Some may question why the greatest director of Westerns in Hollywood history was not the man that made the greatest Western in Hollywood history. The answer is surprisingly simple: John Ford’s most memorable films reveal how the settling of the west was a group effort while Shane is the ultimate celebration of the spirit of the individual in the creation of the frontier mythos. John Ford perhaps could have made a better film from Jack Schaefer’s novel than George Stevens…but the odds would be overwhelmingly against it.
One of the most interesting facts about the writing of Shane is that author Jack Schaefer completed his manuscript for submission to publishers while living in Virginia. From the gritty realism that he captures, the most likely assumption is that while the book was completed back East, Schaefer must certainly have started working on it somewhere west of the Mississippi. Anywhere west of the Mississippi. In fact, Schaefer had never been beyond Ohio before he completed writing Shane. Not only had was Schaefer not familiar with the setting of his novel in any tangible, tactile way; he was barely literate in the ways of Western fiction. Which, for anyone not familiar with the truly astonishing volume of exceptionally bad Western fiction which would have been so easily available to Schaefer at that time, was not necessarily a bad thing. While it is an inescapable truth that one can learn how to write well by reading what others have written well, it is not always true that one can learn how to avoid writing badly by reading what others have written badly.
Shane began life as a novella published in Argosy Magazine as if by the grace of god. Which is to say that the manuscript only got taken home by an editor as a mistake when he grabbed a bunch of stuff off his desk. Schaefer had been so unwise in the ways of the publishing world that the manuscript sent in to Argosy was literally the one and only copy; he hadn’t even made a copy of it to keep for himself. By some miracle, the unknown writer’s single-spaced original manuscript managed not only to stay out a wastebasket, but actually thrill that editor who didn’t even realize he had taken it home. Some time later, the novella was published under the title Rider from Nowhere in serial form in three consecutive issues of Argosy and the legend of a mysterious reluctant gunslinger known only as Shane began to take off.
That legend would include the 1953 film adaptation directed by George Stevens starring Alan Ladd in the title role which would be nominated for six Academy Awards as well as a much less famous 1960’s TV series which lasted less than a full season and featured David Carradine as the mysterious gunslinger. Clint Eastwood is also part of the Shane legend, at least tangentially, as his 1985 film Pale Rider bears more than a couple of passing coincidental resemblances to the story and themes examined by Jack Schaefer in his landmark novel.