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The novel Shane, basis for 1953 movie, turns 75

By Jim Bloch

The novel Shane by Jack Schaeffer turns 75 this year. It became the basis for the 1953 blockbuster Western of the same name, starring Alan Ladd in the title role of a gunslinger trying to go straight, Jean Arthur as Marian Starrett, Van Hefflin as her husband Joe, Brandon deWilde as their son Joey, called Bobby in the book, and Jack Palance as hired killer Jack Wilson – called Stark Wilson in the book.

The Starretts are in a life-and-death struggle against a rapacious cattle rancher trying to force them and other homesteaders off their Wyoming farms. The novel and movie were based on the 1892 Johnson County War in Wyoming, which pitted cattlemen against homesteading pioneers.

Houghton Mifflin published the book in October 1949.

Craig Johnson, author of the 20-book series featuring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, the basis for the six-season Netflix series Longmire, said in the June 2 edition of the New York Times Book Review that Schaeffer was one of the three writers, living or dead, that he would invite to a dinner party: “Jack Schaeffer,” he said, “whose tight, taut pen produced Shane, Monte Walsh and The Canyon.”

Tight is right.

The novel clocks in at a whopping 119 pages.

Goodreads ranked the book as the ninth best Western ever written. It ranked Monte Walsh 90th. Schaeffer himself favored The Canyon.

In its 2007 list of the best 100 American movies ever made, the American Film Institute named Shane #45; the AFI named the movie the third best Western ever filmed. Loyal Griggs won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. George Stevens directed the picture.

“He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89,” narrates the Starrett boy in the opening line of the novel. “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.”

Schaeffer was born in 1909 in Cleveland and earned his B.A. at nearby Oberlin College, which now holds 200 volumes of his work. When he published Shane in 1949, he had never been west of his birthplace. But he did get out West, buying a ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he died at 83 in 1991.

Schaeffer imbued Shane with a number of contradictions that worked to make his character compelling. He was at once gentle and dangerous, a loyal friend, but one who answered only to himself, and a gunslinger at odds with his own murderous ways.

“There’s something underneath the gentleness … something dangerous,” says mother.

“He’s dangerous all right,” answers father. “But not to us, my dear. I don’t think you ever had a safer man in your house.”

Shane, looking for a road out of his outlaw ways, takes up Starrett’s offer to become his right-hand man on the farm, setting up one of the weirdest love triangles in Western literature. 

Marian is clearly taken with the outlaw.

“Mother sounded as if she was stirred up and interested,” narrates Bobby.

“I never saw a man quite like him before,” says mother.

Joe too is swept away by Shane, who takes an ax to remove a troublesome stump behind the barn. Joe can’t let the new man work alone and joins him. Their work functions not only as farm work, but as a competition between the men for Marian’s attentions and as an intimate ritual of male bonding.

“Their eyes met over the top of the sump and held and neither one of them said a word. Then they swung up their axes and both of the said plenty to that old stump.”

When Shane is injured in a bar fight, Joe carries him to safety as if he were a new bride.

Bobby, too, is enamored of Shane, who becomes a mysterious father-like hero to him.

“I think that was the happiest summer of my life,” he reflects. “… soon it did not seem possible that there had ever been a time when Shane was not with us.”

It’s not only Marian’s flannel cakes that attract Shane, but the woman herself. 

“Mother was … as lovely with the light striking through her hair as I had ever seen her,” Bobby says, overhearing the pair talking privately.

“Don’t go, Shane,” mother says. “Joe needs you. More than ever now. More than he would ever say,”

“And you?” asks Shane, his lips barely moving.

“Yes,” mother says. “It’s only fair to say it. I need you, too.”

The stakes ratchet up from stump-chopping and the bar fight with evil rancher Luke Fletcher’s tough cowboys to a final shoot-out against Fletcher – named Rufus Ryker in the movie – and his hired gun Wilson. As they danger increases, Joe and Shane work more closely together. They become inseparable. “… Father and Shane … stayed even closer together and they spent no more time than they had to in the fields.”

The movie’s many accomplishments occurred despite the limitations of the cast. Palance didn’t like horses and could barely mount or dismount one. The movie Shane was different than the book Shane. Ladd didn’t like guns and could not shoot well. He was short, five-feet-five. 

Asked if he liked the movie, Schaeffer said: “Yeah, I did, all except for the runt.”

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com. 

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