It’s time to watch another old, beloved movie that shows up extensively in a new (and newly beloved) one. Shane is an über-badass (for its time) 1953 Western. It is extensively quoted and mirrored and generally worshipped by Logan, the über-badass (for its time, or any other) 2017 superhero movie. The older film’s deliriously macho and emo climax — one of the great Sad Tough Guy speeches in cinematic history, delivered by a heroic, wounded gunfighter to a teary-eyed and frankly insufferable little blond boy — is first shown onscreen halfway through Logan. Then it’s recited word for word, in the new film’s own deliriously macho and emo climax, by a teary-eyed and frankly terrifying little, dark-haired girl. The other big difference is who, or rather what, she’s talking to.
Shane is generally considered one of the best Westerns ever; it rang in at no. 69 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. High praise indeed, but here’s higher: Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey discuss it at length in the 1998 cheeseball action flick The Negotiator. It gets a callback in that film’s macho (but not emo) climax and everything. Their argument: whether Shane dies at the end, looking a little slumpy as he trots off on his horse into the gorgeous, unforgiving American wilderness, ignoring the blond kid’s insufferable pleas to come back.
Logan, barreling toward its own melodramatic conclusion, is way less ambiguous on this does-the-hero-die question. But its solemn reverence for Shane is so pervasive and weirdly touching that you don’t mind for once that a new film is blatantly hijacking an old one’s gravitas and mystique. It steals from the best, at least.
Directed by George Stevens and adapted from Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel, Shane is shockingly gorgeous, full of sumptuous vistas and alluring desktop-wallpaper options. Alan Ladd plays your titular hero, suave and stoic and magnificently coiffed, roaming a feral and beautiful Wyoming countryside sometime after the Civil War. As the movie begins, he ambles heroically onto the modest homestead of Joe Starrett, a simple and decent and slightly over-macho man with a tremulous wife and insufferable son. The Starretts are menaced by the Ryker gang, who have an arguably legal and inarguably amoral claim to the same land, and aim to kick all the squatters and “sodbusters” out, via 1953-appropriate bursts of violence if necessary.
Actually, Logan hijacks that plot, too: The long, eerie interlude when Wolverine and Professor X and Laura, the terrifying little girl, hide out on a kindly rancher family’s modest, embattled homestead is basically Shane in miniature. Right down to the scene where the gang shows up to menace the simple, decent man, and the tough-guy hero immediately butts in:
Shane, thank goodness, carries this setup to a slightly less logical but way more pleasant conclusion. For a while it’s a buddy comedy, with Shane and Starrett rapturously hacking a giant tree stump out of the ground and later joining forces for a genuinely loony and fantastic bar fight. Look at how sweet these guys are.
It’s a long time before gunplay figures into this equation, and, when it finally does, the gunshots are incredibly loud. Stevens achieved his desired sound effect by firing a cannon into a barrel, the better to dramatize how terrible and irreversible gunplay really is, thereby setting up that climactic speech: “There’s no living with … with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks.” Starrett’s tremulous wife, Marian, spends most of her screen time trying to persuade the trigger-happy men to stand down: “We’d all be much better off if there wasn’t a single gun left in this valley.” She’s not wrong, though of course if she had her way, there’d be no movie. When a young, lethally svelte Jack Palance shows up as a black-hat mercenary and blows away the film’s first victim, it feels like someone fired a cannon into a barrel in your living room.
A common reaction to Logan is sheer awe at how visceral and unsettling its violence is — how for the first time, you’re forced to reckon with what indestructible adamantium claws do to a human being. Shane did this with guns half a century earlier, minus the hint of gore or even blood. (“It’s bloody!” the kid blurts out, looking over Shane with despair at the end, and you’ve got to take his word for it.) The implication is that the stoic, tragic hero killed all the bad guys, thereby obviating the need for any more violence, ever.
Which is, of course, ridiculous. They made a few more violent Westerns after Shane; despite Logan’s air of grim, operatic finality, they’ll be making superhero movies — and X-Men movies, and Wolverine movies — long after we’re all dead. But both films, through sheer force of macho and emo, will convince you of their own finality, exemplifying and furthering their genres even as they argue that we’d all be better off if nobody shot anybody, or stabbed anybody in the head with adamantium claws, ever again. They both have colossally melodramatic endings that double as invigorating new beginnings. Both Shane and Logan died or at least suffered for our sins, and left us free to watch many, many other people suffer and die in many other blockbuster movies for many years hence. You can’t enjoy violence and appreciate its terrible cost simultaneously, not really. But these two movies come closest to making you do just that. However and whenever they die, their heroes rest in peace so we don’t have to.