Tragedy on the Commons

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Jean Arthur was a charming actress, best known for her squeaky voice and comedic perfection in the screwball comedies in the 1930s. Recently I read an insightful biography of her: “Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew” (by John R. Oller, Limelight Editions, 1997). It led me to rewatch several of her films, including “The More the Merrier” (1943), “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938), and her final and most serious film, “Shane” (1953).

“Shane” is ranked number 3 in the American Film Institute’s list of the ten greatest films in the Western genre. Yet rankings like that mean nothing unless people watch and rewatch the movie, and pass it along to people who haven’t watched it yet. And “Shane” provides a lot to watch and consider, much of it of special interest to libertarians.

Set in the 1880s, it chronicles the tension that arose between ranchers and farmers as families began to homestead in the west. The ranchers needed wide-open prairies to let their cattle graze, while the farmers needed fences to protect their crops. “Shane” vilifies the ranchers’ position in the person of Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to drive away all the homesteaders; and it romanticizes the homesteaders in the starry-eyed Starrett family.

Shane (Alan Ladd) is the mythical hero who appears on the scene at a crucial moment to save the community of homesteaders, not unlike Oedipus arriving in Thebes just in time to save that community from the Sphinx. With his golden curls, his sleek physique, his masculine buckskins, and his pearl-handled pistol, Shane exudes a magnetism felt by men, women, and children alike. Even animals are drawn to him. But he is a former gunslinger trying to escape his past. When he meets the Starrett family, he takes off his gun, trades his buckskins for denim, and accepts their offer of hospitality and a job.

Everyone in the Starrett family takes to Shane. Joe (Van Heflin) sees a partner who can share both work and friendship. His wife Marian (Jean Arthur) is overwhelmingly attracted to him, and struggles to control her feelings. It is clear that she loves her husband, and that he adores and respects her. But she loves Shane too. Little Joey (Brandon de Wilde), idolizes Shane and his sixshooter with wild-eyed abandon. At one point little Joey confides in his mother, “I love Shane. Almost as much as I love Pa.” His earnest expression of inner conflict reflects the confusion they all feel about their relationship with the mysterious visitor. This sub-story dominates the film and is one of the reasons “Shane” rises above the level of mere “horse opera” or “oater.”

It’s natural that in a film made in the ’50s, the homesteaders should be portrayed as the good guys and the ranchers as the bad guys. The homesteaders are family men with wives and children; they shop at the dry-goods store and bring home candy and hats. The ranchers are unshaven, slovenly bachelors who spend their time at the saloon, drinking, spitting, and plotting how to get rid of the “sodbusters.” Eventually Rufus Ryker hires Jack Wilson (Jack Palance, when he was still deciding whether to call himself Walter or Jack), a gunslinger from Cheyenne, to do their dirty work for them. When Ryker says of Starrett, “I’ll kill him if I have to,” Wilson quips cynically, “You mean I’ll kill him if you have to.”

But who is actually good or bad? If we look at the story a little more carefully, we discover that the plot of “Shane” is an early example of eminent domain.

In an impassioned defense of his position, Ryker tells Starrett:

“When I come to this country you weren’t much older than your boy there. We had rough times. Men that are mostly dead now. I got a bad shoulder yet from a Cheyenne arrowhead. We made this country! We found it and we made it. With blood and empty bellies. Cattle we brought in were chased off by Indians and rustlers. They don’t bother you much any more because we handled ’em. We made a safe range outta this. Some of us died doing it. We made it.”

Of course, Ryker glosses over the fact that another group of people controlled the land before the Europeans arrived to push them off, but from his perspective, cattlemen risked their capital, and even their lives, to claim this land, when only fur trappers and adventurers were willing to go into the wild. Then, when it was finally safe to live there, the U.S. government decided it would be in the country’s best interest to encourage whole families to move westward, building communities that would include schools, churches, and millinery stores, instead of just saloons and brothels. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, any natural-born or naturalized citizen of the United States who had “not taken up arms against the United States” (in other words, Confederates and Mexicans need not apply) could claim a parcel of public land that would be deeded to him if he resided on the land without interruption for five years. The deed could be revoked if he did not continue to reside there for another two more years. For the amount of time that Jacob worked for each of his wives in the book of Genesis, a man could own a farm outright. It was an effective way to lessen the population burden in the cities along the eastern seaboard, to move Yankees westward, and to maintain control over the vast interior of the continent against those pesky Indians who kept trying to reclaim their own property rights.

