Shane (1953)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Let's Get Ready to Rumble | 0 comments

Shane1

Disclaimer: Fight scenes that make Rocky look like a sissy.

Shane has come to be widely considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made and remains in an elite group of the greatest American films as well. On the surface, Shane seems no more special than most Westerns from the 50s, but what sets this one apart from the others with nearly identical plotlines is the inclusion of a child named Joey. He’s an innocent observer of brutality throughout the film (peeping through holes in walls or under doorways) positioning us, the viewers, to see the action from his point of view. This makes the punches and gunshots that much more shocking and powerful. The look on Joey’s face when the title character first shoots his gun says it all – with eyes wide and frightened, mouth dropped, and hair standing on end. If you give it a chance, Shane may do the same for you.

The film opens with a grand exterior shot on a countryside in Wyoming as the purple-hued Grand Tetons gaze comfortably over the horizon in wonderful Technicolor. Joey (Brandon De Wilde) carries a wimpy rifle while carefully stalking a deer drinking at a nearby water hole. He begins to raise his rifle when he catches view of a man with almost angelic-colored clothing approaching on horseback. When Shane (Alan Ladd) arrives at the homesteaders’ home, he strikes up small talk with the boy and his kind father (Van Heflin). Soon after, we realize there’s bad blood between seven new homesteaders and about as many roughneck cattlemen, who threaten physical violence if the new settlers don’t move out. Shane, apparently taken in by the sweet family, stays by their side as a ranch hand. He takes a mutual liking of Mrs. Starrett (Jean Arthur), which is alluded to heavily (and inspired a short-lived TV show), while Joey sees Shane as a superhero.

“Joey, don’t get to likin’ Shane too much,” Mrs. Starrett says because, by now, we know this isn’t going to end well.

“Mother, I just love Shane,” Joey says later. “Almost as much as I love Pa.”

Though never made explicit, shane2we know Shane had a violent, gun-toting past that he now hopes to abandon. But the only way out of the violence threatened by the Ryker brothers (led by Emile Meyer) may be Shane’s quick trigger finger – especially since a legendary gunfighter, Wilson (Jack Palance in a career-defining role), comes into town clad in all black and sporting a potent smirk. He’s the definition of evil as even a dog puts its tail between its legs and scampers away when he looks at him.

Shane is a complicated character we can never really pin down. He’s small and quiet, unlike most Western heroes. He tries to be passive and desires to settle down for a normal life, yet he’s forced to use violence (Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs uses this as well). And in the end, at least in spirit, Shane must “leave.” Ladd had a much-publicized off-screen life, perhaps even darker than Shane’s, which ended at age 50 with an overdose.

Though beautifully and expertly shot by George Stevens (Giant, A Place in the Sun, Gunga Din), the first half hour is a bit slow for some, but it picks up mighty quick, I reckon. It garnered six Oscar nominations (best picture, director, screenplay, and supporting actors for Palance and De Wilde), winning only best photography and ignoring the best performance of Ladd’s career.

I’m not a huge fan of Westerns, per se, but Shane is one I promise anyone can enjoy and will likely never forget. If it hits you just right, it may even force the words “Come back, Shane!” from your trembling lips.

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