that has taken possession of a place, and by this act of almost ritual violence enables the growth of a genuine human community. In classical mythology what is destroyed in this act is not just a threatening creature, but a vestige of an earlier time, a representative of an almost prehuman order.9 Certainly, with his strong character, his bearded face, and the power he exercises over his men, Ryker has something of the appearance of such a pre-human figure, "an outmoded pagan god".10 The justification he gives of his right to the land, while sometimes likened to a Lockean defence of property, is perhaps closer to that of the ruler who takes possession through conquest. Ryker argues that it was he who first opened up the land, who wrested it from control of the Cheyenne Indians (and has an arrowhead in his shoulder to prove it).
Significantly, Starrett's rebuttal of Ryker's claim depends implicitly on a refusal of conquest as a legitimation of title on the grounds, partly, that there were others who were there before Ryker, but more importantly that genuine title depends on community recognition ("the government"), rather than one man's assertion of possession. This is a crucial point in the film, since much of its underlying argument can be seen to rest in the value of community over any individual benefit and especially in the absolute value of community and family over considerations of profit or mere use-value. The land itself appears as that which sustains community and through which community is enabled – not as that which is simply to be exploited for purposes of individual enrichment. Shane's act of killing Ryker, which also means killing those who most directly exercise his will, namely Wilson and Morgan, is not simply another instance of violence analogous to the violence by which Ryker disposed of the Cheyenne, but is instead a rejection of the idea of the land as subject to individual will and the exercise of that will and the establishing in its place of the principle according to which the land is the basis for community. Moreover, Shane's own buckskin-clad appearance is also suggestive of his identification with the land itself – unlike Wilson, whose more conventional getup connects him to the city from which he comes (in this respect, Stevens significantly deviates from the depiction in Schaefer's novel in which Shane's clothing, although marked by use, is described as uniformly dark, and he wears a black belt, a black hat, and a black silk handkerchief round his neck11). In this manner, Shane may even appear as embodying the spirit of the land itself, passing final judgment on Ryker whether for his wilful usurpation of title or simply for having outlived his proper time.
The intimate relation of community and land – of community and place – is one of the strongest, although perhaps most readily taken-for-granted, elements in Stevens' film.
The valley that opens up in the film's initial sequence encompasses all of the action that subsequently develops. In this respect, the film is the story, not only of the Starretts and of Ryker, but of the valley itself. Significantly, although Ryker claims the valley as his own – as the range on which he raises his cattle – it is in the small cluster of buildings that make up the town (the blacksmith's, the hotel, and the combined bar and general store that is Grafton's12), and especially in Grafton's bar, that is where we most often see him and his men. Like the mythical monster that terrorizes a whole countryside, but nevertheless remains for the most part in a single lair, Ryker too, for all that he claims the valley as his range, seems primarily to belong to just one place, and an interior place at that. By contrast, the homesteaders, the Starretts among them, move between one another's claims, and between those claims and the town. In a scene set on the town's cemetery hill with the homesteaders gathered for 'Stonewall' Torrey's burial, we see, from the one standpoint, both the town (where Ryker's men themselves watch the gathering on the hill) and the setting alight of the Wright's cabin. The valley itself appears as an interlinked series of places that is constituted through the cabins and claims belonging to the homesteaders, the town, and the cemetery, all enclosed and watched over by the mountains around. It is significant that as the actions of Rykers' men are directed at the destruction of the homesteaders farms, so they are also engaged in the destruction of the interlinked places in which the homesteaders' community is instantiated.
The life of the homesteaders also exhibits, in contrast to that of Ryker and his men, a much more intimate engagement with the land. The homesteaders raise chickens (selling them at Grafton's store) and pigs, as well as dairy cattle, and they plant crops. In what is perhaps the most famous scene from the film, Shane and Joe Starrett work together to remove a huge blackened stump from the ground near the Starrett's cabin. In doing so, they not only establish the bond that holds between them as men, but also a bond between themselves and the place – a bond that is achieved through the symbolic transformation of the place from a place of resistance to habitation and cultivation into one suitable for it. It is Shane who initiates the struggle with the stump, and it is shortly afterwards that Shane exchanges his buckskin for ordinary blue work-clothes. In Marian's case, her inscribing of her own self onto the landscape occurs in an equally significant, but very different fashion, through the small and fragile garden that she has planted alongside the cabin. Not only is it vulnerable to nature (notably the deer that wakes Joey the morning after Shane's arrival), but the initial confrontation that occurs as one of the film's very first scenes has Ryker's men riding through the small garden, tangling in their horses' legs the strings that mark it off, and trampling the seedlings that have been planted. It is significant that when Shane rides up to the Starrett homestead, he does not ride through the garden, but carefully avoids it. In contrast to the feminised elements in Shane's character (something even more strongly present in Schafer's book, in which Shane even offers Marian news and advice about women's fashions), Ryker himself presents a resolutely male figure, and the group that surrounds him is exclusively male in character. As a world dominated by the single male individual, Ryker's world involves only the most minimal of families – himself and his brother Morgan. As such, it is a world from which the feminine has been excluded; a world dominated by its past and present, but a world that offers little in the way of any real future.
