He is the cowboy most famous for leaving, but this short-lived TV series was all about him finding reasons to stay. This is sort of the Shane of Jack Schaefer’s novel and George Stevens’ classic film, but younger—and also somewhat more remorseful. It was far from a hit in 1966, but Shane lives on in reruns on getTV, where the first three episodes will soon be airing.
Shane was one of the deadliest gunslingers ever, but he accepted a position as a farm hand with the Starrett family. Obviously, the widowed Marian Starrett was another motivation, but it is her naïve son Joey who truly adores Shane. Wyoming cattle baron Rufe Ryker is not so enamored with the hired-gun turned hired-hand, but he probably understands Shane better than the Starretts. Nevertheless, Shane consistently sides against the old school cattleman in his campaign to chase out the recently arrived homesteading “sod-busters,” like the Starretts.
The battle turns particularly nasty in the first episode, “The Distant Bell,” in which Ryker does his best to sabotage the settlers plan to build a school in town. Naturally, he opposes anything that would build a sense of permanent community, but Shane believes the local kids deserve a chance to get the education he never had.
“Bell” is a good example of one Shane’s primary themes—the evolution of the frontier from a wild land of opportunity to more settled and regulated communities. In fact, the series is not wholly unsympathetic to Ryker (even though there it sometimes stokes suspicions he might have been complicit in the death of Starrett’s husband). Veteran character actor Burt Freed’s work as Ryker is consistently one of the best things about the series, starting right from the pilot.
The other major theme of Shane is the guilt the title character carries from the sins of his past. The conflicted Shane wants atonement, but it is still in his nature to keep moving, much like a shark. That inner turmoil is brought front-and-center in the second episode, “The Hant,” wherein the grieving father of a man Shane killed during the height of his gunslinging days starts haunting him, like a spirit. He is a sad ghost, rather than an angry one, nicely played by John Qualen, but that rather makes it worse for Shane.
Both themes converge in “The Wild Geese,” whose instinctive migration habits clearly serve as a metaphor for Shane’s own impulses. Once again, Ryker is hoping to drive out the Starretts, but this time it just might work. With no paycheck coming, Shane reluctantly agrees to sign up with an old associate hiring guns for range war in Canada, hoping to use his fee to shore up the struggling Starrett farm, but the widow Marian refuses to accept any blood money.
Shane episodes are moodier than typical TV oaters, but they usually build towards a legit western climax (the one in “Bell” is especially well executed). As Shane, the weirdly young-looking David Carradine is solid brooder and he already had respectable action chops. (Arguably, westerns were his second most identifiable genre after martial arts, with Kung Fu qualifying as both). He also has some ambiguously suggestive chemistry with Jill Ireland’s Marian Starrett (she was already seeing Charles Bronson at this point, so you can figure the strong, silent Shane was her type.)
Peanuts specials) just sounds creepy when he proclaims in the opening sequence: “I love you Shane.”
As westerns go Shane is sort of half-revisionist and half-traditional. That actually makes it interesting in retrospect, but it didn’t really fit in 1966 primetime. At the time, Tully was probably the best-known name attached to it, but today the cast looks pretty impressive. Based on the early episodes, Shane definitely deserves a second look and a critical reappraisal. Recommended for western fans, “Distant Bell, “The Hant,” and “The Wild Geese” air this morning (3/20), tomorrow (3/21), and next Saturday (3/27), on getTV (and the entire series is available on DVD).