Western Symbol Web: Shane, by Jack Schaefer, John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, p. 244–2475
Western Symbol Web
The Western is the last of the great creation myths, because the American West was the last livable frontier on earth. This story form is the national myth of America and has been written and rewritten thousands of times. So it has a highly metaphorical symbol web. The Western is the story of millions of individuals journeying west, taming the wilderness, and building a home. They are led by a lone-warrior hero who can defeat the barbarians and make it safe for the pioneers to form a village. Like Moses, this warrior can lead his people to the Promise Land but not enter it himself. He is doomed to remain unmarried and alone, forever traveling the wilderness until he and it are gone.
The heyday of the Western genre was from about 1880 to 1960. So this story form has always been about a time and place that was already past, even when it first became popular. But it is important to remember that as a creation myth, the Western was always a vision of the future, a national stage of development that Americans had collectively decided they wanted, even though it was set in the past and could not be created in fact.
The vision of the Western is to conquer the land, kill or transform the “lower” “barbarian” races, spread Christianity and civilization, turn nature into wealth, and create the American nation. The designing principle of the Western story form is that the entire process of world history is being repeated on the clean slate of the pristine American wilderness, so America is the world’s last chance to regain paradise.
Any national story becomes a religious story, depending on its definition of certain rituals and values and the intensity with which it is believed. Not surprisingly, such a national religious story produces a highly metaphorical symbol web.
The symbol web of the Western begins with the horseman. He is both hunter and warrior, and he is the ultimate expression of the warrior culture. He also takes on certain features of the English national myth of King Arthur. He is the natural knight, a common man of pure and noble character who lives by a moral code of chivalry and right action (known as the Code of the West).
The Western hero does not wear armor, but he wears the second greand symbol of this symbol web, the six-gun. The six-gun represents mechanized force, a “sword” of justice that is highly magnified in power. Because of his code and the values of the warrior culture, the cowboy will never draw his gun first. And he must always enforce justice in a showdown in the street, where all can see.
Like the horror story, the Western always expresses binary values of good and evil, and these are signaled by the third major symbol of the web, the hat. The Western hero wars a white hat, the bad man wears black.
The fourth symbol of the form is the badge, which is in the shape of another symbol, the star. The Western hero is always the enforcer of right, often to his own detriment, since his violence usually ostracizes him. He may temporarily join the community in an offical way if he becomes a lawman. He imposes the law not just upon the wilderness but also upon the wildness and passion within each person.
The final major symbol of the Western web is the fence. It is always a wooden fence, slight and fragile, and it represents the skin-deep control the new civilization has over the wilderness of nature and the wildness of human nature.
The Western symbol web is used to great effect in stories like “The Virginian”, “My Darling Clementine”, and the most schematic and metaphorical of all Westerns, “Shane”.
“Shane”’s schematic quality makes it easy to see the Western symbols, but it calls so much attention to those symbols that the audience always has the sense that “I’m watching a classic Western.” This is the great risk in using highly metaphorical symbols.
That being said, “Shane” takes the mythical Western form to its logical extreme. The story tracks a mysteryous stranger who, when first seen, is already on a journey. He rides down from the mountain, makes one stop, and then returns to the mountain. The film is a subgenre I call the “travelling angel story”, which is found not only in Westerns but also in detective stories (the Hercule Poirot stories), comedies (“Crocodile Dundee”, “Amélie”, “Chocolat”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”), and musicals (“Mary Poppins”, “The Music Man”). In the traveling anel story, the hero enters a community in trouble, helps the inhabitants fix things, and then moves on to help the next community. Here in its Western version, Shane is the traveing warrior angel who fights other warriors (cattlemen) to make it safe for the farmers and the villagers to build a home and a village.
“Shane” also has a highly symbolic character web. There is the angel-like hero versus the satanic gunslinger; the family-man farmer (named Joseph) versus the grizzled, ruthless, unmarried cattleman; the ideal wife and mother (named Marian); and the child, a boy who worships the man who is good with a gun. These abstract characters are presented with almost no individual detail. For example, Shane has some ghost in his past involving the use of guns, but it’s never explained. As a result, the characters are just very appealing metaphors.
All the standard Western symbols are here in their purest form. The gun is crucial to any Western. But in “Shane”, it’s placed at the center of the theme. The film asks the question by which every man in the story is judged: Do you have the courage to use the gun? The cattlemen hate the farmers because they put up fences. The farmers fight the cattlemen so they can build a real town with laws and a church. Shane wears light buck-skin; the evil gunslinger wears black. The farmers buy supplies with which they can build their homes at the general store. But the store has a door that opens into the saloon where the cattlemen drink and kill. Shane tries to build a new life of home and family when he’s in the general store, but he can’t help being sucked into the saloon and back to his old life as a lone warrior who is great with a gun.
This isn’t to say that “Shane” is a bad piece of storytelling. It has a certain power precisely because its symbol web is so clean, so well drawn. There is no paddling here. But for that same reason, it feels like a schematic story, with a moral argument that is just this side of moral philosophy, as almost all religious stories are.