SHANE (1966) – David Carradine starred as the iconic gunslinger Shane in this 1966 television series adapted from the 1953 Alan Ladd movie.
The 1953 film Shane is largely regarded as one of the greatest westerns of its era and is usually on critical lists of the best westerns ever made. The closing cry of “Shane! Come back, Shane!” and variations on it became as much of a cultural catchphrase as “Come with me if you want to live!” would become in the 1980s.
If you’re not familiar with the movie, Shane is a gunfighter who longs to settle down and pursue the non-violent life he would have lived if things had turned out differently for him. He falls in with the Starrett family, who are among the Wyoming homesteaders getting leaned on by dishonest ranchers who want them off “their” land.
When the ranchers hire men to use increasing levels of violence against the homesteaders, Shane sacrifices his desire to live a “normal” life and uses his gunfighting skill to help the husband, wife and young son who took him in.
Ultimately, after touching the lives of each family member and saving all of the outnumbered and outgunned homesteaders, Shane is mortally wounded in the final gunfight. Hiding the fact that he is dying from the young son of the household, Shane rides off accompanied by the little boy’s cries to come back.
Thirteen years later, Shane was adapted as a television series. You may wonder how the hell they made a weekly tv show out of it given that powerful ending.
Elementary! The producers did it by wiping away most of what made the storyline so moving. The series opened up by retconning the events of the film so that Shane lived, and it was instead the husband who got killed. The Shane tv program decided that the dad was boring and chose to have the gunfighter and the Widow Starrett struggle with their feelings for each other in a “will they or won’t they” setup.
I feel that premise would be like doing a Casablanca tv series in which we’re told Rick and Ilsa flew off together at the end, with Victor left behind to meet his fate at the hands of the Nazis.
To explain why, I’ll need to do a quick review of the history of the Shane intellectual property. In 1946 it was a three-part story in the iconic pulp magazine Argosy. The author, Jack Schaefer, took that serial, originally titled Rider from Nowhere, and fleshed it out into the novel Shane in 1949. From there it was adapted for the big screen.
I’m a bit odd in that I feel the movie version did not do full justice to the novel and its distillation of so many elements of the American West as history and legend. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it takes the novel AND the movie combined to really capture those elements.
Joe Starrett, as the head of the household, develops an almost brotherly relationship with Shane as he teaches him the ways of homesteading. The mystique of Shane’s violent past makes him seem like an unambiguous Dime Novel hero to the child Joey Starrett. His air of mystery and of primal “alpha male” appeal stir the heart of Marian Starrett.
Ironically, just as Shane inspires a certain level of envy and feelings of inadequacy in the adult Starretts, and romantic hero-worship in little Joey, the Starretts are themselves envied by Shane. They represent the peaceful, perhaps more fulfilling life that he now regrets not pursuing.
In my opinion, the novel format was by its nature better for exploring such a tableau, especially as it reflects on the larger issues of masculinity in its mythic form and its real-life form. Joey needs to mature into the realization that his father is not “less than” Shane just because he’s in the more mundane role of head of the household.
“Normal” life may be more boring than the romanticized, idealized life of a gunslinger but it’s no less “manly.” It’s just that as civilization results in fewer dragons for knights to slay, it also results in less need of gunmen to “tame” a place like the old west.
Farming and raising a family under harsh conditions require a certain level of unsung heroism that is just as crucial to a people’s survival as the proverbial “rough men” who “stand ready to do violence.” And, as one of the core elements of the entire old west mythos always reminds us, the more time that goes by, the less ruggedly, atavistically “manly” the men will seem compared to generations gone by.
It’s a cinch that Joey Starrett will grow up even more removed from the violence and roughness than his father. The same with Joey’s sons, as each succeeding generation seems paler and less heroic than their idealized forebears.
Things get even more complicated in the relationship between Shane and Marian Starrett. Shane’s mysterious past and the way he comes to do violence in order to protect the Starrett family puts him in the juicy position of getting to be “what men are supposed to be.”
Conversely, Big Joe Starrett is stuck in the less glamorous, but no less crucial, position of being “what men now are.” Pa Starrett is just as deserving of his son’s high regard and his wife’s affections as Shane is, but it sometimes takes certain ordeals to make that clear.
As for Marian, who insists she abhors violence yet is clearly drawn to Shane, she needs to come to terms with the fact that she and women like her can either have their pick from a society full of Shanes or they can have Marian’s desire of “no more guns in the valley.” But not both.
Something that both the novel AND movie do right is the way they make it clear that Big Joe Starrett is just as willing to risk his life to protect his family as Shane is. When the time comes for the climactic gunfight with hired killer Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) and Wilson’s subordinate gunmen, Joe Starrett prepares to go deal with it himself.
Shane stops him and takes his place for the showdown in both the novel and movie, by swiftly knocking him out in the novel but in a needlessly prolonged brawl in the movie. Sadly, the film does not adequately convey the surprise and apprehension of Wilson and his thugs when Shane strolls into the saloon instead of the easier target they anticipated – Joe Starrett.
With hindsight, I always feel that Shane’s entrance in that scene should be punched up by giving him a line like “I’m your huckleberry” from Tombstone, when Doc Holliday instead of Wyatt Earp shows up to face Johnny Ringo.
We all know how things go from there. Shane emerges triumphant over his opponents, but is mortally wounded, meaning, of course, that the inexperienced Joe Starrett would have been blown away easily.
At any rate, the movie already diluted some of the subtext by focusing more on the less subtle, easier to convey manly rivalry between Joe and Shane.
The television series, on the other hand, removed all subtlety between Shane and Marian Starrett. In typical tv simplicity, the creative team decided to just get rid of “boring” Joe Starrett so that Shane and Marian can just ooze “do we dare” romantic and sexual chemistry around each other. It’s not a repellant setup by any means, but the outcome is too predictable.
David Carradine is not awful as Shane, but every time he handles a lariat you can’t help but make with a dark-humored chuckle or two. Jill Ireland as Marian Starrett has an appropriate vibe for a Mrs. Starrett who is the designated romantic interest for the title character, rather than the film’s faithful wife questioning her choice of mate.
Chris Shea is less annoying than the movie’s Brandon de Wilde as little Joey Starrett. However, the villains of the movie become so milk water on the tv series that they often even work together with Shane and Marian Starrett against external threats.
There were only 17 episodes of Shane, which ran from September 10th to December 31st of 1966. Given the glut of westerns that television had been filled with for years, it’s easy to see why this mediocre effort did not last longer.
If you think you’d like the novelty of David Carradine in the Alan Ladd role, by all means check out this elusive series. I understand Bruce Lee was originally up for the role of Shane. (I’m KIDDING!)
FOR MORE FORGOTTEN TELEVISION CLICK HERE.