Can you believe it, I had never seen this film (in it’s entirety) until this week. Sure, I knew what it was about and the final scene of Joey calling after his hero is etched in cinematic history. Somehow the film had escaped my viewing.
The story point of a mysterious stranger appearing at an impending collision between evil men and peaceful citizens is a popular notion in fiction and films. Clint Eastwood most famously used this idea in several iconic films.
Shane is a spectacular looking film, widescreen, the beauty of the West and the vivid color photography. The palette of colors is almost garish in the way they pop on screen. Films if this era have a unique, identifying look to them, almost too colorful for reality, like impressionistic paintings, a version of reality. The Academy Award for Cinematography went to Loyal Griggs for this film. As television began to siphon off movie theater attendance, studios had to up their game. Shane delivers a violent, sentimental and heroic two hours of entertainment.
In the first eight minutes of the film, you meet the primary characters and the conflicts are presented. You can size up the measure of each character and the challenge ahead of each.
The themes in the film are not new, but the presentation is fresh and engaging. A little boy hero-worships a mysterious stranger with swagger and bravery that his father does not possess. The father, a homesteader, is a good man trying to stand up to Ryker, the big landowner, that wants to drive him and others out at any cost. This is a film that bristles with passion, men who battle over what’s right and over their rights. There is no law available, only what you are willing to stand up for, and the cost to be paid.
The fight scene between Alan Ladd and Ben Johnson is brutal and bloody. You can feel the punches to the face. The fight establishes Shane as a man who will not back down, even when he’s outnumbered. The fight also inspires Starrett, the homesteader Shane works for. Standing alone, the homesteaders are weak and beaten. Shane begins to thaw the fear. At the same time, little Joey is enamored with Shane, to the concern of his mother, who doesn’t want him to value the violence.
Ryker turns up the intimidation on the homesteaders, and brings in a hired killer, Jack Palance is a menacing role as Wilson. A fight is provoked with a homesteader, who Wilson guns down.
Shane is not so much hiding his past as trying to leave it behind. Right off the bat, he allows himself to be drawn into the range war, something played out in many Western stories. Shane does not look like a gunfighter. He has a cool confidence, not a swagger. He does not try to impress anyone, especially young Joey, who is all about guns and tough guys. His dad is mild-mannered and quite brave in his own way. The other settlers look to his cool, steady leadership, and his wife would rather give up the farm than see her husband killed. She is not impressed with Shane, but comes to understand him better and begrudgingly appreciate his gunplay. That’s why Shane had to leave in the end, he cannot escape what he is.
George Stevens produced and directed this film and for the time, it does not pull any punches (pardon the pun). The fight scenes are long and the gunplay has a realism by repelling those shot backward like they are hit with a cannon. Is the story sentimental? I don’t think so. Shane is not a glamorous character, rather he’s out of step with the times and he knows it. He has a fondness for Joey, and for the Starrett family, perhaps that was the life he wished he had.
Ladd turns in a solid performance, there’s a practical weariness in his portrayal. Van Heflin as Starrett gives an understated and earnest performance, much like in 3:10 to Yuma. Jean Arthur doesn’t have a lot to do, but is the emotional spine of the film. Brandon de Wilde as Joey is exceptional in his role. The fine supporting cast includes Ben Johnson, Jack Palance, Elisha Cook, Jr., Edgar Buchanan and Emile Meyer.
The battle between homesteaders and cattlemen was a real thing and there have been some interesting films about. Tom Horn and Heaven’s Gate are two that come to mind. Powerful land barons, even benevolent ones like Judge Garth in The Virginian, and G.W. McClintock in McClintock flexed their muscles to newcomers. Films like The Missouri Breaks showed Justice being administered by wealthy ranchers, not the sheriff. Open Range was about the difficulty of driving cattle across fenced country and the actions taken by men who control access and inflict their own law.
Westerns are inherently American, but the conflict between the powerful and those who are fighting to build their lives is universal.