Directed by George Stevens
Written by A.B. Guthrie Jr.
I knew only three things about Shane before watching it. 1) The ending of the film is discussed in The Negotiator, a film I haven’t seen for a while but for some reason always remember the Shane reference. 2) There is a meme from the kid in Shane where he looks shocked and the meme reads “God Almighty”. And 3) It is held as a classic western. It doesn’t usually get mentioned in the same breath as Stagecoach, The Searchers, or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but it is definitely mentioned as a second tier western classic. So I was obviously curious to behold the film myself and see how all the dots connected. While I enjoyed the film for what it was, I would stop short of including it in any “classic” list. Perhaps it was just a hit during its time.
Shane (Alan Ladd) is a weary gunslinger who happens through the farmland of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin). Initially met with trepidation from Starrett, Shane soon finds a home with Joe and his family (Jean Arthur, Brandon De Wilde). But the more Shane finds solace in hanging up his gun for the simple farm life, the more he comes to realize the tensions in the area between Joe, the other farmers and Ryker a rancher who wants to gobble up all the farmland for his cattle. Ryker is aggressive in his actions, calling in enforcers (Jack Palance, Ben Johnson) to help him get his way. Shane eventually realizes that Starrett and the other farmers need his expertise more than he needs to let it go.
Right off the bat the first thing I want to mention is how beautiful a film Shane is, visually. I was able to watch a pristine Bluray version of the film, and it was definitely a wonderful example of how beautiful you can make a western film; certainly a strength of the film. As for the story, the screenplay is rather sharp as well, exploring what it means to move on from your past life, or rather the inability to escape it. I also appreciated a great deal how the film handles the hero worship of Joey, the Starrett’s son. He finds Shane to be a fascinating character, and much more admirable and interesting than his father.
While that aspect of the story is very strong and fun to explore, the child performance from Brandon De Wilde is rather grating. I can’t imagine how many times Shane is addressed by name in the film, mostly by Joey, but also by all the other characters. We get it, his name is Shane, though I suppose that is part of putting his character up on a pedestal. De Wilde, who somehow managed an Oscar nod for the performance, is the worst kind of child performance: overdone and obviously performing. There is nothing natural about what he puts on screen.
But as I said, the story is certainly strong, and grew on me quite a bit. I think I was on the fence about most of it all the way up to the ultimate climax of the film, where it finally won me over. While I certainly disagree with much of the sentiment of the farmers (why they wouldn’t just move away) I can also appreciate their heart and steadfastness. I’ve mentioned the hero worship here, and I think seeing Joey look up so much to Shane, while mostly ignoring the real hero, his father, is a little disappointing. I guess Shane had to “move on” for him to finally realize it. And I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. Does he die at the end or just ride off? The ambiguity is intentional I’m sure.