There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no going back…
It’s a little difficult to know what to say when it comes to a movie like Shane (1953); so much has been written about it over the years and its influence is wide-ranging. I think the western is a genre that lends itself particularly to studies of humanity, it’s less reliant on tricks and all the best examples have something of worth to say about how we treat and react to each other. Shane is a very human picture, a simple story with great depth and sensitivity. I guess it’s fair to categorize it as an archetypical 50s western. The theme of redemption runs right through it, forming its core; it celebrates community, family, love and, maybe most of all, the importance of and one’s need to feel a sense of belonging.
The plot is a fairly straightforward affair and I won’t spend a lot of time on it. The background lies in the dying days of the open range, a key stage in the transition of the frontier from a wild, lawless territory towards a more stable and civilized environment. Major social changes such as this inevitably involve a degree of pain for all involved. The ranchers who tamed the country bitterly resent what appears to be a curtailment of their hard won independence, while the homesteaders must weather both the elements and the hostility of the cattlemen. Into this atmosphere of intractable conflict rides a lone figure, Shane (Alan Ladd), who halts at one of the dirt farms. The owner is Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) who, along with his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and young son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), is in the process of carving out a home and a future. Purely by chance, local rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) isn’t far behind and this immediately raises Starrett’s suspicions. Still, he has no cause for concern on that score as Shane makes it plain he has no connection with Ryker and actually backs up Starrett. It so happens these two men have crossed paths at a fortuitous time for both: Starrett is short of help to work his property, but Shane’s need is arguably greater still. His manner and apparel mark him out as a gunfighter, one of those rootless drifters of frontier lore. Here’s a man who desperately desires to bury his past and perhaps dream of a future, but that requires he find a place where he’s wanted and where he feels he belongs. For Shane, the Starrett homestead is a kind of beacon, a chance to redeem himself and seek out some meaning or purpose in his life. Yet that redemption and purpose will have to be earned the hard way – battles must be fought, temptations overcome, and specters of the past slain and laid to rest once and for all.
Shane is really all about relationships: between man and the land, the individual and society, the present and the past, and at the heart of it all is the Starrett family. This is one of the most wholesome and honest portrayals of family life I’ve seen and it’s not cutesy or fake. The Starretts represent trust, loyalty and devotion, in a credible way, in the face of hardship and adversity. As a viewer, it feels real and sincere, and it has to if that central dynamic which has the power to draw in a man like Shane is to be at all believable. What we have is one of those happy instances where the acting of Heflin, Arthur and de Wilde mesh perfectly with the writing of Jack Schaefer and the direction of George Stevens. All the interactions of the Starretts ring true, from the banal conversations about crockery round the table to the intense discussions on how best to confront the threat to their home. And hovering round the fringes is Shane, the man intimately acquainted with violence who has been beguiled by the allure of such simplicity.
Shane was a gift of a role for Alan Ladd, cementing his place in cinematic history. Ladd’s edgy discomfort was used to great effect in the films noir that first brought him to prominence, but the reluctant western hero was an even better fit. Ladd himself appears to have been a mass of contradictions and self-doubt, and that quality was ideal for his part here. Shane is an extremely self-aware character, aware of his skill with a gun and also fully cognizant of the deficiencies in his personal life. It’s a finely judged performance by Ladd, brimming with regret and yearning. The character of Shane is a man who knows he’s arrived at a crossroads; his past is never spoken of, only alluded to, and he realizes that an opportunity to make up for all his previous actions is within his grasp. He’s a natural outsider, detaching himself from the group given half a chance, yet always keen to be accepted into its ranks. His final decision to confront Ryker and save Starrett is simultaneously inspiring, fitting and heartbreaking. But it has to be – just like little Joey in that memorable finale, we want Shane to return and stay. Still we also understand that he must see things through if he’s to meet destiny head-on and achieve his redemption.
George Stevens was one of those filmmakers who seems to have been deeply affected by his wartime experiences, his presence during the liberation of Dachau often being cited as a profound influence on his subsequent work. Be that as it may, his handling of violence in Shane is worth noting and I feel the quote I used at the top of this piece is of significance. I’ve discussed the depiction of violence in the classic era western on this site and elsewhere before, and Shane illustrates what I think is the dominant approach very well. The film isn’t a devil-may-care shoot-em-up, where killings are seen as little more than an entertaining afterthought. No, the shootings which take place have an impact on the viewer because the characters involved on the screen treat them seriously. Jack Palance may look, sound and act like the cold assassin with no hint of conscience, but the build up to and results of his actions are powerful. On the few occasions a gun is fired in the film the gravity of the consequences is never in question – the sound of the discharge alone is an assault on the senses. When Palance blasts Elisha Cook Jr into the muddy street there’s no flippancy, polish or Hollywood glamor on view – it’s brutal, ugly and shocking in its authenticity. And it doesn’t end there in the cold anonymity of the churned up earth, for the gut-wrenching business of bringing his body back to his loved ones for burial has to be seen to. Cynicism seems to be in fashion these days and I have no doubt there are those who may regard the shot of the dog mournfully pawing Cook’s coffin as it’s lowered into the earth as mawkish sentimentality. As far as I’m concerned though, it’s a supremely touching moment and perfectly encapsulates the grief of those gathered at the graveside. If the repercussions of a killing are hammered home, the effects of less serious violence aren’t swept aside either. The fist fight between Ladd and Ben Johnson is an example of this; there’s no music to be heard to distract us from the landing of blows, and the injuries are never disguised. In Shane, every act of aggression, whether major or minor, is shown to hurt someone.
I’ve deviated a little from my usual format in writing this piece. I could have gone into more detail regarding the plot and social/historical issues it raises, I could also have offered a deeper analysis of the contributions of the cast – Jean Arthur, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan et al. I’m aware too that I’ve made no mention of Loyal Griggs’ superb photography of the Wyoming locations and the dim, smoky interiors, or of Victor Young’s careful scoring. None of that is a result of neglect or lack of appreciation on my part. No, I took a conscious decision to try to focus attention on a handful of those aspects, rather than attempt to draw in all of them, which I feel contribute to making Shane one of the enduring cinematic classics and a definitive 50s western. I hope I’ve managed to do so.