Shane (1953)

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Director: George Stevens

Producers: Ivan Moffat, Geroge Stevens (Paramount)

Writers: Jack Schaefer (novel), A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (screenplay)

Photography: Loyal Griggs

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Elisha Cook Jr., Douglas Spencer, John Dierkes, Ellen Corby, Paul McVey, John Miller

When people speak of heroes riding off into the sunset, Shane is exactly the stuff they’re talking about, the stuff icons are made of, that echoing, teary-eyed call of young Brandon de Wilde to his parting hero on horseback headed for the horizon: “Shaaaaaaane! Come baaaaaaack!” Beyond an unforgetatble quote of affection (voted #47 all-time by AFI), the call echoes a yearning within us viewers for the lost age of heroes, for the freedom and promise of the frontier, for those heroes who could ride into the picture, solve great moral problems in two hours, and then ride out again. George Stevens’ Shane represents the very best of its kind. It’s a fable of a film, embedding a strong moral message that “a gun is only as good or as bad as the man using it,” all the while shaping movie icon out of western myth.

The title character (Alan Ladd), a retired gunfighter voted #16 on AFI’s 50 Greatest Heroes, opens the film by riding into 1880s Wyoming and happening across the homestead of the Starrett family — father Joe (Van Heflin), a man of the land with a hard work ethic and even higher principles; mother Marian (Jean Arthur), an apple-pie baking wife who’s visibly taken by Shane; and, most importantly, impressionable eight-year-old Joey (De Wilde), who first casts his twinkling blue eyes on Shane in the film’s opening minute and never takes his eyes off the rest of the way. To young Joey’s delight, his new role model is hired by Joe to help work the land, though Shane’s real purpose for staying seems to be an innate feeling that he may be needed to protect the Starretts, and the other homesteaders, from the wealthy cattleman Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who threatens to drive several families off of what he believes to be his spread of land. The conflict only intensifies when Ryker hires a gunman to bully the families, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance in his career role), a nasty fellow out of Cheyenne who dresses head to toe in black and along with twin sixshooters carries the reputation as the fastest draw around. Wilson’s threat of course leads to a final showdown between he and Shane, who comes out of retirement for one last gunfight.

The wonder of it all is that it’s essentially told through the awestruck eyes of the little boy, Joey. De Wilde brings a performance that not only burns intself into the brains of all who see it, but one that also deservedly made him the youngest actor ever to earn an Oscar nomination. Surprisingly, the Academy gaffed in not nominating Ladd in what was no doubt his career role, overlooking the fact that De Wilde’s effectiveness was a distinct reflection of Ladd’s example. There is not a better example of boyhood idolization in all of movies, and it’s their rapport that brings the film its entire lifeforce. Such a coming-of-age approach to the western, as outlined in Jack Schaefer’s source novel, was an entirely new angle on it, one repeated four years later in the Disney classic Old Yeller (1957) and one that allowed for totally relatable in-roads between audiences and the genre — the shared boyhood image of Joey running around, fake pistol in hand, shouting “Bang! Bang!” and observing, questioning, wanting to be like those grown-ups around you.

The great thing about the character of Shane is that he is a seemingly ordinary man doing extraordinary things. Ladd hadn’t the build of some mighty force, standing a slender 5-foot-6 with blonde hair and blue eyes. But there’s just something about him in this role. Maybe its the deep, commanding voice Ladd brings to his fringed buckskin. Or, perhaps it’s the mysterious, almost ghost-like aura provided to the character. Regardless, we listen when he speaks, when he tells us “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right and wrong, it’s a brand.” Shane’s interplay with Marian is fascinating in this regard, as she wants all guns out of the town, including Shane’s. Arthur actually came out of semi-retirement for the film and made Shane her final effort, looking great for 53 years old. Shane seems to think so, too. Throughout, the two exchange glances that build a sort of sexual tension, such that Joe notices, admitting he “sees things,” but a tension that (unlike The Searchers) never materializes into action, with husband and wife remaining faithful to one another.

This is the reason why Shane can inspire as it does, because these are damn good people, all coming together for a just cause of simply being able to raise livestock and families on their own plot of land. Likewise, like any real-life struggle, there are two sides, and the Rykers, although clearly painted as the greedy villains, do have some level of justification, even if only in their own minds. In this way, Shane rises above its genre peers, presenting two sides feeling equally in the right, while inviting audiences to veer graciously toward the side of actual right, the side of Shane in his battle against Wilson, who emits indisputable evil with each clank of his spur against the wooden planks beneath his boots.

