In 1953, a new type of western hit the movie screens. Moviegoers were looking for something more complex than the head-em-off-at-the pass, white hat/black hat fare that Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers had been dishing out through the forties. They felt more sophisticated and worldly, and they wanted their cowboys to be more sophisticated and worldly as well (even though most cowboys never strayed beyond Montana).
A gun-toting drifter with only one name rides down out of the rugged Teton Mountains into a fertile valley where a family of homesteaders – a man and wife, and their only son — eke out a living. Shane as played by Alan Ladd is conflicted, a basically good man who lives by his gun, anxious to give up his wandering and get a normal life. Well, that’s fine, but the local cattle baron and his thug Jack Palance aren’t about to let that happen. At the end of the movie, Shane realizes he can’t escape his past, and in a great cinematic moment, rides off wounded (mortally?) past the gravestones on Cemetery Hill, and out of town, into the sunrise, with the young boy calling after him: “Come back, Shane!”
Gary Cooper gave us another nuanced hero during the early 1950s in the masterful High Noon.
And if you want to talk nuanced, there’s John Wayne:
“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
“Life’s hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.”
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
Or maybe not.