“Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin’, on this our weddin’ day-ee; do not forsake me, oh, my….” Sorry. Wrong classic Western. Let me try again. “Shane. Shane, come back.” There. That’s better. Can I help it? Two of the best Westerns ever made were released within a year of each other, “High Noon” in 1952 and “Shane” in 1953. Interestingly, “Shane” was actually made earlier, in 1951, but not released until after “High Noon.” Together, the two films transformed the American cowboy saga, introducing psychological elements into the usual gunplay. With these films we begin to see genuine personality traits, human relationships, and character motivations come into use that had only until then been hinted at in Western films. These were landmark pictures, “High Noon” the more mature, “Shane” the more visually stunning. They stand up as well today as any Westerns made, with “Shane” benefiting the more from its splendid DVD presentation.
“Shane” is the now-familiar story of the gunfighter attempting to go straight, the man who has had enough of killing and is trying to lay down his guns for good. Of course, things don’t always work out the way people want them to, and in Shane’s case circumstances force him to strap on his pistols once more in the cause of good. The same formula has been repeated countless times since, culminating in Clint Eastwood’s harder-edged account in “Unforgiven.”
Alan Ladd stars as the reluctant hero, but the real showstopper is the film’s glorious scenery. It’s hard not to want to freeze the picture now and then just to admire the landscape. Although “Shane” was nominated for six Academy Awards–Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Brandon de Wilde), Supporting Actor again (Jack Palance), Director (George Stevens), Screenplay (A.B. Guthrie, Jr.), and Cinematography (Loyal Griggs)–it was the cinematographer who brought home the Oscar. Loyal Griggs’s color photography of the Wyoming mountains and valleys is, indeed, spectacular, providing the story with an even more epic grandeur than Jack Schaefer’s novel, upon which the script is based.
The story begins in an idyllic Rocky Mountain valley, where the Starrett family–Joe (Van Heflin), his wife Marion (Jean Arthur), and son Joey (Brandon de Wilde)–are among a small group of homesteaders trying to eke out a living in a land dominated by big cattle interests. Needless to say, the cattlemen, represented by the evil Ryker (Emile Meyer), are doing everything short of murder to drive the homesteaders out, and before long even that expedient is pursued. Into this drama rides Shane, the mysterious gunman looking for a new life. He obtains work as a farm hand with the Starretts, but we can see from the outset he’s going to be doing more than chopping wood and mending fences. When Ryker hires a professional gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), to scare off the homesteaders, it’s up to Shane to choose sides and take up his weapons once again. He must come to find himself, confirm his identity, and maintain the time-honored adage that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, or a guy’s gotta be what a guy’s gotta be, or I yam what I yam what I yam. Or whatever.
At first glance, the plot of “Shane” would appear to be formulaic. Bronco Billy Anderson, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and a hundred other movie cowpokes had been coming to the rescue of downtrodden farmers for years. What sets “Shane” apart is that it’s not really a typical action adventure. In fact, there is little physical action involved. There is a fistfight toward the beginning, a shooting in the middle, and one of the best showdowns ever filmed, maybe THE best, at the end. In between we have personal conflicts and character developments.
As portrayed by Alan Ladd, Shane is more than a “Man With No Name”; maybe we should call him a “Man With No Second Name.” He’s clearly a decent, soft-spoken, gentle person from his outward appearance, but just as clearly we come to recognize that he is much more; after all, he has spent his life killing people for a living, something most decent folk don’t abide. Like Eastwood’s William Munny in “Unforgiven,” Shane seems to regret his past, although unlike Munny, Shane would appear to have had conscience enough to have killed only bad men. It’s a Romantic notion that fits Shane’s persona. He is larger than life, a tribute to the mythical knights of yore. Indeed, his initial appearance, riding up in buckskins, evokes the image of a heroic champion, a Round Table knight, a paladin out questing for a noble deed. Even his blond hair wreathes his head like a golden crown. Yet there’s always that underlying feeling that there’s something not entirely respectable about him, something dangerous, something the heavies skulking around the local saloon notice right away.
