Jules Does

Jules Does Films: Shane

Posted on: October 9, 2012

Despite growing up in the desert, I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns. Maybe it’s their intense focus on rugged, angry-looking men, or their espousal of traditional (read: sexist and/or racist) views. Maybe it’s all the guns and the low-voiced growling, or the way there’s always one guy who gets shot, clutches his chest and falls dramatically from a height. Maybe it’s the way they filmed night-time scenes during the day and then tinted them, making the sky a queasy shade of dark blue populated by unusually bright clouds and no stars to speak of.

Shane changed my mind. That is because Shane is basically cowboy Batman. 


That wasn’t just a hook to get you to read below the jump, I really think the parallels are quite striking.

Both the Nolan Batman trilogy and Shane were produced in rather difficult times where the question of good and evil hung heavy in the air: Batman post-9/11 and Shane in the years following WWII. The debate over how far the good can go in persecuting evil before crossing the boundary into wickedness was, is and ever more shall be a complex and intriguing issue. Both Batman and Shane come up with the same answer: a scapegoat, a man (always a man) who enables other men to be good by his borderline-legal semi-transgressions. Shane and Batman are both men who do what other men cannot do. That is the purpose of their existence. Not everyone can be Batman because then Gotham would be over-run with reckless, underfunded vigilantes, and the police can’t beat confessions out of psychopaths because that would defeat the purpose of living in a (nominally) civilized metropolis. Not everyone can be Shane, because they have to stay relatively pure pillars of society hammering down civilization in a place that seems to rebel from their imposition. Shane and Batman are the hands which get dirty so that other people can stay clean. Batman does it for Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight when he takes the blame for Harvey’s murders, Shane does it for Joe Starrett when he stops him from going out to kill Ryker and Wilson. Unfortunately, this role, which is in many ways quite ritualistic, exiles both men from the society they fight to save. They can be venerated, but never really incorporated. Joey can’t grow up to be like Shane, and Shane doesn’t want him to. Batman helps orphaned children financially as well as fighting the criminals responsible for making him an orphan. In a way, like all forces of good, both seek their own destruction, a time when they won’t be needed any more.

Shane is a particularly good example of this because his work really is completed. We know that the West is settled and put under the rule of law. The nebulous ending of the film is great at expressing this – he could be leaving to go help someone new, arriving and departing as abruptly as he did in this film, or he could go out to die, having cleansed the valley of guns and fighting. Like Batman, but more subtly, there’s an undertone of a love affair with a woman who represents what the man hopes to attain in his self-annihilating quest – Marian Starrett, who, as a plains woman, is one of the cornerstones of civilization, or Rachel Dawes, who becomes part of the force of law and order prosecuting the crime lords who dominate Gotham. The comparison is somewhat undermined by Rachel’s death in The Dark Knight, but the point still stands. If Marian left her husband for Shane, that would undo the work Shane had done in cementing civilization by undermining the family unit, which we know to be crucial in the lawless area the Staretts and their fellow homesteaders are trying to settle. A relationship also gives roots to the anti-hero, which we know from various media (but especially stories about spies and superheroes) to be impossible to sustain. The man may fight for the woman, but he may never attain her or be a true part of what she represents.

The worlds of both heroes have very different attitudes to their pasts. Gotham evidently seeks the glory it once had when Bruce Wayne’s father was alive, without the crime which led to its downfall. The unnamed valley in Wyoming actively wants to throw off its own past in the form of Rufus Ryker and settle. Maybe it is for that reason that Batman (unbeknownst to most) has links to Gotham’s proud-ish history and Shane is a man with a history that is only ever alluded to, never discussed or explained. In fact, while Batman seeks to elevate the people from Gotham’s history, in particular Inspector Gordon, Shane and his world actively destroy references to the past. Ryker has a past, Frank Torrey has a past, the gunslinger White has a past as nebulous as Shane’s, while the Staretts do not have much of a past to speak of beyond their wedding day. That might very well be the difference between a city and the place where a city has yet to be established – the provenanced metropolis versus the clean slate.

In short (because this has been long enough), if you ever thought that Westerns weren’t for you or that superhero movies were one-dimensional and trite, I invite you to try both Shane and the Nolan Batman trilogy, preferably in quick succession. The undark sky still makes me queasy, though.


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