by Jon Warner
Note: This is a slight revision of Jon Warner’s western countdown review of the film posted last summer at WitD. It is unquestionably one of the author’s grandest essays and is again offered up here to readers.
There are westerns with greater size and scope (The Searchers). There are westerns that are more taut and suspenseful (High Noon). There are westerns that are more pure (Seven Men From Now) and filled with more psychological depth (The Naked Spur). But there is no other western that is as emotionally resonant as Shane. Weaving throughout its running time is a point of view of a young boy, perhaps not so dissimilar from young boys over the last 150 years or so, brought up first on dime novels and cheap western stories and then eventually silent films and the boom of Hollywood cinema, pushing a brand of western and selling a mythology that continued to further the daydreams of millions of youth across this nation. I too fall into that group. I can remember playing in the backyard with my brother when we were kids growing up in the 80’s. Inevitably we would end up playing cowboys and Indians or some sort of old west themed adventure, utilizing things we’d picked up in movies, tv, and books in order to build a repertoire of dialogue and action, that in our minds resembled some sort of reality, when in fact we were recalling a western mythology, and even though this mythology has basis in reality, it became larger than life through stories and lore that were told and retold generation upon generation. Shane is in fact a film about the mythology itself, taking an examination of our western hero worship and adding incredibly rich layers of emotion which remain remarkably effective in their ability to maintain an honest sweep, unchallenged by any other film in the genre, with everything seemingly put together to achieve a definitive emotional arc.
Taking Jack Shaeffer’s novel “Shane” from 1949 and improving it for the screen, was director George Stevens and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. The plot actually resembles stories of chivalrous knights in shining armor, roaming the countryside in search of people in need of help. Shane begins at this sort of moment, as a lone gunfighter rides down from the mountains into a valley, where a young boy named Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde) is watching him from his family’s farm. Shane meets Joey, and his parents, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur), but before he can be properly welcomed, Joe mistakes him for being part of the Ryker gang, a group of bullies who happen to arrive to Joe’s claim moments later. They charge that the Starret’s land belongs to them. Joe nearly runs Shane off his land. But, Shane senses trouble, hanging around the back of the house as the Rykers catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger and ride off. Joe realizes his mistake and invites Shane to stay for dinner, and soon asks Shane to stay on as hired help. From the word go, young Joey and Marian are in love with Shane: Joey, idolizing his gun and mannerisms and Marian showing off for Shane, bringing out her fanciest china for dessert and enlivening her femininity. It’s not long before Shane becomes a family favorite and entrenched in the local atmosphere, trading in his white buckskin and gun for farm clothes. This attempt at normalcy for him is continually threatened, as the Rykers to try to push Joe and all the other homesteaders off the land, finally resorting to hiring a cold-blooded gunman out of Cheyenne named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to do the dirty work. As one character remarks, “That’s the trouble with this country. There isn’t a lawman for 100 miles.” Joe is soon prodded to come to town one night to meet with Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), but Shane realizes this is a suicide mission for Joe and comes to grips with the fact that he’s the only one equipped to save the Starretts and the other families in the valley, strapping on his gun and white buckskin, heading into town for a final showdown with Wilson and the Rykers.
Shane has a far reaching influence upon many western films since it’s creation, providing inspiration to elements in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and Once Upon a Time in the West, and in fact Clint Eastwood’s entire career was built upon the sorts of themes and motifs in Shane (let’s do forget about his awfulPale Rider, a terrible remake of Shane that is often so similar and hokey as to induce chuckles), especially when we think about everything from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven. There’s also elements that can be seen again in Cimino’s excellent Heaven’s Gate, with the similar Johnson County War as context. What sets Shane apart from all this is the emotional pull of the film, derived from the homespun point of view of the Starrett family, and usually by the young boy Joey. He is privy to both the entrance and exit of our hero Shane, and to many of the critical moments in the film, particularly the fight in the saloon between Shane and Callaway (Ben Johnson) where he’s looking from under the saloon door, the brawl between Shane and his father in their yard, and primarily the final shootout scene between Shane and Wilson after he has followed Shane from their home all the way into town. Though he is naïve and trusting, there is a certain innocent and unfiltered quality to Joey’s portrayal that allows for a great deal of understanding between the audience and this character. Seeing events through the eyes of a child creates a significantly different emotional response for the audience, taking a story that could be rationalized and analyzed and instead making it instinctual and emotional. It’s not always Joey’s point of view though, as we also regard the situation from the character of Marian. Played with divine sensitivity and fragile femininity, Jean Arthur came out of a 5-year retirement to make this movie for George Stevens and the 52 year-old veteran actress came up with one of her greatest performances, simultaneously playing the devoted wife, caring mother, and pining woman who looks at Shane with significant amounts of feeling which she can barely begin to hold back or express, remaining stuck in the middle. Her longing is best conveyed when the family has all returned from the saloon fight and she’s bandaging Joe’s and Shane’s cuts. She leaves the group to say goodnight to Joey in his room and returns to the main room to find Shane has gone outside. She watches him from the open door. She turns around to see her husband….walks over to him and says, “Hold me. Don’t say anything. Just hold me.” It’s not just we the audience that notice her and Shane could have a thing together. Ryker mentions to Shane about how lovely Marian is, invoking a harsh response from Shane. Even Joe at the end of the film relates to Marian he believes she will be taken care of if he were to die. One of the film’s significant improvements upon the book is in fact the characterization of Marian. In the book she is rather flighty and unsubtle. Jean Arthur brings an authenticity that isn’t present in the book. The loveliest and most tender moment in the film occurs between Marian and Shane, after Shane has knocked Joe cold in their fight in the yard outside the house. Joey is tending to his father after feeling betrayed by his hero for hitting his father with his gun. Marian comes over to Shane and in their moment together, so much is said by what is unsaid….