Then there are the subplots. Before Shane has been with the Starretts long, the boy has begun hero-worshipping him. Joey begins to love Shane almost as much or more than he loves his own father. And why not? His father’s a busy farmer with little time for his son. Besides, Shane has a six-gun and shows Joey how to use it. Because Joey is the first person we actually see in the picture and because he is in virtually every scene, it is easy to accept that we are regarding this story from his point of view. It helps explain Shane’s larger-than-life presence in the film as well. Next, there’s Mrs. Starrett, Jean Arthur’s last movie role, by the way. It is evident throughout that she has a hankering for Mr. Shane. I mean, how many handsome knights in shining armor come riding to one’s rescue in the middle of the Old West? Well, OK, in the movies it happens all the time, but for Marion it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and, as noted, her husband is quite busy most of the time, and life on the range can get lonesome and tedious. Nevertheless, our hero maintains his virtue, and no matter what goes on in their minds, the most we see between them is a chaste farewell handshake. He is Galahad to the end.
Finally, there’s the business of Wilson. In the person of Jack Palance, he is evil incarnate, the Devil himself, the most lowdown, sinister, menacing, cold-blooded varmint this side of Darth Vader. I guarantee the last ten minutes of the film will have you glued to your seat. Also look for veteran Western actors Ben Johnson and Edgar Buchanan playing minor parts as Chris and Lewis respectively; and veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr., as a loudmouthed homesteader named Torrey, who makes the mistake of trying to stand up to Wilson. As an aside, in the movie “Cat Ballou,” 1965, Lee Marvin would parody Shane and Wilson by playing both of the roles and having a gunfight with himself!
Now, for those of you interested in further trivia, I thank my good friend and “Shane” devotee, Don Heynen, for the following information: Joe Starrett’s son (and narrator) in the book is named Bob, not Joey. From about 1937 until about 1952, one of the ten most popular cowboy stars to appear exclusively in B movies was an actor named Charles Starrett. It was Ernie Wright, not Frank Torrey (a very minor character in the book), whom Stark Wilson (yes, that was his name in the book, not Jack Wilson) killed after calling him a “breed.” Shane did not call Wilson a half-breed, though. In the book he just says, “What you want, Wilson, and what you’ll get are two different things. Your killing days are done.” And when Wilson starts to panic (or at least become filled with awe), he continues, “I’m waiting, Wilson. Do I have to crowd you into slapping leather?” And then he kills him. The book’s author, Jack Schaefer, wrote dozens of Western novels and died in 1991 at the age of eighty-three. The final movie based on a Jack Schaefer novel was “Monte Walsh,” 1970, starring, appropriately, Lee Marvin and Jack Palance.
It’s unfortunate the film was made just a few years prior to the introduction of CinemaScope lens and wide screens, though. A more expansive sweep would have captured even greater natural vistas. Still, it’s plenty good the way it is, and Paramount’s DVD reproduction is most realistic. It is perhaps a bit soft around the edges, whether from age or its transfer I don’t know.
The sound, too, is a non-issue. If it had been made in the stereo era, it might have opened up Victor Young’s rhapsodic musical score a little further, but it’s monaural and somewhat constricted in range as well as breadth.
The DVD is well worth owning, especially when you get a full-feature audio commentary with George Stevens, Jr., and others thrown in, plus sixteen scene selections, a theatrical trailer, English and French spoken languages, and English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
It’s hard not to like “Shane.” In addition to its panoramic beauty and climactic gunplay, there are scenes of profound sentiment, poignant enough to bring a tear to the eye: the dog at the grave site, Shane’s farewell to Marion, Joey’s final cries as Shane rides off forever into the distance. It’s a memorable film filled with memorable sights, memorable performances, and memorable virtues.