In the genre of western films, the hero plays a key role. Humanity portrays civilization overcoming the hostile country (Miller 66). In many films the American civil war is over, and people have turned their attention to more constructive pursuits. Battling nature to progress America’s future, rather than each other. In between this wild country, fraught with danger and corruption lies the role of the hero.
A hero is an individual with exceptional skills and through his abilities is able to rid a stricken town of the corrupt elements within. In many cases however, the hero’s skills are not enough. His relationship with the community can define how successful his help can be. In the films Shane and Dodge City we are presented with heroes who have attempted to integrate themselves into their respective communities.
This gives them someway to identify with the community, giving them incentive to defend it from the malicious elements than threaten them. In Shane, we see an attempt by the film’s hero to subtly integrate himself into the community. Instead of riding into town, Shane (Alan Ladd) is introduced to us through the eyes and imagination of a little boy. By having Shane first meet Joey Starret (Brandon de Wilde) he is introduced in a very personal manner that sets the tone for the whole film. Shane’s motives are personal; he wishes to escape his life as a gunman by becoming a settler. The lifestyle of the Starret family and the other settlers amplifies the notions of a simpler life that Shane finds appealing.
The town where they live is very simple and has none of the more lavish comforts of Dodge City. It offers a way for Shane to escape his past by working to create a simple yet honest community. This helps him befriend the settlers. He does not wish to dominate their existence, but join them, collectively working together. It is for this reason he is incensed to defend the community from Ryker (Emile Meyer).
He has become personally involved with creating a community that he wishes to continue to see flourish; even if his choice dictates that he has to leave in order to succeed. Wade Hatton, (Errol Flynn) in Dodge City, is a much more extroverted hero than Shane, and has greater plans to reform the town than merely just driving out the criminal element. Hatton’s entry to the film is also much more grand. He is a “soldier of fortune transplanted to the American frontier.” (Abel 18). This alone creates the illusion of Hatton being a much more romantic hero and having greater plans than merely just wanting to build a community. He wishes to clean out the wickedness and lawlessness that Dodge City has become.
To do this, he introduces sweeping reforms that not only remove the criminal element, but also set a moral tone for the community. This establishes him as a community leader who is willing to do whatever is necessary to curb the violence and death that has stricken the town. He even arrests his friend Rusty (Alan Hart) for carrying a gun to prove that no one is above the law. People respect Hatton for who he is and what he has done for the community, not necessarily for who he is as a person. This fact sets him apart from Shane.
Hatton’s actions are dictated by his own morals and beliefs, (the desire to make the community ‘safe for women and children’) not from any kind of loyalty or friendship to any individuals. In Shane, the relationship between Shane and Joey Starret is important because much of his humanity is shown through his interaction with the boy. Through Joey we are presented with the benefits of why Shane should stay with the Starrets. They represent stability and the predictability of life, which Shane attempts to integrate himself into by the symbolic removing of his moleskins and the donning of working denims. Shane can also be seen as “a rival father for Joey,” (Miller 69) because of the boy’s hero worship of him.
This relationship is crucial because apart from allowing us as an audience to see Shane’s human side, it also forces Joey to mature. He loves Shane, but is brought to realize that he cannot become a permanent part of his life because of the lifestyle he lives. Shane may be “a brave and noble figure,” (Miller 70) but his lifestyle lacks the stability to successfully raise a family. He understands this and rides out of town, but not before telling Joey to ‘grow up fine and straight’.
A domestic life may lack excitement but it enables you to live a life filled with love, instead of the lonely existence that Shane leads. Through his relationship with Joey we understand the Shane is not invincible and is in fact trapped by his life. He is forced to live alone in a world where the skills of a lone gunman are becoming obsolete and a stable domestic life has become the social norm. Matt Cole’s son, Harry (Bob Watson), is also important in Dodge City.
Instead of being a key character, he is more a symbol of the lawlessness that has infested the city. His relationship with Wade Hatton is one of admiration, because he is the only person in town who defies Surret (Bruce Cabot). It is not a close relationship, yet when Harry is killed accidentally during a gunfight Wade is persuaded to stay and fight. Perhaps this is because Harry’s death is symbolic of the “wide-open Babylon of the American frontier” (Morse 20) that Dodge City was becoming.
A city filled with thieves, hustlers and gunmen (Morse 20), where the innocent die because they cannot defend themselves against their oppressors. It is this that prompts Hatton to remain and fight. Unless somebody is willing to take a stand, things will just get worse and more innocents will die. For this reason Hatton’s actions could be seen as more heroic than that of Shane’s. He is willing to risk his life for a principle, making Dodge City safe for ‘women and children,’ rather than because of personal connections he has made with the film’s characters.
