The Rear-View Mirror: Shane (1953)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

How many movie tropes are there that are common knowledge, yet if you were to ask what films actually use them you would draw a blank?

In 2002, I directed a student production of Richard III. One of the techniques we used throughout the production was short film sequences projected onto a screen that became more and more bloody as the play went on and obstacles on Richard’s path to the throne were got rid of. We started with a black and white newsreel to bring the audience up to speed, a kind of “Previously on The War of the Roses”. Lady Anne watched old home videos of her murdered husband.

We also thought that in a modernised production the short movies could help us tackle that famous line, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” We obviously weren’t going to have medieval warfare on stage, so instead the idea was that as Richard came to realise that he was well and truly screwed, he would wish for that most iconic of movie exits: riding into the sunset. Hey, it beats getting killed by a pretender to the throne.

Nothing easier than finding a scene of a cowboy riding off into the sunset, right? Wrong. I’m by no means a Western connoiseur, but even with the help of everyone I knew on the internet (remember that this was before TV Tropes) we didn’t find any such scene. We found variations and parodies, daytime rides and cars driving off into the sunset. We found Indiana Jones and Co riding towards the setting sun, but we wanted the iconic scene of the lonesome rider, not a group picture.

And then someone suggested Shane. It’s an iconic movie, and I’d obviously heard of it, but I hadn’t seen it. If I remember correctly, I found a cheap copy on VHS tape and checked out the ending. It wasn’t entirely what I wanted, not least because there was no sunset, but in its way, it was even better: Shane (Alan Ladd), the drifter who has saved the day, rides off into the valley, bleeding to death – and there’s an impossibly wholesome, squeaky ’50s kid shouting after him, “Shane, come back!” It might have been different if I’d watched the whole film first, but this was the 11th hour and we needed a movie scene to play so that Richard could deliver his line. In isolation the scene was cheesy, bordering on ridiculous… and it was perfect. It prompted Richard’s wish for a quick escape from the battlefield and the grim, grubby death he surely was facing.

Our Richard III was a success and the projected film sequences were roundly praised. No one laughed at an unintentionally funny line about horses. Shane had indeed saved the day yet again.

And I am embarrassed to confess that to this day I’ve still never seen the film.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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