By John H. Foote
Shane, directed by George Stevens, might be the most mythical of all westerns, presenting us with a hero who is the personification of the great anti-hero of the American West. A man who has led a dark and dangerous life finds peace working on a farm for a homesteader, only to have his past catch up to him and drag him back into the life he has known and is trying to leave behind.
Beautifully shot in colour, the film has an intimate feel to it, as though we were spying on a way of life, yet is also possessed of an epic grandeur that cannot be denied. The care that went into making the film is remarkable, some of the shots are exquisite in their beauty, yet the homes and towns are presented realistically. Rough living, but honestly so.
It is into this world rides Shane (Alan Ladd) dressed in buckskins, looking every bit the cowboy and lightning fast on the draw as we see when a child he befriends cocks an unloaded rifle behind him. Blonde, blue-eyed, Shane descends out of the mountains into the valley and after seeing the family Starrett threatened by the local cattlemen, he signs on to help work the farm. Immediately Joey (Brandon de Wilde) adores Shane, seeing him for what he is. When the boy asks for a shooting lesson, he is stunned at Shane’s speed and prowess with a gun. At once we realize this is a foreshadowing of things to come.
Shane becomes good friends with his employers, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marion (Jean Arthur) but Joe does not want Shane fighting his battles for him. When the cattlemen hire a well known gunfighter Wilson (Jack Palance) to run the homesteaders off the land, Shane knows at once the farmers are no match for Wilson.
But he is.
He and Joe come to blows when Joe tries to go to town to fight Wilson. Shane hits him with his gun knocking him out, angering little Joey who tells Shane he hates him. Knowing what the gunfighter did, he did for them, Marion says a tender goodbye to Shane, knowing after what he must do in town, he can never come back. Joey runs behind Shane the distance into town and watches the electrifying gunfight that takes place, with Shane freeing the farmers of the cattlemen once and for all.
As Shane prepares to leave Joey realizes he is wounded, which Shane shrugs off. He convinces the little boy to go home to his parents and grow up strong and good while he will ride into the mountains to die. He has been told already his kind, the gunfighters, are extinct, and understands it is his time. As he rides up the mountain he hears the echoes of Joey’s calls to come back, which Shane knows he can never do. As he rides further and further away the cries “Shane! Come back” echo through the valley and up into the heavens. We expect Shane will hear them as he dies of his wounds.
This big beautiful colour western was a huge hit with critics and generations of audiences. Widely hailed as one of the great screen westerns, director George Stevens never made a greater film.
Alan Ladd was a short man and often stood on boxes to accentuate his height. Stevens found another way of shooting the actor with the camera looking up at him so he looked much taller and dominated the frame. We see Shane through the eyes of the boy Joey, so he would be taller, larger than life. Ladd gave Shane
Both Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are excellent as husband and wife; decent, hard-working people raising their son quietly in the valley. Arthur had a voice that took some getting used too, but the lady was a warm screen presence obviously in love with Shane.
Brandon De Wilde is a revelation as wide-eyed Joey who encounters in Shane everything he has heard about the Old West. Dangerous, yet kind, the gunfighter befriends the child who in his mind elevates him to hero and the defender of those in the valley. It is both a funny and yet deeply moving coming of age performance.
As the gunfighter Wilson, dressed entirely in black, drinking black coffee instead of booze, Jack Palance portrays the killer as a grinning psychopath who enjoys killing. When he guns down little Corey in the street he does it with no emotion. Iinstead, a sneer as the man falls backward into the mud. Palance stalks the screen like a lean Panther, a dog leaves the room when he enters, the personification of pure evil.
Stevens created a western that treated his hero as a mythical hero of the old west. Employing camera angles that suggested Shane was other-worldly, elevating the sound of gunfire, the director used tricks that had not been used before and achieved art. Shane, along with The Searchers (2956) and High Noon (1952), represent the three greatest westerns of the decade.
Shane has two terrific set pieces, the first a brawl between Shane, Starrett and the cattlemen in the local bar. Cut beautifully between shots of Joey, wide-eyed, crunching hard candy, the punches edited perfectly with each bite, each noisy chew. The second is the exciting final gunfight, which is fast, ugly and full of death, just as gunfights were. No glory, no heroes, just a gunshot and a man dies. Both scenes are brilliantly staged and directed, standing among the great movie scenes in film history.
Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and twice for Supporting Actor, the film would win a single Oscar, for its glorious cinematography.
Watching the film before I wrote this piece it did occur to me it was ripe for a remake, but then why mess with perfection?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.