A weather-beaten man in a fringed shirt rides up to a lonely homestead to ask for a drink of water. This is how several movie Westerns start, but almost from the beginning something is different about this telling. Is it because the cowboy is wearing an odd shirt that makes the already slender and small man seem even smaller? Or is it because of almost understood notion that this man will get involved with the family living at the homestead even though they didn’t know him hours before? Or is it because of the almost instantaneous attraction the cowboy has for the whole family, especially the wife? What ever it is this Western deviates almost instantly from its genres tropes while also supporting them and keeping them close to its heart.
Shane is a lonely cowboy who gets involved in one town’s struggle against cow herding strong men. Homesteaders chose to fence up several small plots in order to make a go at farming, but the men that were there before these homesteaders came want the land for grazing for their more lucrative cow business. The cow herder hires several gunmen to terrorize and intimidate the homesteaders. They all hang out at the bar, playing cards. Shane enters the bar to buy a soda for the son and becomes a target for his effeminate ways (he doesn’t drink whiskey, is significantly shorter than the rest of the group and didn’t have his six-shooter on him). Shane lets them bully him resisting his past ways. But he can only resist for so long. The gunmen keep pushing these homesteaders around and causes several deaths for no real reason. The homesteading family decides to take a stand against this bully, but Shane knows that they would be no match for them. Shane volunteers to be the representative in the Mexican standoff against the best henchman by knocking out the husband. He kills the menace, but now knows there is no place for him in the town and he must leave.
The camera exhibits extreme compassion for the title character. He knows that there is only way to solve such a serious problem, but he also understands the implications of such an action. There is no coming back from killing a man, even if it is justified. This is a lesson he knows all too well. The camera lights him in a flattering manner against the beautiful dusty landscapes. The camera lingers on him as he teaches the young boy of the family how to shoot. This pivotal scene says so much without actually saying anything. Shane shows that his dexterity with a gun is a practiced thing, not an abstract learned thing that scars most of the gunmen today. While he is being taught how to handle a gun, the young boy becomes a manifestation of his younger self. No one becomes a true gunman without having some desire to become one. He may have seen the profession much like the young boy did when he started, but he has woke up to the harsh reality. He wants to shield this young boy from the same fate, while also trying to help him fulfill his dreams. As Shane is teaching the young boy how to shoot, we see the wife watching the scene in an affectionate way. Although she says nothing, everything is plain on her face. She sees Shane as a father figure, perfect for her son and ultimately for herself. But she also knows that Shane is a troubled man with a shadowy past. She seems to be daydreaming about an alternate reality where Shane is uninhibited by his demons and he is her husband instead of her actual spouse. She knows these thoughts are wrong and she still holds a deep affection for her husband, but it does not stop the mind from wondering. This scene sums up the interior meaning behind the exterior action. Although it may on the surface be a usual Western about a good yet troubled man standing up against evil, it is so much more.