Western Film Messages and Values: A comparison of Shane and Pale Rider.

This is a model answer for the old WJEC Film Studies AS examination. The key concepts of messages and values are still important in the new Eduqas exam. Lots of students get themselves into knots when they see the words “messages and values.” This should help.

How do key sequences from your chosen American films reinforce their messages and values?

In the westerns Shane (1953) and Pale Rider (1985) both films, by virtue of their genre, share some messages and values. One of these is the desirability of rugged individualism. This is expressed in the way the central figures are personally capable of taking care of themselves and those they care for. Both films end in a climactic shootout. In Shane the protagonist, who has pistol-whipped Joe Starrett to prevent him from going to meet his certain death at the hands of Wilson (a physical demonstration of the gun-fighter’s moral ambivalence – it breaks Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code regarding violence) is shot from a low angle by cinematographer Loyal Griggs. This angle is established before Joey arrives to witness the scene but has the child’s perspective of the adult world of violence and death. Shane is also depicted in his buckskin clothing. This marks him out as a frontiersman with the suggestion that as he is wearing native clothing he is unfit for the civilised world (this has been established earlier by his sleeping in the stable). Shane has worn blue “farm-rig” for much of the movie but requires savage clothing to match the savagery of both Ryker and Wilson.


In Pale Rider the rugged individualism of the climactic gunfight is established by Bruce Surtees’ cinematography which highlights the Preacher’s isolation. The street is empty and Eastwood is shot from a reasonably wide angle before Stockburn and his deputies go outside to find his only his hat on the ground. Unlike Shane there is a supernatural element to the gunfight and the inclusion of shots, from the miner’s point-of-view, of them shooting into thin air in the coffee-shop before being surprised by his appearance in the doorway emphasises his status as inhuman.


Another value both films share is that of comradeship between the protagonists and Barret/Starrett. This is clearly established in the way both Shane and The Preacher help in a physical task; the tree-stump and the rock respectively. In both films the use of either horses or dynamite is described as being unworthy. The object has become a medieval trial by ordeal through which the men can prove their worth against Nature. In Shane the scene is shot in a studio to help represent night and Shane’s shirtlessness helps to establish his dominant masculinity (cut-aways show Marian watching him, just as Joey is; which is a repeated technique to establish Shane as an alternative to Joe). In Pale Rider the scene takes place in daylight (like the final gunfight) and it is the intervention of Club who helps to split the rock. In this version The Preacher’s defeat of Club is watched by a giggling Megan which helps to establish him as her idealised version of masculinity. The scene ends with all the inhabitants of Carbon Canyon helping to split the rock. This is shot from below eye-level to establish their physicality. In Shane it is the community fighting the fire which unites them.

As a product of the 50s Shane has an ambivalence towards weapons and violence. When Shane teaches Joey to shoot (a scene witnessed by Marian in her wedding dress, emphasising Shanes status as an homme fatale) the combination of worm’s eye view and Alan Ladd’s impassive, slightly surprised expression (contrasted with the extreme close-up of Joey’s wide eyed astonishment) helps to build a slightly unsettling sequence. This tension is underlined by the dialogue. Shane’s insistence that “a gun is a tool” contrasts with Marian’s desire for all the guns to be gone from the valley. This reflects American feelings post-WW2 and upon entering the Cold War. Weapons and violence were a matter of last resort and not to be taken lightly. George Stevens wanted the sound of gunfire to be overwhelming reflecting his own experience of gunfire during the war.

There is a similar set of messages in Pale Rider in the sequence where The Preacher retrieves his guns. In order to equip himself he needs to unlock the guns from a safety deposit box. He has literally put them beyond use however the sequence ends with his dog-collar being thrown into the now empty box. Like Shane’s buckskin costume is used to show that the protagonists either cannot change who they are or cannot hold a dual identity.

A contrasting message about violence is contained in the close-up of The Preacher reloading his 1858 Remington revolver during the gunfight. It has the dual function of being historically accurate and fetishizing the gun. The angle and Eastwood’s unhurried performance also echo his cool but hyper-violent secondary persona refined and populised in the Dirty Harry films. The film therefore reflects American ideas about vigilanteism which were being debated in the mid-80s (Bernard Goetz and the Guardian Angels were both examples).


As both films are westerns both are concerned with the tension between the wilderness and civilisation. In both films the villain (Ryker and LaHood respectively) explain why they feel the land belongs to them. Both men establish a prior claim and in both films the directors find a way to make the men appear more sympathetic. Ryker is shot from the same angle Shane is in his first, and iconic, close-up. His wild beard establish him, along with the “Cheyanne arrow-head” he still has lodged in his body as someone who has fought for the land. His claims are undercut however by the slow, testing balletic stand-off between Shane and Wilson which Stevens cuts away to throughout the scene. Eastwood has LaHood vacillating between bribery, bluster, threats of Stockburn and eventual capitulation (in the form of $1000 per claim). All of this is done within LaHood’s office. This is lit by natural light and so appears to be a dark space full of intrigue (the lion’s den in a possible biblical reference) but more importantly LaHood’s clothing and the interior show that he has lost his right to the land. He has grown rich by “raping the land” and in the dialogue between Ryker and Shane his “time is over.”


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