Does Shane die at the end? This question was the subject of passionate debate in the faculty room last week. The school year is almost over. What can I say?
At the end of the movie, Shane rides off into the sunrise his head hanging down. Though he defeated the bad guys and saved the town, he was shot once during the final, climactic gun battle.
“Shane! Come back!”
Okay, maybe it’s a guy thing, but the question needed an answer. Is Shane alive at the end or not?
I’ve long been a fan of the movie and have wanted to read the Jack Schaefer novel it’s based on, so I decided to check them both out from my local library. For some reason, the faculty is willing to let me be the final arbiter on this question, probably because at 46 I’m the oldest. Fair enough. I’m certainly up to the task.
Shane is a classic hero-rides-into-town western. The novel is set in a remote valley once the sole property of a single cattle rancher, now turning into farmland. The rancher wants all the farmers off of his land; the farmers don’t want to leave. Shane, a gunfighter with a past he won’t discuss, rides up to one of the farms, befriends the farmer, his wife and young son, and defends them all against the rancher and the hired guns he brings in to drive them away. Shane wants to leave his gun fighting past behind him and settle down. It’s also clear that he won’t be able to because Shane the gunfighter is just who the farmers need to defeat the rancher.
It’s clear in the book that Shane is alive at the end. In fact, one of the minor characters states that “No bullet could ever kill that man.” By the end of the novel Shane has become an immortal god-like hero. There’s just no way he can die. He can ride off and never be heard from again because his time has passed, but he can’t die. He lives on at the heart of the American mythos. Even men who’ve never heard of him aim to be like him. Strong. Independent. Admired by women and children and other men. Able to hold his own in a fight but also able to avoid fighting for its own sake. There’s no way he can die.
The George Stevens directed movie starring Alan Ladd is very faithful to the book. The few changes he makes improve the story. The fight between Shane and Starret is just one hit to the head in the book but it becomes a brutal fight scene in the movie that serves to point out how terrible fighting is. The love triangle between Shane, Starret and Miriam, barely noticeable in the book, is down played in the movie, but other than that there are no major differences. The movie even comes close to approximating the first person narration of the book which is told from the point of view of Starret’s young son.
But Shane is just as alive in the end. Some faculty argued that as he rides off his head is down and the arm not holding the reins is hanging limp at his side. He’s in silhouette at the end making him look even more mythical but also making it impossible to see his face. He’s not really a person at the end of the movie anyway, he’s an archetype. And he’s alive. There was no blood, not even the minimal blood typical of movies made in 1953. Shane hardly reacted to being shot at all, and anyone familiar with horseback riding will see that his posture is typical of someone riding a horse. If he were dead, he surely would have fallen off of his horse as it climbed over the mountains. And I doubt that any horse would choose to go up a rocky mountain path when it could just go home to its feed, unless a conscious rider directed it to.
So, Shane lives. No doubt in my mind. That is my final answer.
This post first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the late spring of 2010. For the record, I turned 52 this year and am still the oldest member of the department and probably still the biggest authority on the American western.