By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily
The other night I happened to tune in to the climactic last scene from the 1953 western classic, Shane, which starred Alan Ladd. When Shane first came out it was treated with great solemnity as an “adult” western, as opposed to all the dopey kid westerns that Hoppy and Roy and Gene made, and it was taken as a gritty example of the Old West as it really was. That was in 1953. Seen through 2007 eyes, it plays a little differently.
Prior to the last scene, the hero/gunfighter Shane has just engaged in an epic brawl in a barnyard, and having emerged victorious, rides into town for a midnight confrontation with the evil gunfighter Jack Wilson (played by Jack Palance) and the evil ranchers who hired him, the Ryker brothers. (Jack Wilson, by the way, is true to life--a vicious thug who shoots defenseless sodbusters for fun and profit.)
So the scene is set: It’s midnight, thunder rumbles in the Tetons. Wilson sits at a table slurping coffee, and in walks Shane wearing a spotless fringed-buckskin suit, a silver-concho gunbelt, a tooled-leather holster, and a nickel-plated ivory-handled Peacemaker.
Now, no gunfighter in the wild, wild west ever dressed like this. They looked either like vagrants (Billy the Kid) or undertakers (The Earps). Moreover, Shane has just been in a brawl in a barnyard., yet his outfit is spotless. I invite you to roll around in a barnyard and see what happens.
Shane then calls Wilson “a low-down Yankee liar.” Of all the insults I doubt never got hurled in the Old West, this ranks at the top. “Needle-d****d rabbit f****r” would have had the ring of truth to it, however.
Then they slap leather and shoot. But in the real Old West it would never have gotten this far. Wilson would have taken one look at Shane as he entered the saloon and spit his coffee all over the table.
“Oh my God,” he would have choked, “who buys your clothes? Where did you get that outfit? Oh, spare me.”
The Ryker brothers would have been giggling hysterically, and Shane would be too embarrassed to draw.
Red-faced and furious, Shane would have slammed out of the bar, mounted his horse, and headed out of town, pursued by child actor Brandon DeWilde, who played Little Joe and followed Shane around screeching in a manner not equaled until 2006, when Dakota Fanning spent 90 minutes screeching at Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds.
Faster than the eye could have followed, Shane would have whirled in the saddle and drilled Little Joe right between the horns.
“Loudmouth brat,” he would have muttered, and ridden off into the darkness.
But it was 1953. What did we know?