The contrasting modes of life represented by Ryker and the homesteaders are presented in terms of very different modes of spatial and topographic form. Significantly, this is also true of the way in which Stevens presents the relations between different characters and their roles as worked out within the film. The most obvious example of this is in the division of spaces within Grafton's bar and store. The bar is a male space, while the
store is seen, at least by Ryker's men, as female. This has one particularly important aspect:
when the homesteaders visit the store together, men, wives and children together, we see one of Ernie Wright's daughters trying on a hat in a mirror, Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson) then appears leering behind her. In some ways the scene is an odd one given the gendered nature of the space, and the fact that on no other occasion do Ryker's men ever approach that part of the building, even telling Shane, at one point, to get out of the bar, and back with the women. The scene provides one small and important pointer towards Chris' own defection from Ryker's cause – and in scenes that were edited out of the final cut of the film, Chris's leer is transformed into a genuine romance with Wright's daughter that suggests he will become part of the homesteading community itself (in Schaefer's version of the story, Chris comes to work for Starrett after Shane's departure – in the final version of the film, he simply tells Shane he is "quittin' Ryker").
The connection of spatial differentiation to role and gender differentiation is also evident in many of the scenes at the Starrett homestead. Shane sleeps outside in the separate building that serves as the Starrett's stable and barn. The cabin's main room, combining kitchen, eating area, and living room, is essentially Marian's domain, but not when it becomes a meeting space for the male homesteaders, at which point she withdraws into Joey's bedroom. When Shane himself withdraws from the meeting we see a conversation between him and Marian that takes place through a window, Marian in the dry, well-lit interior, and Shane outside, in the dark of a drenching downpour. The scene is mirrored later in the film when Chris tells Shane of Ryker's duplicity: the scene takes place in the stable, with Chris standing outside and framed in a doorway, while Shane remains in the interior space of the stable. The dialogue between spaces that is evident in these scenes is also present, though in a different way, in the suturing that occurs in the film's opening sequence – the interlinking of views – in which Marian observes Shane, and we observe Marian, through the window of the cabin, while Joey watches the deer, as well as Shane's initial arrival, from behind a bush.13 Later in the film, Wilson's shooting of Torrey uses a contrast between two spaces established, not through any opening in a physical barrier (whether window, door, or the gaps between leaves), but through a difference in height as Torrey stands below Wilson in the muddy track outside the bar and Wilson stands above him on the raised timber floor of the porch.
The way in which human relations are articulated through spatial differentiation, through spatial connection and disconnection, is matched by the formation of community through engagement with shared objects and in common activities. This is most obviously evident in the joining of effort between Shane and Starrett in their uprooting of the treestump, but it is also present in the commitment, made when the Wright's cabin is set ablaze, to share in the task of rebuilding. While some audiences may find Wright's reversal of his decision to leave abrupt and without adequate motivation, it is a reversal based in Wright's recognition of the way his own identity is bound to the cabin he has built for his family, and that is also entirely in keeping with an ideal of identity as formed only in community – as Wright's cabin will be rebuilt with help from Starrett and the others – and according to which identity and community are both formed only by means of collective endeavour and mutual support. As such, identity and community are inseparable from the material forms in which they are given shape and reality.
The revisioning of the story of Shane that occurs in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider also takes up the issue of the defence of community, but it does so in a very different way that is no longer so clearly tied to the spatial and the topographic. Eastwood's narrative concerns a community of prospectors panning for gold in a wooded valley in the mountains of California. The prospectors are threatened by Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), who has given his name to the nearby town, and who is using large scale hydraulic mining techniques to search for gold further along the same valley. The opening scene shows LaHood's men riding through and destroying the prospectors' camp. Once again, a stranger (Eastwood) arrives, taking the side of the leader of the prospectors, Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty), in a fight with LaHood's men outside the general store in the town. Barrett has taken up with one of the women living in the prospectors' camp, Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgress), and together with the woman's daughter, Megan (Sydney Penny), the three form a less conventional version of the family group that appears in Shane. The stranger, who becomes known as the Preacher, attaches himself to this family group, while also encouraging the prospectors' to resist LaHood. The film reworks many of the key scenes from Shane, and in the climactic ending to the film, the stranger kills the corrupt marshal and his men who have been brought in by LaHood to clear out the prospectors, while LaHood is shot by Barrett as he tries to gun down the stranger. Having accomplished his task, the stranger rides off into the mountains. Megan, who has run from the camp to the town, but arrives too late, calls out her love and gratitude as he disappears into the distance.
As in the portrayal of the homesteaders in Shane, the prospectors in Pale Rider are presented as making up a diverse community committed to one another, to their families, and to building a future for themselves that encompasses more than just immediate financial gain. LaHood, on the other hand, is at the centre of another male-only society, preoccupied with the exercise of his own power, and, much more blatantly than Ryker, with the exploitation of the land for the increase of his wealth. The prospectors, like the homesteaders, are identified as living in a way more directly engaged with the land. This is made especially clear through the contrast between their own small-time prospecting methods, and LaHood's industrial assault on the landscape that uses high pressure water to tear into the hillside so that the resulting debris can be processed for the gold it may contain. Thus, unlike Shane, but in keeping with its own time, Pale Rider constructs its narrative within an explicitly environmentalist frame, although this is also allied with a similarly critical attitude towards capitalism and the desire for profit that appears in the earlier film.