Their final standoff may be the most memorable in the film, so brilliantly paced by Stevens that audiences will swear Wilson is grabbing for his gun only to realize that their anticipation for the quickdraw has led to unblinking hallucinations. This scene is just one in a series of smart constructions by Stevens — any number of reaction or subjective shots of De Wilde, surveying the scene from a hiding place; the intercutting of Shane’s fist cracking as Joey bites a peppermint stick; the two-minute longtake as the characters prepare for bed in the cabin interior; the way Walker dominates the frame during his first shootout; the illusion of the camera dollying through the cabin wall, only for the next shot to reveal that same wall completely entact; the low-angle shots watching a fist-fight as horse hooves stomp dust right up against the lens and up the tension of the fight; and the dissolve from a cemetery into a shot of Shane heading into battle, upping the subconscious fear for the final showdown.

Of course any techniques are naturally overshadowed by the grandeur of the stunning Wyoming panoramas. Filmed on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the entire film is backdropped by the epitome of purple mountains majesty, the towering Grand Tetons in the distance. The opening shot of a deer grazing the watersoaked land is as close to an oil-painting as film will ever come, as Shane fittingly holds the title as the first color western shown in flat widescreen, earning cinematographer Loyal Griggs an Oscar in the process. Stevens astutely has Griggs shoot his close-ups with a telephoto lens, preserving the clarity of the western backdrops.

Such a meticulousness seems to define Stevens, the consumate perfectionist, shooting such scenes as the Shane-Joey shooting lesson in as many as 119 takes. Stevens had it all worked out, the set buildings, the clothing designed by Edith Head, the cattle imported from other areas because the local herds looked too well-fed. (C) He even mines emotion out of the dogs, who at one point slink away in fear as Palance enters the saloon, at another point mourning the loss of a master, pawing at the casket as it enters the grave. But most detailed of all is Stevens’ attention to sound, inserting the sound of heartbeats as the tension mounts in the climatic showdown and actually upping the sound of the gunfire, a technique Warren Beatty called highly influential on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (A).

Adding to the effect is Stevens’ use of hidden wires to yank the actors violently backward upon each blast (a similar technique was used for the death of Vito’s mother in The Godfather Part II). Some scholars, including the director’s son, George Stevens Jr., attribute the violent realism to Stevens’ experience as the head of the Signal Corps Special Motion Picture Unit, where he shot such horrific images as D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the discovery of concentration camps at Dachau and Nordhausen (B). Upon his return, gun blasts were no longer a laughing matter, worthy of his honest attention to the true power of firearms without glorification. You’ll notice no shots are fired until halfway through the movie. To Stevens, it’s nothing to mess around with.

Despite being filmed over the summer and fall of 1951, the perfectionist Stevens spent until 1953 in the editing room, getting it just right. But the extra detail has seemeingly paid off, as Shane remains probably his best loved film. It’s often cited as his middle work in an “American trilogy,” beginning with A Place in the Sun (1951) and ending with Giant (1956), films that garnered much more attention at the Academy Awards than Shane. But over half a century later, we see which films have risen and fallen. In the AFI’s original Top 100 (1997), all three “American Trilogy” films found places on the list, but in its 10th Anniversary edition, only Shane remained. What’s more, it had jumped from #69 all the way into the top half at #45. The most successful western of the ’50s (filmsite), Shane continues to influence and compel today. Several of Eastwood’s films pay homage, particularly Pale Rider (1985), which followed a very similar storyline, not to mention Unforgiven (1992), which echoes the same themes of gun morality. Most embedded in popular culture, though, is the film’s open-for-interpretation ending. Filmlovers will debate for eternity whether Shane dies or lives, a debate Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey have in The Negotiator. The open endedness only adds to the film’s legend, and moreso the legend of Shane the character, a figure that rides off into the horizon, answering composer Victor Young’s “The Call of the Faraway Hills” as he disappears into another plane, into another family’s homestead, into a spiritual world, or, if you want to take it further, perhaps a spiritual world from which he came from to begin with.

Citations:

CITE A: Documentary “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey”
CITE B: Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age
CITE C: IMDB Trivia

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