I love the movie Shane.

In my opinion it’s the greatest Western ever, surpassing even The Searchers and The Wild Bunch and High Noon, not to mention Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Unforgiven.

I’m aware that many reading this post have not seen Shane, or may not have even heard of it.

Alan Ladd as the title character in “Shane”

The film did come out in 1953, which is, I admit, a few years ago.

So I understand.

Nonetheless, if you’ll forgive me, let me make a pitch here and now for Shane, the classic Western starring Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon deWilde and Jack Palance, directed by George Stevens and written by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and Jack Sher from Sher’s 1949 novel (that he wrote as Jack Schaefer.)

 

I took a class in Greek tragedy in college. I got a D both semesters.

That was the downside.

The upside was I was exposed to the following term/concept:

 The coincidence of the anagnorisis and the peripateia.

(I’ve been waiting five decades to use that in a sentence.)

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of anagnorisis.

the point in the plot especially of a tragedy at which the protagonist recognizes his or her or some other character’s true identity or      discovers the true nature of his or her own situation.

Peripateia is a little simpler to define.

Reversal of fortune.

In tragedy, reversal of fortune almost always means the plunge from the penthouse to the outhouse. The hero’s great fall from grace. Catastrophe, in the true Greek-derived sense of the word (kata = down, strophe = stroke or movement).

“Coincidence” in the phrase above doesn’t mean a random coming-together, as we might conventionally define it. It means simply when two things happen at the same time, i.e. when they coincide.

The coincidence of the anagnorisis and the peripateia means simply that the moment when the hero realizes who he or she really is … is the moment when his or her world falls apart.

The defining characteristic of a tragedy (as opposed to a comedy or a conventional narrative) is the coincidence of the anagnorisis and the peripateia.

Oedipus, in the moment he is confronted with his true identity (“OMG, I’m the one in the prophecy who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother … and I did so!”), falls from the blessed king of Thebes to the human being most hated by the gods—and the cause of his country’s cataclysmic suffering.

Yikes!

No wonder he plunges spikes into both his eyes.

Shane is a tragedy too.

How do we know?

Because Shane, like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, is defined by the coincidence of the anagnorisis and the peripateia.

Shane the gunfighter enters the valley believing/hoping that he can change his life.

His aim is to hang up his six-shooter and become a normal human being, a regular guy.

Shane goes to work as a ranch hand for brave, good-hearted sodbuster Joe Starrett (Van Heflin)—willingly taking on a role far beneath his station. He is befriended by (and secretly falls in love with) Starrett’s wife Marion (Jean Arthur.) This bond reinforces Shane’s hope that he can achieve a conventional life. Perhaps there is another woman like Marion, whom he might meet someday and with whom he could settle down, raise a family, etc.

But trouble comes to the valley in the form of black-hatted gunslinger Wilson (Jack Palance), who has been brought in by the cattleman villain Rufe Ryker (Emile Meyer) to buffalo the sodbusters and drive them from their farming claims.

Jack Palance as the gunfighter Wilson in “Shane”

No one in the valley, not even valiant Joe Starrett, is capable of standing up to the threat of Wilson.

No one but Shane.

Out of love for Marion (and her son little Joe [Brandon deWilde]), Shane straps on his .44 and rides into town to face Wilson.

With Joey watching from the shadows, Shane outdraws Wilson and kills him—and Ryker and Ryker’s co-villain brother too, when they try to gun him down from hiding.

Shane does all this fair and square.

In the audience we dare to believe that a happy ending is moments away.

Shane has saved the day!

The town will honor his courage!

He can find a place of his own and make a life here in the valley, as he had hoped!

Instead Shane mounts up to ride on.

Little Joe reacts with shock and chagrin.

JOEY

But, Shane, we want you! Pa’s got things to do.

And Mother wants you, I know she does!

Shane understands what little Joe doesn’t.

This moment is his anagnorisis.

In the shootout with Wilson, Shane realizes his true identity.

He is a gunfighter.

Nothing and no one can alter that fact.

SHANE

A man has to be what he is, Joey. He can’t break the

mold. I tried, and it didn’t work for me.

The moment is Shane’s peripateia as well. His reversal of fortune.

SHANE

Joey, there’s no living with a killing. There’s no

going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand that sticks.

No course remains for Shane but to ride on.

JOEY

Shane, come back! Shane!

This moment, to me, is one of the greatest in American cinema. What might have been an ordinary Western is elevated in this climax to the sphere of tragedy, which is to say a work of art expressing a far deeper understanding of life than Hollywood movies are noted for.

That’s why I put Shane above even the greatest of the other great American Westerns.

 

 

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18 Comments

  1. Jared on January 30, 2019 at 4:33 am

    Believe it or not, we read and watched Shane in my seventh grade English class in the early 90s. I really enjoy the references you’ve made to the movie in the last few years. Those were the years I first started to enjoy reading.

  2. Kent F. on January 30, 2019 at 6:11 am

    I first watched Shane in 1980 as a college freshman in Film Appreciation – what a great movie – and then the instructor broke it down just as you did Steve. And now i realize Unforgiven is highly similar in many ways except that the bad guy was supposed to be a good guy. The ending of Shane rivals On the Waterfront in my book – timeless.

