Friday, January 14, 2011

Ruminations on Jack Schaefer’s Shane: Book, Film and Legend by Hisownself Thomas McNulty

“If we are to believe that something akin to human dignity is still possible we must acknowledge the mountains and allow ourselves to dream.”

The sagebrush is thick and stretches for miles along the Antelope Flats valley. On a clear day its gray color can appear almost blue among the short tufts of grass and scrub. Buffalo roam freely here; ponderous yet calculating, the herds move with rhythmic purpose as the mountains rise majestically in the distance. There are no sounds of gunfire, no angry words about sodbusters, no threats to rid the valley of homesteaders. Instead a soft wind rustles the scrub and a birdsong filters up from the tree line.

The last remaining set from the film version of Shane is located in the southern part of the Grand Teton National Park in the Antelope Flats valley. Take 191 north at Moose Junction and turn right (east) on Antelope Flats Road. This area is home now to roaming Buffalo who have made the grasslands their habitat. Travel along Antelope Flats Road until it ends – there is an ongoing dirt road but ignore it. This is a former forest service road – Turn right (south) when the asphalt ends. This road is unmarked but is generally referred to as “Kelly Road.” Turn left (east) onto Gros Ventre Road (pronounced “Gro-Vant”) and about a mile on the left you will see the main cabin and two small barns.

This was the site of the Ernie Wright cabin (played by actor Leonard Strong). It also doubled as the Starrett homestead (Van Heflin, Jean Arthur) in a few shots. Proceed with caution as the area is heavily populated by buffalo and elk. The Antelope Flats valley is also where they built the town and the Starrett cabin which were torn down immediately after the film was completed. The Ernie Wright cabin was nearly identical to the Starrett cabin. Driving through the Antelope Flats valley will immediately evoke images from Shane. The Grand Teton mountains rise majestically in the west. The mountains created a rugged yet beautiful backdrop to director George Stevens’ version of the Jack Schaefer novel.

I remember finding the Bantam paperback edition of Shane in the mid-1960s and I read it in one afternoon. It could not have been much after that when I saw the film on television for the first time. The novel is really a novella, short and to the point, and it’s a masterpiece of first-person narration. I own three copies of Shane, including two editions of that Bantam paperback along with the University of Nebraska Press edition. Monte Walsh is a better book. Monte Walsh is really Jack Schaefer’s masterpiece. But Shane has touched my life in a positive way many times. The day my daughter was born my wife and I watched Shane on television. Connections like that stay with a person. My three copies of Shane are on a bookcase with a signed first edition of  The Collected Stories of Jack Schaefer.

So I stood at the place where they filmed Shane over fifty years ago and studied the mountains. I recalled Victor Young’s famous score “The Call of the Far-Away Hills.” I think it is impossible for those of us that first saw this film as children to look at any photograph of the Teton range and not be reminded of Shane. Perhaps our psyche has been watermarked by these images. We cannot erase them, nor should we try. As adults we look back at these films with nostalgia, in part, because they represent that purest and wholesome part of our formative years when the world appeared to be in perfect order. Watching the film today is like looking into our collective past. I can smell the carpet that scuffed my knees as I scooted closer to the television and I can smell the powder from the cap-gun that banged loudly at the first sight of imaginary villains. Each of us brings our memories into play as we recall the moment Alan Ladd rode down from the hills and onto Antelope Flats where Brandon De Wilde waited with his toy rifle. I had my first view of the Grand Tetons in 1967. The impression remains clear in my mind. Shane had introduced me to the Tetons. I recognized the mountains from the film as my father steered his Pontiac into the campground.

The mountains cannot be conquered. This is something the climbers deny. We can hike the trails and scale the tallest peaks but in the end the mountains will outlast us. If we are to believe that something akin to human dignity is still possible we must acknowledge the mountains and allow ourselves to dream. The capacity for dreaming is intrinsically human and the mountains offer us unlimited inspiration. As a writer I have considered films as a form of reflection as well as an entertainment. Films, like literature, offer us a way to appreciate our plight; to refresh us with moving images and strike an emotional chord with its distinctive soundtrack; to challenge us to greater achievements through the storytelling process; to remind us that our individual essays are as vital as the landscape we inhabit. Films remind us of our recent past and here the Western is America’s own treasure. It is the single genre that is wholly American, a pure-bred exemplar of Yankee machismo, idealism and courage. The Western yarn is rich with violence, love and vengeance. But these are also tales of unbridled courage. The rugged individual stands in opposition to evil, possessed his “own self” of a valor that simmers beneath the surface of his necessary aggression.

There are ghosts here. The faraway echo of voices murmur on the wind. If you peer too long into the scrubland you can see past the buffalo and into our not so distant past. The sunlight makes an ever-changing scene of the high peaks, deep canyons, and tall forest. It is a mesmerizing sight. My camera does not do the mountains justice. In the span of a few seconds I had gone back in my mind’s eye and recalled again a less complicated time. Experience has taught us that nostalgia is never an accurate reflection of Time, but the literal definition is apropos, i.e., homesickness; to return home. So I studied the mountains and enjoyed the way the sunlight altered the landscape every few moments. And before I realized it I whispered the words that we all know so well – come back, Shane.

* PHOTOS: The remnants of a cabin used in the film Shane, Antelope Flats, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, May, 2008.

* This post is dedicated to Jack Marino who knows a good film when he sees it.

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