Blindspotting: Shane and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral

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I called an audible this month and decided to do a couple of classics I hadn’t listed in my initial Blindspot post back in January. It was simply a matter of circumstances – poor planning and being away from my normal supply of movies at the end of the month had left me scrambling. Fortunately, I was able to grab hold of a couple of Westerns I’ve had on the list for quite some time now (Shane and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral). Unfortunately, time started to slip away from me and I ended up being 2 weeks late with this post anyway…And though I’m just now sitting down to write and it’s been awhile since I’ve watched them, I don’t think it’ll be an issue since both movies easily left impressions. One about a man trying to avoid the violence of his past and the other all about the lead up to a violent showdown.

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Both make lovely use of technicolor to bring out the big blue skies of the Old West, but the earlier Shane (from ’53) loses some of the grandness of the vistas around its characters by having been shot in straight academy ratio (as widescreen wasn’t quite the default at this stage). However, I could see it as having been an intentional choice by director George Stevens even if it had been a decade later. The film is very much a “small” Western and focuses specifically on this localized area and its people. From the moment Shane rides up to the homestead of Joe Starrett at the outset of the film, you know that he has a history – possibly even a legendary one – but it never supersedes the immediate story of the small community of farmers (which includes Joe, his wife and son). They are all fighting to keep their little plots of land from the clutches of a cattle rancher named Ryker and his greasy sidekicks, but tensions have been escalating even more of late since he has upped his bullying tactics. He sees all these farmers as simply squatters on tiny parcels of land that prevent him from laying claim to the entire area. His plan of driving them out one by one seems like it might just work, but just Shane happens to stumble into this simmering boil while riding through. After stopping briefly to get some water from Joe, he sees Ryker and his men make their regular muscle-flexing round to Starrett’s place and provides some needed backup as Joe stands up to them. After a meal in return, Joe asks Shane if he’d like to stay on with his family and get paid for working on the farm. Not really knowing what he’s looking for (only what he’s trying to avoid), Shane accepts. He’s quickly become fond of little Joey (who sees him as a courageous gunslinger) and is a bit smitten by Joe’s lovely wife Marian (played by the great Jean Arthur). As much as Shane wants to avoid his past fighting ways, though, it’s obvious that further confrontations are imminent. However, the story is less about Shane’s past catching up with him and more about the personal issues of trying to change your own nature.

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Gunfight At The O.K. Corral‘s widescreen compositions are more suited to its bigger, broader scoped legendary tale (not to mention its big stars – Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas). The entire film is really just a build-up to the titular battle that involved Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday blasting away at the Clanton gang. This epic fight takes up less than a tenth of the running time, but due to the snappy pace director John Sturges applies, everything feels part of a whole (by the way, if you want see possibly the tightest film ever, check out Sturges’ Bad Day At Black Rock). Earp had been trying to clamp down on the Clantons’ cattle rustling ways and had wired ahead to the local town sheriff Cotton to delay them. He’s unaware that Cotton is already in the bag for Clanton, so Wyatt now has to find a new source to help him track down the rustlers all over again. His best hope is to ask the troubled Doc Holliday, but that won’t be easy due to some history between them and Doc’s burgeoning dependence on alcohol and gambling (not to mention a wee bit of a death wish). And thus begins their back and forth dance – neither man ever easily giving an inch to the other or willing to swallow their pride, but eventually allowing a strong trust and respect to grow. Aside from one major “freak out” moment by Douglas (as he confronts “his woman” late in the movie), the two stars are quite subtle in the way they play each character as very closed off and reserved. It helps to reinforce the legends of each man as they track down some bank robbers and face a showdown in Dodge City. Once Wyatt becomes a Marshall and has his brothers on his side to stop Canton’s march of his cattle, Canton decides to bring things to a head by setting up the showdown at the corral. Both Doc and Wyatt are begged by their women not to go through with it, but since we’re in a classic Western, the protestations of the ladies are simply ignored.

