Shane (1953)

Dir: George Stevens-Cast: Alan Ladd, Jack Palance, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr.

Do you remember Dick Tracy, do you remember Shane ?

This a line from 'The pros and cons of hitch-hiking', a song by Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd fame. To Waters, and many others, Shane is a dear childhood memory, to be cherished a life long. Shane tells the story of a boy's adoration for a mysterious stranger who comes to the aid of his family, the Starrets, small farmers who have settled in a valley, way out West. They're menaced by rancher Ryker, who wants to chase the Starrets and all other farmers. Ryker tries to break the farmers' resistance by hiring a professional killer, Wilson, who sets an example by provoking an older man and subsequently shoot him in a 'fair' duel. Stimulated by Shane, the brave Starret organizes the farmers in their struggle for survival, but it's of course Shane who has to face Wilson in a final duel. Shane is idolized by the boy Joey, who doesn't understand what effect the stranger has on his immediate surroundings. When Shane rides off into the proverbial sunset, Joey runs after him, shouting his name, begging him to stay. He seems to realize that his mother loves the stranger, but not what the consequences of her affections are. We have all idolized a adult when we were small, and many filmgoers have idolized Shane, not the man, but the movie. In the course of the years the film's fame has deflated seriously, still Paul Simpson, writer of the Rough Guide to Westerns, lists it as the best western in history.

Shane was based on a short novel by Jack Schaefer. The story is told by the boy Joey, played in the movie by Brandon the Wilde. The novel is not a great work of art, but works rather well, thanks to the literal trick to make us readers understand the events better than the person telling them. We see the events through the eyes of a boy but read different things into them. First person narratives are always difficult to translate to film; very often a voice over is used, but director Stevens decided not to do so. Instead he tried to suggest this way of story-telling by bookending the film with Joey's face. The film begins with Shane riding into the valley, and ends with him riding out of it, but it's Joey's face we get to see first, so we could well be tempted to think that he is the narrator. It seems a neat idea, but it doesn't really work. In the novel Shane and his opponent Wilson, the gunslinger hired by Ryker, aren't that different: they're both described as mysterious, dark persons, menacing and inaccessible. Shane remains inaccessible, to Starret, who feels friendship for him, to Starret's wife Marion, who is attracted to him, and even to the boy, who worships him. We understand, reading what the boy tells about this man, that dark shadows are hanging over him, that his past has been brutal and that he is a violent man too. Shane and Wilson are almost interchangeable characters: they have the same ability and readiness to kill if necessary. What makes Shane 'good' and Wilson 'bad', is Shane's decision to side with the weaker party, the farmers.

In the film, things are very different: instead of dark and menacing, Shane is all buckskin and goldilocks. And although Alan Ladd gives an excellent performance, he doesn't have the looks to impersonate a menacing gunman with a past. Maybe Montgomery Clift, director Stevens first choice for the part, would have been a better Shane. Still, there are moments that a glimpse can be spotted from the complex character suggested by the original story: Shane reaching for his gun and turning around when he hears the sound of someone loading a gun behind him, his horror when he notices it was the boy ... Shane and Wilson silently examining each other, judging each other's skills ... Shane telling Starret that he might be a match for Ryker, but certainly not for Wilson ...

The story of Shane alludes to a specific historical background, the Johnson County War of 1892, in which the big ranchers, still believing in free grazing, tried to chase the fast growing number of small farmers limiting their possibilities. It's often seen as a pivotal moment in American history, marking the transition from an anarchic state to a democracy in the making. The film never tries to be a history lesson but still director Stevens manages to evoke some of the horror and fear the violent conflict must have provoked among the small farmers, who were constantly under the threat of being killed if they didn't move to somewhere else. Fistfights really seem painful and bloody events here, and Elisha Cook's backward jump when he's hit by Wilson's bullet, was a very daring shot at realism, considering the time of making. Actually, Shane is quite violent for a fifties western and the action scenes -two elaborated fistfights and the final shoot-out -are among the best ever filmed.

With Alan Ladd as the proverbial guardian angel and Jack Palance as the evil incarnate, Shane became the blueprint for numerous westerns about the lone gunman coming to the aid of defenceless people. Eastwood's Pale Rider may serve as a recommendation. Ladd's buckskin and Palance's black gloves (and sadistic smile) became recurring elements within the genre. The mud covered streets of the little western town, were copied in a film like Django, and Loyal Griggs breathtakingly beautiful (and Oscar winning) cinematography, was equally important for the way the genre would look like in the future as John Ford's glorification of Monument Valley.

The film is too deliberately paced and not the best western ever made. Like many critics have pointed out, it was too self-consciously intended as a landmark film, as if Stevens wanted to immortalize the myth once and for all. But it still is a great movie, beautifully looking and well-acted; and once you've heard his name echoing through the valley, you'll never forget the name of...

Shane ...

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