“A man has to be what he is,” Shane (Alan Ladd) tells young Joey (Brandon De Wilde) at the close of George Stevens’ Oscar-winning Western. “[He] can’t break the mold.”
Shane is a gunfighter, but spends most of the film in an uncertain domesticity with the Starrett family. As the film opens, he rides across their property, and then into their lives after he sees that a wealthy cattleman is aiming to force the family, and many others, off their land. Why does Shane get involved? There are hints that he may have some past association with Marian (Jean Arthur), the wife of Joe Starrett, and Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a hired gun brought in by the cattleman to goad the settlers into getting shot. Shane also develops a friendship with young Joey (Brandon deWilde), who looks up to the buckskin-wearing six-gun shooter in wide-eyed wonder.
"Shane" is mostly experienced through the eyes of Joey. Oftentimes, action and even dialogue scenes are filmed in a long shot, as if the viewer is observing from a curious yet cautious distance. Joey is constantly asking questions of Shane, who obliges Joey with stories and advice on how to be a quick-draw artist, which doesn’t please Marian at all. In a line tailor-made for the NRA, Shane explains, “A gun is as good or bad as the man using it.” But as Marian replies, “We’d all be better off if there wasn’t a single gun in this valley, including yours.”
Joey’s fascination with Shane, and the growing violence in the valley, manifests itself in a scene near the end of the film, as his father Joe is gearing up to face the ruthless cattleman and his henchmen at the local saloon. Joey runs about the family home, pointing his toy gun and “shooting” everyone. Shane, who has taken the Starrett’s cause as his own, knows the only way out is to fulfill his role as a killer--like Wilson--though he knows it means he’ll have to leave.
There are moments of real violence in “Shane” that were new to the screen when the film was released 60 years ago. When someone is shot on screen, they don’t fall forward in a heap, but instead are blown back by the force of the blast, which director George Stevens achieved by yanking the actors backward with a strapped-on wire. The sounds of the gunshots themselves are amplified on the soundtrack. And when one of the homesteaders is gunned down in the street, Stevens takes the time to show the difficulty of having to drag his lifeless body out of the mud. To add realism to that same character’s funeral scene, Stevens had the actors lower a casket filled with rocks into the ground. Both Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, experts in the depiction of realistic violence on screen, have pointed to this film as an inspiration for their work.
In his Great Movies essay on “Shane,” Roger Ebert brilliantly points out possible psychological underpinnings in the film, from Shane’s personal motivations to his feelings for Marian. She herself undergoes a subtle transformation in the film. She’s first seen in work clothes, but as the film progresses, a little bow in the hair here or a patterned dress there suggest she may have feelings for him as well. Her husband Joe (Van Heflin) even recognizes it as well. But Marian wants no part of guns for her son, and Shane knows that the days of gunfighters are soon coming to an end. Even though Joey wants him to “come back,” for there to be true peace in the valley, Shane must leave.
“SHANE” ON BLU-RAY
WOW! This movie looks spectacular on Blu-ray. “Shane” was shot in “three-strip” Technicolor, a process that resulted in brilliant hues (think “The Adventures of Robin Hood”). The film’s only Oscar win (of six nominations) was for cinematographer Loyal Griggs. Here, the cool blue of the Tetons, the blazing fire on a homesteader’s ranch, even the earth tones of the Starrett family’s clothes...everything looks beautiful.
The Blu-ray of “Shane” features an audio commentary by Geroge Stevens, Jr., and the late Ivan Moffat, a producer on the film. Recorded about 10 years ago, the track holds up, and features mostly production stories and some commentary on the film’s themes.
As a Paramount picture, for years, I had been hoping for a full-fledged Criterion Collection treatment of “Shane,” a complex, great American film that fully deserves a disc loaded with supplementary material. But the audio commentary and a trailer are all you get on this Blu-ray from Paramount and Warner Home Video. The lack of features is disappointing, but the image and superior audio quality of this Blu-ray make it an easy recommendation for your library.
Trivia: I wondered how many times the name “Shane” is uttered in this movie. By finding the script online, I counted 86 times. The next closest character name is “Joey,” at 57.