Sitting tall

Alan Ladd as Shane.

I credit Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything for sparking my interest in the Western genre.  Despite (or perhaps as a result of) having grown up watching my dad watching the complete filmography of John Wayne ad nauseum on VHS, I had little interest in watching, thinking about, or otherwise engaging with Westerns.  They were boring and they took place in ugly, dusty frontier towns and there never seemed to be any women in them—only men, doing boring masculine things.  Then, as a graduate student with a budding interest in gender studies, I came upon Tompkins’ book.  It seemed revelatory, and yet everything that she says about Westerns had been there in front of my eyes all along, even though I couldn’t see it.  Of course Westerns are all about men doing masculine things, and of course the women in them are pushed to the periphery.  They are epic dramas of male anxiety, of men in crisis, of violence and pain and, yes, heroism.  And, as Tompkins observes in the opening chapter of her book, they are obsessed with death—“in these films death is almost the only thing.”  Through the lenses of psychoanalysis and gender, the entire genre now seemed as vast and mesmerizing as a Monument Valley landscape.

A year later I was teaching a college writing course on the Western.  I assigned three films, the first of which was Shane (dir. George Stevens, 1952).  It seemed (still seems?) to me an iconic representation of the Western hero as mythic figure.  No matter that Shane is played by the famously diminutive Alan Ladd (he stood only 5’6”!): as Shane, he towers—metaphorically—over nice-but-ineffectual homesteader Joe Starrett, played by the six-foot-tall Van Heflin.  For better or worse, phallic power in the Western isn’t always about brawn; it’s about a certain grim determination to see things out, even if it means taking a bullet in the process, and about being quicker on the draw than the other guy.  (In this case, the Other Guy is played by a supremely creepy Jack Palance.)  Masculinity depends upon illusion and performance, literally embodied by Ladd as filmed by Stevens; thanks to movie magic, Shane appears larger than life.  It helps, too, that Ladd’s most frequent scene partner in Shane is the then-ten-year-old Brandon de Wilde, and that, shot from low angles while sitting down, he appears taller than he really was.   

Shane gives a shooting lesson to Joey (Brandon de Wilde).

What’s more interesting than the dynamic between good guy and bad guy in Shane is that between good guy and good guy.  Shane and Joe are buddies, their friendship cemented by an early scene in which, unprompted, Shane helps Joe uproot a pesky tree stump; but they both know that only Shane can effectively rid the town of its resident terrorizers, which means that Shane eventually resorts to beating Joe unconscious in order to keep him safe from harm during the film’s climactic shootout.  Sometimes love, it seems, means beating the shit out of your best buddy.  Such is the gendered logic of this most anxious of film genres.

Shane and Joe wrestling the stump...

...and each other.

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