SHANE (1953)

SHANE (1953)
   Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon DeWilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, George Stevens (director)
   Here is another candidate for perhaps the greatest classic Western ever filmed. The film is based on a highly acclaimed novel by Jack Schaefer, and George Stevens used one of the great Western novelists, A. B. Guthrie Jr., on the script. It has breathtaking cinematography by Loyal Griggs and haunting music by Victor Young. Shane is a near perfect portrayal of the classic myth of the West. Shane (Ladd) rides inconspicuously through the cinematically gorgeous early spring landscape of snowcapped mountains in the background and runoff streams from the melted snow in the foreground. The grass is lush and verdant. The sky above is perfectly calendar blue. It was filmed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the snow-capped Grand Tetons are in nearly every scene. We soon find out that the homesteaders with whom we are expected to sympathize are weakened and demoralized by the greedy land baron. Ladd is an angel-like savior figure, coming from nowhere, saving the day, returning from whence he came.
   The film works the Western myth and all the cliches (it also originates many of the cliches). For example, the two gunfighters wear black and white hats. Jack Palance played the devil-like gunslinger Wilson perfectly, wearing black. In one scene, Stonewall (Elisha Cook Jr.), the loudmouth homesteader, responds to Wilson’s taunts in the mud-splattered street. He draws on the professional gunfighter, but Wilson is fast. His gun is out and pointing at Stonewall before the clumsy man even has his gun out of the holster. But Wilson does not shoot. He pauses as Stonewall looks down the barrel knowing he is about to die. Wilson savors the moment. Then he fires and knocks the man down and dead in an instant. Stevens worked all gunplay realistically, even using special sound effects in theaters to sound like real gunfire.
   We understand that Jack Wilson in his black suit is thoroughly evil. But what about Shane? Nobody knows who he is except that he is also a gunfighter, a gunfighter haunted by his demons and a gun fighter who, during his stay with the Starretts, has a glimpse of what a good life might be. Is Shane in his white hat simply Jack Wilson a few years later? If so, what does the film say about the possibility even for a Jack Wilson?
   Shane offers a classic confrontation between the land barons of the open range and the homesteading farmers. The film allows the chief villain, Ryker (Emile Meyer), to express his view of how he came to the valley first, how he subdued it, how he worked hard for years to legally settle it. Both sides in this movie have a point. But Ryker hires a professional killer to protect his interests, and the audience loathes him. The farmers, by chance, have Shane, a professional (albeit reluctant) killer, on their side, and their killer happens to be better. The audience generally sides with the homesteaders, but the film allows us to question whether that was the correct choice; thus the film’s complexity.
   Interestingly, in Westerns as a whole, both sides are represented equally. The Hopalong Cassidy movies, set on the Bar 20 Ranch, take the ranchers’side (although Cassidy never burns out homesteaders’houses as Ryker does). Essentially this film takes the side of the good-hearted but weak homesteaders trying valiantly and against the odds to carve out farms and ranches for themselves in the valley. Shane forces the ranchers to accommodate them. But consider the inevitable result. The farmers will fence off the land, divide up the land, attract more settlers, build real towns, and essentially bring an end to the Western era—and thus despoil the edenic West. Shane, like all cowboy heroes, works to end the life in which he has prospered. Shane has been attacked as being too idealistic. But the film is told from the point of view of Joey (De Wilde), who truly idolizes Shane, and of Marian (Arthur), whose eyes constantly ask, “What if?” When Joey goes running after Shane at the end, calling out, “Shane, come back,” we realize that it is a coming-of-age film for the boy. He has grown up with something that will no longer exist when he is older but that has taught him a lifelong lesson about his own approaching manhood. Interestingly, without Joey, Shane would have been killed. Shane goes to town at one point without guns. Joey asks him to bring back a soda pop. As a result when Shane goes into the saloon to ask for soda pop, he is forced (reluctantly) to show his manhood in a fistfight. Later, when Shane returns with his guns to face Wilson at the saloon, he proves his deadly skill to all, except for one last opponent who would have easily killed him had not Joey shouted, “Shane!” The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won one.
   See also FARMING.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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