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Gunfight actually minimizes the influence of its female characters quite consistently. Not that it purposely wants to belittle women – after all, Earp’s love interest is the gorgeous Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) who is always the smartest player at any card table and has a reasonably full personality – but their feminine wiles and charms in the Old West just don’t hold water against manly bonds, a desire for justice and personal pride. Even Mrs. Clanton herself can’t hold back the rest of her boys from joining up against Earp. Doc’s lady Kate suffers the most in this world – not only is she ignored most of the time by Doc and treated with contempt, but she also seems to have only two states of being: simpering victim or nasty bitch. It’s possibly the movie’s only flaw (at least for me) that her character is so thin while the other women in the movie – even those with much less screen time – are much richer. Shane‘s universe is also male-centric (with the “little woman” baking apple pies at home, etc.), but if Jean Arthur’s Marian doesn’t exactly seek equal footing in the decision-making processes, there’s a more complex relationship afoot as she is drawn to Shane (and he to her) without ever once showing any indication she would stray from Joe. Shane himself is a bit different than your typical Western hero even though his tight closeups and big white hat certainly provide some iconic images as reference points. He’s a man of his word and stands up to the bad guys, but avoids confrontation and violence if at all possible. He’s a reluctant hero due to his gunslinging past and is worried that he’ll have to yet again resort to it, that people will die and that he’ll be moving on yet again. After all, “There’s no going back from a killing”.

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Shane uses close-ups of its main characters extensively throughout which adds to that “small” film feel. The faces crowd the frame and sometimes make you forget about the wide open spaces around them while the action takes place in only a few tight spaces – even the big brawl in the town bar feels a bit claustrophobic. Gunfight on the other hand revels in placing characters and action in its frames – Sturges likes to place characters in opposite corners, in the foreground and background and allows them to roam around the huge tavern. And, of course, the final battle is spread across the entire corral. That’s handy, though, since the film sports a helluva cast that needs some room to flex their chops. Aside from Douglas and Lancaster (and isn’t that enough?), Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper, Earl Holliman, DeForest Kelly and Martin Milner all have sizeable roles. That’s not to say that Shane is any slouch with its star power – alongside Arthur, Alan Ladd plays the almost too pretty Shane while Van Heflin takes on the role of her husband Joe and Elisha Cook Jr and Jack Palance add a great deal of colour to the additional characters (Palance is in top menacing form – he even makes a dog slink away). Both films look great in their technicolour presentations (and would look even better projected I imagine) and enjoy spending a few moments with nature – a deer roaming through the garden in Shane, a few quiet moments in amongst the trees near a stream in Gunfight. Their approach to the score is slightly different though – each definitely feels like a Western, but Gunfight takes the more heroic path using timpani, horns and clarinets while Shane goes a bit sweeter (occasionally a bit too sickly so) with a preponderance of strings, harmonica and flute. It’s just as “classic” a score, but tones the picture down somewhat from a sweeping tale and again puts the focus more on the immediate story.

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Overall, I easily prefer Gunfight At The O.K. Corral‘s ripping yarn about legendary characters in a legendary time. In the great buildup to that final fight, few words are spoken between the men – they know what’s at stake and consider their actions to speak for them. Shane, while still deserving of its place in the Western pantheon, is less sprightly and the story doesn’t quite keep you as fully enthralled. Though both films have main villains that aren’t well drawn (mean and greedy straight through with no sign of respect or code), Shane‘s lack of one hurts the picture more as it tries to tackle what it means to “be a man”. Through the eyes of Joey, Shane is being hero worshiped and expected to fight and shoot. Though the story is set up to allow Shane to show him another way, it essentially states that a man should behave situationally – avoid violence if possible, but meet it head on if necessary (“A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it”). The message struggles somewhat to get out because Joey is far too dense to consider it (one of the film’s drawbacks is any moment the child is on screen), but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that there are always consequences to your actions. So be careful – that pride’ll get ya…

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