- From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western
DANNY: I like Westerns, like Shane.
CHRIS: It's interesting that you pick one where the hero dies.
DANNY: What are you talking about? He doesn't die. He rides off into the sunset, and that kid says, "Come back, Shane!"
CHRIS: That's a common misconception, in the last frame he's slumped over on his horse.
DANNY: So he was slumped, slumped don't mean dead.
CHRIS: Well I guess you think Butch and Sundance lived too.from The Negotiator (1998)
Why do we need to rethink the Western genre? As an instructor of film history, I have found the genre to be a tough sell to the contemporary college student. White men on horses do not have the immediate cultural connection to students like other genres such as crime/gangster or film noir, yet few other genres approach the hold the Western has on the cinema's relationship to American cultural identity. John Wayne, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood loom large in the collective consciousness of America and how we see ourselves. Recent entries into the genre from such diverse directors as Jim Jarmusch, Robert Rodriguez, and Tommy Lee Jones as well as referential elements in films such as Die Hard (1988) and Batman Returns (1992) all point to the enduring influence of the most American of all film genres. In From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western, Patrick McGee, a critical and cultural theorist/scholar, has written a well-structured and exhaustively researched approach to the genre that puts the spotlight not on the frontier mythos and rugged individualism so near and dear to our identities but on the uniquely American relationships with capitalism and class that are articulated in post-1939 Westerns.
Whether or not Shane comes back is an oft-debated point, and using this film as a framing device for the opening and closing chapters of the book is a neat device. Many of us have films that stay with us emotionally, and McGee's recollection of seeing Shane (1953) as a boy draws the reader into the study. Growing up, I was never fond of Westerns. I found the macho posturing tiresome and the values questionable, [End Page 61] but seeing Shane changed that for me. Shane is cut from a different cloth than the standard "shoot 'em up." With its emphasis on the hardscrabble family life of homesteaders and their battle with the ranchers to carve out their own piece of the American Eden in the vastness of the frontier, Shane was different from anything I had ever experienced in the genre. The protagonist is not your run-of-the-mill Western hero/bully. Shane is a conflicted and complex man who has an emotional depth that speaks to many viewers on different levels. By casting the diminutive, almost pretty Alan Ladd, the film subverts many physical and emotional conventions associated with more traditional Westerns. The delicate features of Alan Ladd, combined with his wearing of his inner conflict on his sleeve, so to speak, are an extreme opposite of the tall, masculine, and stoic protagonists that John Wayne specialized in.
Indeed, as McGee points out, Shane is really the original "Man with No Name" from the Sergio Leone Westerns or, as McGee puts it, "The Man with No History" (5). We do not know Shane's last name, if Shane is his real name, where he came from, what happened to him, or even if he does indeed die at the end. McGee posits that Shane does not come back because he cannot. His use of violence is something that will never allow him to enter a world of domestic tranquility. There is no place for him in this world that he has helped create through violence directed at the unbridled capitalistic entitlement embodied by the ranchers. Shane "puts on the symbolic blue collar" (11) when he goes to work on Joe and Marian's farm, but civilization and the family unit require the embrace of social order and...