On the surface “Shane” may appear to be routine Western genre fare. A mysterious stranger with a lightning fast draw helps a family harassed by a gang of unsavory types. But beneath its seemingly simple exterior is a movie that prods us to look beyond the familiar.
“Shane” was directed and produced by George Stevens and adapted from a 1943 Jack Schaefer novel. While not Stevens’ first choice, Alan Ladd was cast as the title character Shane. Story goes that after Stevens couldn’t secure his actors of choice he asked a Paramount executive for a list of those under contract. Ladd was a quick choice.
Our first glimpse of Shane sees him riding to the backdrop of the gorgeous Tetons. It’s a beautiful introduction to Loyal Griggs’ Oscar-winning cinematography. Shane comes upon a small homestead ran by a rancher Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur in her final feature film role) and their peppy young son Joey (Brandon deWilde). The family takes to Shane and asks him to stay as a ranch-hand. Shane sees the invite as a chance to put aside his past ways and start fresh.
Shane makes every effort to forget his mysterious old life. He hangs up his holster and sixshooter. He buys some new regular man’s clothes. He quickly begins to find and enjoy his place among the community of homesteaders. But as Shane himself says later in the film “A man has to be what he is.”
While the film never delves too deep into Shane’s past, a key (and frankly obvious) element of it eventually comes much more into focus. The Starretts along with a handful of other local settlers are being squeezed by greedy cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) who wants their claims for himself. As his henchmen’s terrorizing heats up and a hired gun shows up (played by a menacing Jack Palance), Shane is forced to unearth the past he is trying hard to bury.
There are several other interesting plot angles Stevens plays around with. There is a subtle romantic tension between Shane and Marian. You have the starry-eyed young Joey whose idealized view of Shane is sometimes at odds with his perception of his father. Even Ryker’s motivations are rooted in a place that reveals surprisingly more character depth than you would expect.
Its $3 million budget made “Shane” one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time and you can see the money on the screen. The Wyoming Territory setting is exquisitely captured and the sheer visual craft behind some sequences is undeniable. One particular scene between Palance and Elisha Cook, Jr. is one of the genre’s best mainly due to Stevens’ camera. But “Shane” works in large part due to the attention given to the characters. It’s certainly a film of its time, but good characters and well told stories about them never get old.
VERDICT – 4 STARS