Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / urfingus
In 1953, George Stevens directed an American western for Paramount called Shane . The film was based on a 1949 novel of the same title, written by Jack Schaefer. It starred Alan Ladd as Shane—a drifting, gun-slinging cowboy, and Van Heflin as a land-settling farmer named Joe. Joe’s wife was played by Jean Arthur and their son Joey by Brandon DeWilde. No bad guys were colder than Jack Palance, who played a gunman named Wilson.
Most Americans over the age of 40 are familiar with the movie. Many of those movie-goers mock the boy’s classic whine of “Shane! Come back!” as Shane rides off into the night at the end of the film. Decades later, when Jack Palance again played a tough-guy cowboy in his final film City Slickers , he was channeling the same dark Wilson character.
I hold this film up as a primer for manhood. There are plenty of “tough guy” moments in the film, as in any western, but I’m talking about moments where real character is shown. A father could sit with his son and say, “See? See how he handled that? That’s really important stuff, my son.”
Within the first few minutes of the film, a test of such character is shown. Shane rides onto the farmer’s property, and Joe is leery about a drifter being so close to his family. He offers Shane a dipper of water but then asks him to move along. As Shane warily makes his exit, a band of ranchers ride up to the house to tell Joe that he’s merely a weak, timid squatter, and they want him off the property. Joe—who is nearly pinned against his little cabin with wife and son clinging to him fearfully—puts on a brave face and holds his ground, talking tough right back.
As the men continue to mock him, they suddenly fall silent. Shane has returned, dismounted, and moves to stand with Joe. “Who are you, stranger?” the ranchers ask. Shane calmly replies, his guns shining in the sunlight, “I’m a friend of Joe’s, if it’s any of your business.” Confused and intimidated, the gang turns and rides away.
Joe immediately apologizes for turning Shane away earlier. He invites Shane to stay for dinner, and little Joey is awed by him.
As my sons and I were watching the film, I pressed “pause” and turned to them. “Did you see that?” They just shrugged. I said, “Shane was insulted and could have just ridden away, but he heard a man was in trouble and put the insult aside to do the right thing. He stood with him like a man. He also asked nothing in return until Joe pleaded with him to stay. You will have moments like these in your life. You put aside the hurt and man up. You do the right thing, even if you are surrounded with the wrong thing. That’s how a real man handles something like that. Do you see it?”
They both nodded, seemingly hooked by the deeper details of the plot.
We returned to the movie. After Shane finishes his meal, he goes outside, grabs an axe, and begins chopping an old tree stump that Joe had struggled with earlier. He was repaying the kindness shown to him. Encouraged, Joe grabs another axe, and the two men chop till dark, finally wrestling the mammoth stump from the ground. Having bonded now and smiling at each other, they have “beat” the thing, beat it together.
Pausing For A Lesson
I pressed “pause” again as the boys stared at me. They could see I was intent on making my point, so they gave in without resistance. “No such thing as a free lunch, guys. Someone does something for you—you pay it right back. Show them you appreciate what they’ve done. And see how men come together when they have a common enemy? That stubborn, old stump strengthened their bond.
As I released the “pause” button, I realized I wasn’t going to get away with much more lecturing, so I let the movie play. Joe asks Shane to come work for him, and Shane accepts. The next day they go to town to buy supplies, and Shane encounters the same men who had bothered Joe earlier. Now they begin to mock and ridicule Shane. Not wanting to get Joe or any of the other farmers in trouble, Shane swallows the insult and walks away. He knows if he reacts and fights, the gang will take it out on the farmers.
I could see my boys were rattled. “Why doesn’t Shane belt that guy?” As the movie continues, the farmers ask the same question. Shane sees that the farmers will have to stand their ground against these ranchers, or there will never be peace. He will have to lead by example.
Later in the movie, Shane deliberately insults the man who had mocked him. A fight ensues, and after Shane beats the man badly, the rest of the gang attacks, holding Shane while the others hit him. Joe then grabs an axe handle and proceeds to bust some heads. Much like in the tree stump episode, he and Shane team up to wipe out the bad guys.
I didn’t press “pause.” The boys clearly got the idea: sometimes, despite the odds and the risk, you have to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of what might happen. The fight scene is awesome and infamous Rumor has it that when the film came out in the 1950s, theater-goers jumped to their feet to applaud when Shane and Joe are victorious.
Fight For What’s Right
More drama in the movie follows. The villains set a trap, where Joe is to go to town to negotiate with the head rancher; upon his arrival, Joe is to be killed. Shane tries to persuade Joe from leaving, knowing he’ll be outnumbered. He has to hit Joe with the butt of his pistol to stop him, and once Joe is unconscious, Shane leaves to face Wilson. Joey yells at Shane for being so violent with his dad, but the mother explains Shane is only trying to save Joe. Joey, regretting his actions, follows Shane to town to apologize.
In the ensuing encounter, Shane kills Wilson and four others, making life much easier for the farmers. Now that he has “cleaned the valley of guns,” his work is finished and he can move on. Joey begs him to stay, but he explains he simply can’t. Wounded and bleeding, Shane rides off into the night, so viewers aren’t sure if Shane will live or die. But in doing the right thing for Joe’s family, Shane doesn’t need an award or any fanfare.
I looked at my sons, who were nodding and smiling. How can you help your sons take a giant step forward? Have them take a few steps backward into the time machine of great films. This enlightening institution has frozen elements of time and style within reels and projectors. Share those great lessons with the ones you love most.
Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.