Key Character: Jack Wilson

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

Shane is a classic of western cinema. Its titular hero is a quiet and highly skilled gunfighter who finds a new home with the Starrett family. But this article isn’t about Shane. It’s about his dark reflection, the sinister Jack Wilson of Cheyenne.

Wilson isn’t the main antagonist of the film. Rather, he’s a hired gun recruited by the powerful cattleman Rufus Ryker. In some ways Wilson and Shane are quite similar. They’re both highly trained, stoic, and they carry dangerous reputations. But Shane has heart and a desire to become a better man. Wilson is an unscrupulous mercenary working for a tyrant.

Before Wilson’s introduction halfway through the film, Shane’s dialogue foreshadows the villain’s appearance. Shane mentions men who carry two guns (like Wilson), saying, “Some like two guns. But one’s all you need if you can use it.” Shane goes on to say, “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” Wilson is the bad to Shane’s good, the two guns to Shane’s one.

Wilson shows his true nature when he confronts Frank “Stonewall” Torrey and goads him into drawing his weapon. After absorbing insults, Torrey calls Wilson a “lowdown, lying Yankee.” Wilson smiles and challenges Torrey by asking him to “prove it” (a great bit of line reading from actor Jack Palance). All the while Wilson wears a sinister smile. And he continues smiling as he guns Torrey down in the mud.

We never learn much about Wilson. Like Shane, we know little to nothing of his history. He doesn’t even spend much time onscreen. And in this case, less is more. All we know is he is what Shane could have been. Or worse, he’s what Shane used to be. And by outdrawing Wilson and shooting him dead, Shane reaffirms himself as a killer who may not deserve the home he thought he’d found.

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