    Thanks Steve!

  3. Bill Evans on January 30, 2019 at 7:44 am

    So when in a given story should the the anagnorisis and the peripateia occur? Seems like this could be the hook that kicks off the initial plot, or becomes a major swerve mid-story sending the hero off in a totally different direction. Or the ending, creating a cliff-hanger? Interesting possibilities.

    Not having seen Shane, is this how the story ends?

  4. Mary Doyle on January 30, 2019 at 7:59 am

    I’ve never seen Shane, but after reading this post I’ll definitely watch it. As always, thanks!

  5. Joe Jansen on January 30, 2019 at 8:06 am

    Couple of good things here:

    “I’ve been waiting five decades to use [anagnorisis and the peripateia] in a sentence.” Thanks for the spit-take. But there’s more coffee where that came from.

    This post brings to mind Matthias, in the epilogue of The Afghan Campaign. He could have gone home, “rich as the princes of old Macedon,” and had a peaceful life. A farmer, maybe. Yet…

    ***
    “I have sold my mare, Snow. She was not lucky for me. I decided not to take my discharge. I re-upped instead. To the infantry. Signed for two more bumps. The corps gave me a promotion. I hold Flag’s old rank now.”

    “My mother writes: ‘Have I lost you, child? Will my arms never hold you again?'”

    “It would comfort this dear lady to understand why I can’t come home. How can I explain it? What would I become there except another sad old man, a fractured veteran good neither to my family, my country, or myself? I wished once to become a soldier. I have become that. Just not the way I thought I would.”

    ***
    Certainly this is the acceptance and realization that comes with anagnorisis. As far as peripateia… perhaps. Matthias probably wouldn’t have looked at the full realization of his nature as a reversal.

    Thanks for another good one this week. The ending of Shane DOES twist one’s heart, in several directions.

    • Joe Jansen on January 30, 2019 at 8:30 am

      It would have been “peripateia” for Matthias if “good fortune” for him meant “returning home to drink at the Macedon Chapter of the VFW.” But not so.

      One PS observation, going back and turning pages, on “The In and the Out” in The Afghan Campaign:

      THE IN: As soon as the fifth paragraph of Chapter One: “It was my father’s keenest wish that I, the youngest brother, not come out to war. My mother, further, was violently opposed…”

      THE OUT: In the concluding pages, his brother Philip (a surrogate father), observing Matthias preparing to join the column moving east to India, says, “You break my heart, Matthias.” He weeps. And of course his mother, lamenting that her arms will never hold her child again.

      The imagery echoes upon itself, but Matthias has changed. Good stuff.

  6. bill on January 30, 2019 at 8:20 am

    I saw Shane when it came out, I was only 7 years old, I thought it was great but I remember it made me sad when Shane left, I yearned for the happy ending. I saw it several times since at various ages and each time with a different perspective. Your Greek Tragedy made crystal clear what I was unable to put together on my own. Thanks for remembering those two words from the class.

    • Joel D Canfield on January 30, 2019 at 8:48 am

      Same here: saw it as a child and have never been able to watch it since. I understand the place of tragedy in art, but this struck too deep for me to let it go.

      My younger brother was named after the character in this movie. I hope it didn’t play any role in his own tragic life.

  7. Wade on January 30, 2019 at 8:53 am

    I can’t believe you wrote about Shane, the movie. WOW! I loved that movie so much I named my oldest son after that movie. I know, a bit extreme, but I loved it that much. I thought the movie was great, and the story was compelling, but that ending, where he literally rode off into the sunset set the bar very high for all westerns after that. Alan Ladd was amazing.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Steven, please, keep inspiring people like me who are fighting to realize their dream, I appreciate it so much, I really do.

  8. Mordechai Schiller on January 30, 2019 at 9:05 am

    Thank you.
    You hit a nerve. Shane is still my favorite Western. I think it was the Western Writers of America who voted the novel Shane as the best Western ever written. And Jack Schaefer had never been west of Cincinnati when he wrote it. In one way, the film improved on the book, though. Schaefer didn’t know when to end. It kept going. The film ended perfectly.
    I think Schaefer also borrowed from another tragedy, Melville’s Moby Dick: “‘Call me Shane,’ he said, and that was all he ever said.”
    In 2008, I went from being a freelance copywriter to a full time job with a high-tech firm. At the time, I wrote about it:
    “Have I hung up my guns? With apologies to Shane — you can’t break the mold. There’s no going back from being a Killer Copywriter. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks. There’s no going back.” http://wordrider.blogspot.com/2008/04/from-hard-sell-mail-order-copywriter-to.html

  9. Joe Jansen on January 30, 2019 at 9:30 am

    There’s a great line in Thomas McGuane’s short story, “Cowboy.” (Read at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/09/19/cowboy-2 or listen to the story read by Sam Lipsyte and discussed with editor Deborah Treisman at https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction/sam-lipsyte-reads-thomas-mcguane.) McGuane writes:

    “The old man paid me in cash, or, rather, the old lady did, since she handled anything like that. They never paid into workmen’s comp, and there was no reason to go to the records. They didn’t even have my name right. You tell people around here your name is Shane and they’ll always believe you. The important thing is I was working my tail off for that old sumbitch, and he knew it.”