Ryker brings up another important issue when he continues:

“Then people moved in who never had a rawhide in their hands and fenced off my range and fenced me off from water. Some of ’em, like you, ploughed ditches and take [sic] out irrigation water, so the creek runs dry sometimes. I’ve got to move my stock because of it. And you say we have no right to the range! The men who ran the risks and did the work have no rights?”

Starrett’s response is weak: “You talk about rights. You think you have the right to say that nobody else has got any. Well, that ain’t the way the government looks at it.”

This is the public-works argument that is always used to defend the need for government regulation — or, in today’s parlance, “cap and trade.” How do we properly distribute natural resources? How do we properly control pollution? In this case, who owns the water? Does the person on whose property the spring or lake originates control all the water that flows from it? Or does it become the property of the person on whose land it flows? Is it okay to form a dam or a diversion in order to irrigate one’s own crops effectively? Or is irrigation only acceptable if everyone agrees to share and take a turn? What if one person doesn’t agree — does the majority have the right to force him to agree? These issues cause the libertarian in me to rethink the heroes and the villains in this fine movie, regardless of who wears a beard and who is cleanshaven, or who wears a white hat and whose hat is black.

Another libertarian issue arises in the fact that there is no representative of the law in this community. The nearest sheriff is hundreds of miles away, and laws are enforced by the willingness or unwillingness of the community to abide by them. Instead, a code of the West arises, with a specific set of morals and acceptable punishments. Don’t put on a man’s hat. Don’t touch his horse. Don’t hit a woman. Don’t shoot an unarmed man. Don’t draw unless he draws first. Lacking a lawman in town, injured parties can mete out immediate justice against violators of the code. Knowing this, Shane takes off his guns and tries to broker a peace based on detente. But no lasting solution to the conflict is offered or even discussed in the film.

For good or ill, the two groups resolve their issues without the intrusion of government or judicial system, beyond the Homestead Act that brought families to the area and the unseen Army that helped remove the land’s previous inhabitants. Virtual anarchy reigns, but without chaos. Storekeepers provide goods, families provide education, and community activities such as an Independence Day celebration are sponsored and enjoyed by common consent. The farmers join together to form a common defense, while the rancher employs a mercenary security system. Nevertheless, at the end of the week, four men are dead, one homestead is burned to the ground (despite the efforts of the volunteer bucket brigade), a family has been left fatherless, and several people have been run out of town. Anarchy seems not to have all the answers. How can the farmer and the rancher coexist? Both need grain; both need meat. Couldn’t they look for peaceful solutions, such as selling their goods to each other? Not in this film. The final shootout is inevitable from the moment Shane enters the picture.

And what an impressive entrance it is! Politics aside, this film is a work of art. In the very first scene, notice how the deer appears to be kissing itself in the water as it noses into the pond to drink. Then, as the buck lifts its mighty head, we see Shane arriving far in the distance, perfectly framed between the deer’s antlers. How does a director get a wild animal to behave so perfectly on cue? And without cell phones to alert the actor? Simply amazing.

Jean Arthur, too, is superb in presenting the tension felt by a woman suddenly overwhelmed by passion for a man who is not her husband. Her acting is restrained, yet full of emotion, just as such a simple country woman would behave. When Joey openly declares his love for Shane, she cautions him, “Don’t get to liking Shane too much. . . . He’ll be moving on one day. . . . You’ll be upset if you get to liking him too much.” Of course, she is really cautioning herself. Perhaps because the story is told through the eyes of young Joey, the relationship between Marian and Shane remains completely chaste. They touch only twice: at the Independence Day dance, when they are pushed together by fate to dance a reel, and at their goodbye, when Marian bids him farewell in a formal handshake and says haltingly, “Please. . . . Please. . . . “

Several times, Marian speaks to Shane through the window of the family’s cabin. Metaphorically, she is on the inside and he is on the outside, foreshadowing the ending when, although Shane has saved the community, he cannot stay in it. Like Oedipus, he is the tragic hero who sacrifices for his community and then is banished from it. “There’s no living with a killing,” he tells Joey. “There’s no going back from one.” As Shane rides away into the sunset, director Stevens uses an echo effect to drive home the force of Marian’s unspoken longing. Joey calls after him, “Don’t go! Mother wants you [wants you wants you wants you]! I know she does [she does she does she does].” This unresolved yearning (which exists in the whole family) lasts long after the movie ends, giving the film more power than any happy ending could have delivered. With this ending the film seems to suggest that civilization needs and longs for outsiders, not only to fight our battles, but to bring romance, wisdom, and wonder into our lives.

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