The tragedies that have come down to us from the ancient Athenian stage often feature as prominent players gods and demi-gods … and such unseen forces as Fate and Destiny.
Prophecies are a frequent device, as they are in the Bible.
Even in real-life, oracles such as Apollo’s at Delphi made pronouncements that the Greeks took with deadly seriousness—and many in fact proved true.
The wooden wall alone shall preserve you.
Either Sparta will fall or she will lose a king.
In other words, the Greeks believed (and the Book of Ecclesiastes concurs) that man was by no means in control of his destiny. Unseen forces were always at work.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Which brings us back to the classic Western we started talking about a few weeks ago—Shane.
From the moment the gunfighter enters the Valley in the movie’s opening sequence, invisible forces are taking a heavy hand in the action.
In truth, the story’s dramatic power comes from our sense of the struggle between these forces, more so even than the surface clash between the cattlemen and the sodbusters or between Shane (Alan Ladd) and the black-hatted gunslinger Wilson (Jack Palance.)
What are these forces?
The first is Shane’s past.
He is a gunfighter. We recognize this at once from his fringed buckskin jacket and trousers (definitely not the garb of a farmer or rancher), the silver buckles on his horse’s bridle, and the .44 on his hip.
The second is Shane’s aspiration for the future.
He wants to hang up his guns.
His dream is to live a normal life—settle down, find a wife, raise a family.
Shane never verbalizes these hopes overtly. But in the audience we grasp them at once, and we become emotionally involved.
The movie gives us several early “save the cat” moments, as screenwriting guru Blake Snyder would say, where the gunfighter displays kindness and empathy. We like him. We’re rooting for him. In the audience we want Shane to realize his dream.
In other words, we are pulling for one of the unseen forces against the other.
What exactly is the other?
It consists of the decisions that Shane has made and the experiences that he has lived throughout his life up to the moment he enters the Valley. The movie gives us no specific information about these. We are left to fill in the blanks, which we do of course with ease.
Shane seems to be about forty. It is highly probable, we in the audience imagine, that he has been in the business of killing for at least twenty years.
That’s a lot of history.
It looms over the story-in-real-time like a Damoclean sword.
The movie asks, Can a person change? Can an individual step away from a lifetime lived as one type of man and become a different kind?
And more importantly, Will the world let him?
In a Greek tragedy, the playwright might have employed an oracle to make this dynamic clear. A blind seer would have made some pronouncement about Shane’s future.
Or warring gods on Olympus might be contesting his fate.
Or he may be ensnared in a web of multi-generational family intrigue, compelled by events to live out some saga originated by his father or mother or grandfather and grandmother.
But because Shane is modern, and because he’s quintessentially American, the destiny that holds him is of his own making.
It consists of the decisions he has made over long years before he rode into the Valley.
For the story to work, we in the audience don’t need to know the specifics of these decisions. Did Shane fight in the Civil War? Is that where he first learned about guns? As a youth, did he have a chance to marry and settle down but elected instead to strap on a six-shooter? What enemies have shaped him? What friends?
The sum of all this constitutes the unseen force against which Shane struggles—and which ultimately overcomes him.
The weight of Shane’s past, coupled with a love he experiences in the present, compels him to strap on his gun and face the hired killer Wilson. And this act, even though he triumphs in real-time, ineluctably forces him to abandon his dream and ride away from the Valley.
There’s no living with a killing, Joey. No going back from it. Like it or not, it’s a brand. A brand that sticks.
The unseen force of Shane’s past holds him despite every noble and honorable action he has taken in the present to overcome it. In truth, it is these noble and honorable actions that bind him even more tightly.
A man’s got to be what he is. He can’t break the mold. I tried. It didn’t work for me.
This is real drama, and it represents a truly deep understanding of human life and the mortal condition.
We’ll take next week’s post to examine these unseen forces from another angle—the dramatic device of the character of little Joey (Brandon deWilde).
[P.S. re the prophecies above:
[“The wooden wall” refers to ships. When the Persian army and fleet came to attack Athens in 479 B.C., the citizens abandoned their city (which king Xerxes promptly burned) and chose instead to confront the invader at sea. Their victory in the Battle of Salamis preserved Western civilization.
[The prophecy about Sparta losing a king likewise proved true, when Leonidas and the Three Hundred delayed the Persian advance at Thermopylae by sacrificing their lives—and gave the allied Greeks time to rally the greater defenses that would in the end prevail.]