  10. Dustin Drye on January 30, 2019 at 8:52 pm

    You have talked a lot of heroes and villains of late and I was wondering if you see any parallels between Shane and The Dark Knight? Batman wants to quit being Batman. He sees hope in Rachel and Harvey Dent, but the Joker forces him to be who he is: Batman. I could be wrong, but as I read this I saw a parallel.

    • John on July 2, 2019 at 2:23 pm

      Dustin, you can take it even further…

      Jimmy Gordon yelling to Batman to come back after he runs off into the night, taking the blame for everyone else’s crimes. “Batman!…..BATMAN!….Why’s he running dad ? “Because we have to chase him”. “But he didn’t do anything wrong, he saved my life”.

      “Shane…..come back Shane!”

      From the moment I first saw the Dark Knight in the theater and witnessed that ending I said “Its SHANE !”

      Each character realizes who and what they are and nothing can change it. Perceived as Monsters by others because of their methods, no matter how much good they do. Its very sad really. Great endings to both.

  11. Sean Crawford on January 31, 2019 at 5:57 am

    Well, I guess I better go to night school, even if I get a D.

  12. Mike R on January 31, 2019 at 7:38 am

    The 2017 film Logan references Shane several times. If I remember right, in the commentary director James Mangold shares Steve’s belief that Shane is the best western film ever made. It would be great for Steve to break down that film & see if the Wolverine experiences his own coincidence of the anagnorisis and the peripeteia.

  13. SHAYNE ANDERSON on February 6, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    From one Shayne to another, I must confess I am a fan! Not sure if I would rank it above The Searchers or Butch Cassidy, but it’s definitely made its impression on me.

    Thanks for all the inspiration over the years!

  14. Ann Park on March 21, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    I am SO happy to have found your blog!! And with recent “Shane” comment postings, to boot. Thank you. 🙂

    I think I must have seen “Shane” for the first time when I was in my twenties. I first watched it on a small-screen, black-and-white television set. The b & w print mostly displayed unfocused images that were shades of gray mud (one could barely discern facial expressions, let alone the outlines of mountains), interspersed about every five minutes with used-car commercials. The commercials would go on longer than the bits of film the commercials were interrupting.

    Alan Ladd? I had heard of him, but he was an actor from so long ago as to not be on my radar. I thought the film pretty bad, definitely a TOTAL snore, and I don’t think I made it to the end. I think I just turned it off about half way through, and went outside and did something else.

    After hearing many good things about the film (being a film fan by then) I gave the film a second try about ten years later, even though I had serious doubts, remembering my previous experience. This was back in the days when color television was only “fair to middlin'” (mostly middlin, or worse), and any kind of hi-def television was no more than some anonymous nerd’s future fever dream. VHS wasn’t even then a reality. This was also a watch on the color TV I had at the time.

    What can I say? “Meh” about covers it. Just as bad as the first viewing. Although this time it was in “color” (I use that term loosely) it was still a bad, out-of-focus, muddy print, color also very washed-out, “edited for television” (! I’m sure you know what that means) with about seven minutes of commercials for every five minutes of actual film. The commercials a bit different this time – most were for booze, “feminine” products, and headache relief. Definitely good fits for an Old West themed movie [sarcasm]. I made it to the end, this time, but was completely and totally UN-impressed. I just couldn’t see anything good, or even anything particularly interesting, about this film.

    I guess I am a glutton for punishment, but I do like older films, Westerns in particular. By this time I had a 4K TV set and a Blu-ray player. Some how or another I ran across a clip from “Shane” on YouTube. It looked pretty good (the clip was in focus, and the colors were vibrant), much better than I remembered. I decided to give it another try. I thought about just streaming it, debated for a couple of weeks (cost to stream $3.99 & up, cost to just purchase the darn Blu-ray disk only a fast $9.00 or so).

    The disk came on Wednesday. I watched it on Wednesday night.

    OMG. My life may never again be the same. After it was over, I just kept staring at the screen, unable to move. Barely able to breathe.

    By the end of the film I was on the edge of my seat, weeping. I found the film to be totally glorious, amazing, exciting, fabulous. MOVING. The Greek things you wrote about it, all true.

    The Blu-ray print clear, focused and sharp. The film drenched with beautiful clear color, mountain vistas, you name it.

    Alan Ladd? I think I am in love.

    I’ll not say more. So much has been written about this film elsewhere, no need for me to repeat any of it here.

    Except this: If you have not, **SEE THIS FILM**. And, when you do, don’t bother with a commercial-ridden version on television. Take the time, make the effort, to buy or rent the DVD or Blu-Ray, play the disc on a quality Hi-def (or 4K) television set. This film is WORTH it.

    What you will see will be revelatory. There is no other film like it.

    Anywhere.

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