For the BBC radio production of the classic Western Shane, I played homesteader Joe Starrett opposite Jennifer Westfeldt as Marian Starrett and Josh Stamberg as Shane. Shane was produced and directed by Kate McAll and also starred Finley Jacobsen, Rod McLachlan, and Emmy-winning NYPD Blue alumni Gordon Clapp. The whole experience was a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to be in a Western.
When a Western is great it can be transcendent, and when it’s bad it can be downright offensive. Shane is one of the greats. And it’s more timely than ever — a story of guns and non-violent resistance in a world where government-sanctioned settlements are displacing ranchers, who in turn had displaced native tribes. When the ranchers feel the squeeze, they resort to violence and terror, leading gunslinger-turned-farmer Shane to take up arms again.
When Shane kills, though beneficial to the homesteaders in the short term, there isn’t resolution to the larger issue of whether the homesteaders are really in the right and whether there’s a place for gun violence in otherwise civilized communities. Shane desperately wanted to live without his gun, giving it up for weeks and turning the other cheek. But after he chooses to use it again, he goes into self-exile, riding off into the sunset. It’s as if he can’t reconcile gunslinging and remaining in a community. And yet, when it comes to protecting your property — albeit in a community — the threat of violence is not uncommon.
Of course the gun debate rages more than ever in America today. And guns are still ubiquitous in our storytelling, even if Westerns aren’t as prevalent these days. Wait…who was that masked man…with the water pistol?
Yeah, that’s me. Cute? Harmless? Debatable? Some storytelling truly wrestles with the role of guns (as Shane does) and some of it is just crap. As an actor, it’s no surprise that I’ve wielded a gun in a number of films — always as the bad guy interestingly — where I’ve been driven by greed, jealousy, and unbridled corporate control. Power and property — not today’s bugaboo of mental illness — are at the root of so much gun violence. Sadly, that violence seems to reflect human nature in a society where status and ownership are so contentious. Should we just accept the role of guns in that violence? Do we not value human life more than that? Will the Wild West paradigm of “justice” live on in America and elsewhere?
Photo by April Choi
What if Shane had not used his gun? Would the homesteading Starrett family have been run out or worse? Yes, the claim these homesteaders made on the land was encouraged and approved by the U.S. government — and the rule of law is important — but on any frontier or border, there isn’t just one law. As much as I try to imagine a world without borders, there will always be at least two sides to every story, with a lot of gray area in between. What would a re-telling of Shane look like from the perspective of Fletcher the rancher? Rather than sympathizing with the homesteaders, I bet we’d sympathize with Fletcher’s actions to defend his land against the unfair, though lawful, incursion of homesteaders.
At the end of the day, no matter what side you’re on, we share some stories in common, and protecting what’s yours is just one of them. That’s the genius of this BBC radio production of Shane. Unlike the film or the original novel, the radio version is told from Marian’s perspective, making it a touching and refreshingly human tale of a family — and a marriage — struggling to survive, no matter what side of the gun or land debate you stand on.
I’ve always felt especially drawn to Westerns because some of my ancestors lived the non-Hollywood version of it. Here’s my great-grandfather, Delmar Mash, driving his team of horses from Utah to Colorado for his freighting business. If I’m getting this right, Delmar remembers, as a young boy, looking out the back of a covered wagon as his family made its way west to Colorado.
Below are Delmar’s three sons (from left to right): Clarence, Lawrence (who ranched all his life on Grand Mesa), and my grandfather, Cecil Mash.
And here’s the woman Cecil married, my grandmother, Florence Milly, the teacher at a one-room schoolhouse. Florence and Cecil weren’t married yet when this picture was taken, but Cecil was the older brother of two of her students.
Getting nostalgic and doing a Western for the radio might have taken me way back in time, but after recording Shane, I attended a post-wrap dinner at the Mondrian and that brought me right back to reality — or at least the ersatz reality of the Sunset Strip. As the valet retrieved my rented two-door lime-green Ford Fiesta, a Lamborghini roared up just in front of it. “Tonto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Colorado anymore.”
Whether it’s Los Angeles or London (where I’ve staked my claim), it ain’t exactly the Wild West. But hey, the UK does actually have wild ponies, which some friends and I “bravely” approached on Dartmoor.
And believe it or not, I’ve seen people ride off into the sunset in the UK, as I did recently on Rhossili Bay beach in Wales.
See how I did that, moving from guns to grandparents to horses? Now that’s a much happier ending. Yeehaw!