Shane the Rebel?

Victor Davis Hanson is definitely right that Hollywood and others treated Confederates as 'cool' not that long ago, especially in the 1950s, and then again in the late 1960s and through the early 1980s. He's also right that this was done in two quite different ways: the 1950s Confederates were flawed men (especially in Stagecoach and The Searchers), whose code was ultimately destructive to themselves and the kind of civilization they represented. Nevertheless, they were possessed of at least some virtues that enabled them to do hard things on the frontier.

And in the Flower Power era, buttons and patches of the rebel flag were sold right along peace signs in various counterculture magazines. Just as bikers and hippies were two ways of representing rejection of 'the system,' the Outlaw Country thing was just one more mode of rebellion. I think Hanson is too harsh in his reading of this era, which was more youthfully foolish in its sense that it could just embrace the good things and walk away from the bad ones. Still, I wrote about all this recently myself, so I don't disagree that it was a feature of the era.

What really strikes me as wrong, though, is his reading of Shane.

In George Stevens’s mythic Shane (1953), the tragedy of the post–Civil War heroic gunslinger seems eerily tied to his past as an against-the-odds ex-Reb. In contrast, the movie’s odious villain, Unionist Jack Wilson, is a hired gun and company man (brilliantly portrayed by then newcomer Jack Palance). Wilson shows off his bought cred by gunning down a naïve southern sodbuster, “Stonewall” Torrey (played by Elisha Cook Jr.), accompanied by slurs about the Confederacy. (“I’m saying that Stonewall Jackson was trash himself. Him and Lee and all the rest of them Rebs. You too.”)

In the movie’s final shootout, replaying the Civil War provides the catalyst for more violence. This time Shane — and the heroic South — wins for good, with a payback Civil War exchange with Wilson:

Shane: I’ve heard about you, Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane: I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.
Wilson: Prove it.

Wilson is then blown back across the barroom under a hail of bullets. Even out on the Wyoming range, the Hollywood subtext is that sodbuster homesteaders can find a former Confederate loser to protect them, with courage and chivalry, against the northern corporatists trying to steamroll them. The noble savior Shane, we are assumed to believe, had no part in slavery or insurrection but was fighting for his southern soil in service to the Confederacy.
I've written about Shane too, and even that very sequence, but I never once had the idea that Shane was supposed to be a former Confederate. That doesn't strike me as a plausible reading of what happens in the movie.

The character who plays the Southern sodbuster is playfully but thoroughly mocked by the other sodbusters earlier in the movie. It's clear that they are prepared to accept him in spite of his Southern roots, but not to let him live down having been on the losing side of the war. There is therefore no sense that this conflict is a proxy between former Confederates and former Unionists (as was in fact the case at Tombstone in 1881, and thus legitimately colored several movie treatments of it: the Republican, Union-leaning Earp faction against the Confederate, Democratic cowboys).

Rather, what Shane does by repeating the sodbuster's chosen challenge is to take up the cause of a fallen friend, and make it good for him. It's not that the cause was otherwise Shane's; in fact, the power of the scene lies partly in the fact that it wasn't. He took up a cause that wasn't his, and made it good out of friendship.

Read that way, the sequence harmonizes with the larger sweep of the movie. Shane is really a medieval knight who, for love of a lady, enters into a feud between a virtuous landholder and an evil robber baron. Together, the virtuous landholder and the knight errant make good the better claim to the land; but the virtuous landlord is married to the lady, and the knight therefore has a hard choice. In Shane, he makes the best choice, riding off to suffer loss of love in return for knowing he did the right thing. It works out otherwise in other versions of the story.

As a knight errant, Shane doesn't have a cause of his own. That's why his entry into the feud is a sacrifice worthy of the lady; it's why his suffering in the feud is a sacrifice at all, rather than merely his feudal duty. During his defense of the lady's interests, he becomes a friend of the landlord, and his further sacrifices for the landlord are another set of noble sacrifices. His choice to avenge his friend the sodbuster is of this same kind. The sodbuster's cause is not Shane's, but Shane takes it up as a champion long enough to strike down the Black Knight in its name. Shane's nobility is in his willingness to do these things for no personal gain, nor out of any personal duty, but because of a virtuous love for good and decent people.

So no, Shane wasn't a Confederate taking up his old cause in a petty shootout in a tavern, having lost it in a war. That reading fails to grasp the kind of story that is being told, or the kind of man that Shane's character is supposed to be. It's a much older kind of story than that, a better kind.


Tom said...

We also see this in both Star Wars and Firefly. Rebels are cool, and the Browncoats especially are very thinly disguised ex-Confederates.

Then we found out Lucas was the Emperor and Whedon was an Alliance stooge.

jaed said...

... which possibly tells us that inside the most abject of men, there's a rebel trying to get out, who sometimes succeeds against all odds, at least in that man's art.


Grim, have you sent this to Dr. Hanson? It seems to me that a dialog might be interesting, and in any case this response would interest him.

Grim said...

I wouldn't know how to send it to so august a figure. He and I don't really move in the same circles. I suppose one could send it on Twitter, but I try not to get any Twitter attention to this page. I'd rather have a quieter, saner conversation.

E Hines said...

I didn't see Shane's insult to Wilson in the prelude to the shootout in such complex terms. It just struck me as Shane taking Wilson's insult and throwing it back at him, adjusting the terms so the insult would be clear to Wilson.

Shane's nobility is in his willingness to do these things for no personal gain, nor out of any personal duty....

Yet doing the right thing simply because it's right is its own duty.

Regarding contacting VDH (I agree with jaed):

VDH can be reached at the Hoover Institution or by e-mailing

Just bracket your post with a salutation and a Sincerely, and shoot it off.

Eric Hines

Roy Lofquist said...

Great movie. But it had one glaring mistake. Alan Ladd and Van Heflin had a knock down drag out fight in the corral. After the fight Ladd's buckskins look brand new.

E Hines said...

That was no error. Any decent officer or other hero is always clean-shaven and in ironed clothing.

Eric Hines

Gringo said...

A further point against Shane being a Confederate. Jack Schaefer, the author, an Ohio native and an Oberlin graduate, worked as a journalist in the Northeast. Not likely that someone with that background would have an ex-Confederate as a hero.

Ymar Sakar said...

The secrets of US Civil War 1, resides in the decades before 1860.

The two incidents were the Utah War and the Kansas war between free soiler abolitionists and pro slave settlers.

Missouri's extermination order against the Latter Day Saints, was specifically written to promote slavery and defeat abolitionist political power.

The war for the soul of the nation, whether it would be obedient to the divine laws enshrined by most of the Founding Fathers in the US Constitution or whether it would be taken ovre by a Christian version of Islamic sexual chattel class/caste system, was ongoing even before Lincoln was elected.

The Southern propaganda is that Sherman and Lincoln were tyrants that deserved to be killed to promote the freedom of God's anti tyranny. Whose god, Lucifer, their god?

Instead of corrupted tertiary sources like movies, the primary sources from the journals of Elizabeth Kane and the various letters written, were more interesting. Because they were written before the CIvil War 1, the propaganda had not yet changed the text.