Shane’s relationship with the community can also be judged by the way he interacts with the film’s villain, Ryker (Emile Meyer). At first we judge Ryker to be nothing more than a typical thug, who attempts to destroy Starret and the other homesteader’s lives for profit. However as the film progresses we can see many similarities between the two of them, which also promote Shane’s isolation from society. They are both outdated concepts in a rapidly changing world. Shane even goes as far as to admit it himself during one of the film’s most famous confrontations.
Shane: Your days are over, Ryker. Ryker: Mine? What about yours gunfighter? Shane: The difference is that I know it. This line depicts Shane as a man who understands his own obsoleteness within society. He belongs to a different era, as does Ryker. While Shane has attempted to embrace a new way of life by becoming a homesteader with the Starret family, Ryker continues to fight the inevitable.
This leads to his death at the hands of Shane. Even Wilson (Jack Palance), a man who gives Shane a certain amount of respect and admiration during the film’s conclusion, is obsolete and forced to live on the fringes of society. Both he and Shane lived in a different era that has long since elapsed. Shane attempted to change his way, yet throughout the film discovered he could not escape his chosen way of life. Wilson, who like Ryker chose not to attempt to integrate himself into society, also died for his way of life at Shane’s hands.
This death was Shane’s final realization of his outdated life of a gunfighter. He must live out his life in seclusion, a stranger in a world that no longer needs those adept in the ways of killing. Wade Hatton on the other hand, still maintains his usefulness to society at the film’s conclusion. Hatton’s role was to protect Dodge City from the corruption and vice that was infesting it. This validates his role as a gunfighter in society.
He also holds the office of marshal and is charged with maintaining law and order within Dodge City. He does not, unlike Shane, merely kill for those who offer the most money. Even though we are given the impression at the start of the film that Hatton was “a soldier of fortune,” (Abel 18) which implies that he would kill for anyone who paid good money, the death of Harry Cole invalidates this. The innocent are in danger, and Hatton, a man with morals, decides to get involved in ending Dodge City’s climate of corruption.
After Dodge City has been cleaned up, another town (Virginia City) needs his services as marshal. Gunfighters like Shane may be obsolete, but lawmen like Wade who are willing to risk their lives for a moral cause are in great demand. This validates the transitional nature of frontier America. And while society may frown upon murder for profit or malice, it accepts death if it allows them to remain safe and enjoy the lifestyle they have created for themselves.
Romantically, Shane is again an outcast of society. This is again because of the lifestyle he has chosen. He has recognized his role as the loner within society and has decided to conform to it (Solomon 39). He may have feelings for Mrs. Starret (Jean Arthur), but he has buried them beneath his desire to live the life he has made for himself.
Shane recognizes that Mrs. Starret needs the stability of domestic life, not the company of a man who could soon be killed in a gunfight. She also understands this, warning Joey not to admire Shane too much because he could soon be gone. Another reason Shane does not act upon his feelings for Mrs. Starret is that he is conforming to the social codes of the day by respecting Mrs.
Starret’s marriage and being outraged when such an attraction is suggested (Solomon 38). If this had happened today, something may have eventuated. However, because of strong value of marriage in the 1950’s coupled with his hazardous lifestyle, Shane is again forced to live alone on the fringes of society without any kind of lasting human connections or comfort. Hatton is again more successful in obtaining a romantic interest throughout the course of Dodge City. His actions are justifiable and he can be seen as a romantic hero, because of his honesty. Even though he killed Abigail’s (Olivia De Haviland) brother she eventually understands the reasons behind his actions, even succumbing to his romantic advances later in the film.
This was inevitable because Hatton is fighting a just cause and is bound to obtain a romantic reward for his efforts. Abbie even decides to follow Wade to Virginia City because she loves him. Clearly the reason why Abbie (and society) accepts Wade is because he wears a badge. This indicates justice, responsibility and the truth of law. It raises his status above that of a gunfighter. He invests himself in the office of marshal, and society accepts and respects this.
He has the people’s support as they are the one’s who made him marshal, unlike Shane who is forced to live an isolated existence because he is not a representative of the law. Both Shane and Wade Hatton are the same person, they kill for a living and their lifestyles have no fixed points that anchor them anywhere. Wade differs from Shane however because he had the respect of the community and encouraged them to fight their oppressors. Dodge City in turn gave him the authority to lead them in this fight and rewarded him accordingly. Shane is content with being a social outcast.
He may be a heroic figure, but society does not fully except him, and may even look down on him because he kills without any authority. Wade enjoys the popularity of being the people’s hero, while Shane has to live in the shadows, doing the more distasteful jobs, because even though he may do the same job as Hatton, he does not have a tin star that dictates the approval of society. Bibliography: Bibliography: 1: “Abel”,Dodge City, Variety, 12 April 1939. 2: Miller, Gabriel. ‘Shane Redux: The Shootist and the Western Dilemma’, The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol.11, No.2, Summer 1983.
3: Morse, David. ‘Under Western Eyes: Variations on a Genre’, Monogram, No.6, October 1975. 4: Solomon, Stanley. Beyond Formula: American Film Genres. San Diego: Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976