BROOKLYN — There is a vision, I think, in the current political turmoil. I’m beginning to see it, like the great hazy vista that comes onto the movie screen right after the Paramount peak fades out. This vision of America, conjured by the Tea Party and foreshadowed — currently — by the debt-ceiling crisis, grips a nation that wants, needs, aches to return, in some ill-defined way, to a past utopia of frontier individualism.
But how do we get there? And what will it look like when we make it back?
It’s been more than a century since any such reality applied anywhere in America. But as I struggled to imagine our nation’s return to a purer time — without taxes or welfare state, with no tree-huggers and no voting allowed for women or coloreds, when no government “czar” could dictate your kid’s school, your choice of lightbulbs or the level of salmonella contamination in your soft-boiled eggs — I realized I had already seen it! At the Erwin Theater in Tomah, Wisconsin, when I was in, like, third grade.
It was called “Shane.” It’s all there — everything Americans yearn to go back to.
In the background, you’ve got countryside, miles and miles of it, all empty and pristine, except for one tiny butt-ugly town that doesn’t even have a name.
Into this paradise, “a mysterious stranger rode from out of nowhere to play a decisive role in the lives of these pioneers.” Is this mystery man, a cool customer called Shane (played stoically by Alan Ladd), a cinematic harbinger of Barack Obama?
Well, let’s not make that metaphorical leap yet. First, we have to examine these pioneers — of which there are two distinct types.
There are the “free” ones, devil-may-care cowpokes typified by Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson). These entrepreneurs, who disdain any sort of fixed wage or sissified social safety net, work from day-to-day. They depend on physical vitality and naked instinct as they herd millions of lowing dogies across a range as open, fenceless and free as God’s backyard. If one of them, alone on the range, gets throwed and busts a leg, well, he don’t look for no government health care to nurse him back into the saddle. He knows the price of failure in a capitalist system. Moreover, knowing his Second Amendment rights, he knows he can shoot himself rather than die slowly of starvation or gangrene.
The other type of pioneers, the “sodbusters” and “tater-pickers” are the tribunes of socialism. They’re only present in paradise because of a federal handout called “the Homestead Act,” which subsidizes their carving the open range into farms which, it turns out, can’t sustain themselves individually. In order to maintain their business model, in the face of vandalism, arson and murder committed by the free-market pioneers — all of which, in this reality, are legal — the socialist pioneers form… guess what!
That’s right. A union!
The union rabblerouser is your typical business failure, Joe Starrett (played by Van Heflin), a manure-stained peasant. Realizing that his farm can’t stand up to the free-market forces of Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), he gets all the sodbusters and immigrants together, to foment an economic blockade against free enterprise on the range.
Like today’s Tea Party idealists, the epicurean cowboys in “Shane” are not as cohesive as Joe Starrett’s tater-picker conspiracy. Like the Tea Party, Ryker’s cowhands are free thinkers whose ideas and opinions run the conservative gamut from A to B. Luckily for them, however, corporate power preceded them to the open range. Indeed, the only real power in “Shane” belongs to two giants of pioneer enterprise. One is, of course, Ryker, the cattleman who owns every steer in the valley. The other is Sam Grafton, whose bar, hotel, general store, livery stable and blacksmith shop represent a monopoly on every necessity for human survival as far as the eye can see.
The corporate interests in “Shane” support, of course, the open range and they fund the cowhand/entrepreneurs’ political actions — which largely consist of bullying farmers. Grafton, a laissez faire economist, accepts the sodbusters’ money and once in a while advises Ryker not to kill women and children. But Grafton’s philosophy, like Ryker’s, deplores the communitarian sedition preached by Joe Starrett, his pacifist wife Marian (Jean Arthur), and his red-diaper son, Joey (Brandon deWilde).
One of the film’s most symbolically deep moments is one often ignored by movie buffs. In this scene, a delegation of free-market pioneers approach Bolshevik Joe, hoping to talk some sense into him. As they ride up, their steel-shod horses trample the vegetable patch that Marian has spent weeks gently coaxing from the rocky soil. This glimpse of Ayn Randian “creative destruction” offers a powerful lesson about free markets — that they are sturdy, swift and inexorable. History cannot deter a determined capitalism. The collectivist efforts devised to oppose it — although watered, nursed and fertilized by fanatic believers — will be crushed like bean sprouts and pansies.
Superficially, the movie seems to suggest a sort of eventual victory by the socialist sodbusters. The free market’s tragic hero, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) easily dispatches the feisty little farmer Stonewall (a sort of smarmy Russ Feingold type played by Elisha Cook, Jr.). But then, Shane, the mysterious stranger, steps in and murders both Wilson and Ryker while Grafton stands by, thoughtfully twirling his mustache.
But is this truly a victory for organized labor and leftist dogma? Look again.
What about Sam Grafton? He’s still in business, fixing prices on everything from sorghum seed to sasparilla, monopolizing the market, bleeding every penny earned, spent, saved or borrowed by the plow jockeys. With Ryker dead, Grafton commands the capital to buy up Ryker’s every asset and turn the entire valley into his personal free-market empire. Will he be a benevolent capitalist like David Koch or Donald Trump? Probably, but not before bankrupting Joe Starrett, breaking up Joe’s un-American farm collective, marrying Jean Arthur and shipping Joey off to military school.
And Shane? Is he the hero-template for Obama, or is he just a Western-movie archetype with no more political conviction than Randolph Scott or Lee Van Cleef? We could ask him, but… hey, where’d he go?
Shane? Sha-ane? SHA-A-A-A-ANE!