Marion: You were through with gun-fighting?
Shane: I changed my mind.
Marion: Are you doing this just for me?
Shane: For you, Marion – for Joe – and little Joe.
Marion: Then we’ll never see you again?
Shane: Never’s a long time, ma’am. Tell him, tell him I was sorry.
Marion: No need to tell him that.
At this moment it might appear that Marian will in fact lean in for a kiss….but Joey calls to his mother, reminding her of her own moral code. She instead reaches out for a handshake that means so much more than that.
Marion: Please, Shane. Please (and then there’s this long and beautiful pause)………….. take care of yourself.
Alan Ladd, a rather undersized actor, is actually the right choice by Stevens to play Shane, as the book describes Shane as “not much above medium height, almost slight in build.” Ladd needs to portray a sort of handsome boyish quality that would make Joey and Marion attach to him, and also display a quiet perseverance and calmness. Another improvement upon the book is the character of Shane. In the book, he’s far more dangerous, mysterious and unpredictable. Ladd makes him more likable and gentle, allowing the audience to emotionally invest in his relationships with the family members, without us questioning his motives. Some have claimed Shane is out to lay down his guns from the beginning of the film and seek refuge in community and domesticity. I disagree. It’s only after he sees the opportunity to stick up for the Starrett family in the face of the Rykers does he see the need to stay with them. You can also see how he relishes the opportunity to take Joey’s soda bottle from him to turn it into the bar, as an opportunity to challenge Callaway to a fight. This is not the action of someone ready to lay down his fighting spirit. He knows what he’s doing and is rather charmed by the Starretts, but even he knows there is a destiny at play here. Many have sensed a Christ-like portrayal and even some have claimed that Shane dies at the end. I disagree with this reading, and even the book doesn’t go this route. If Stevens wanted to sacrifice him that way, he could have done it more blatantly.
Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) as the hired gun out of Cheyenne is a larger than life figure to rival Shane’s back history, forcing Shane into action to confront an evil only he can defeat. Palance’s portrayal of the archetypal “bad guy in black” is loaded with mythology and a quiet, focused sense of impending death, like some grim reaper out to collect souls. Even his entrance for the first time into the saloon causes a dog to cower away in fear. One of my favorite moments occurs upon his first visit to the Starrett home as Wilson gets down from his horse and gets a drink of water. Despite the fact that Shane is in farm uniform, they eye each other with a certain regard, sizing each other up, a precursor to their iconic showdown at the end. Their final duel actually hinges upon Wilson gunning down the rather small character of Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) midway through the film. Wilson understands Torrey is a “hothead” and knows he can goad him into a draw. He knows once he kills Torrey, the rest of the homesteaders will begin to get scared and leave the valley. This dark and somber sequence begins with Torrey and his friend Shipstead riding into town. Wilson calls to Torrey and asks him to come over to where he’s sitting by Grafton’s Saloon. Torrey can’t resist the temptation, and he slips and sloshes through the muddy street to reach Wilson. They both walk parallel to each other toward Grafton’s saloon…and then stop and face each other, Wilson taunting Torrey with southern degradations, standing 5 feet above Torrey who’s at street level. Wilson guns Torrey down in the saddest and most unglamorous death that side of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
There are two additional things that make this scene incredibly impactful. One was the fact that Stevens wanted Torrey’s body to be launched backward violently from the impact of the bullets. To achieve this, Stevens had Elisha Cook Jr. fastened with a harness that was yanked to create the illusion that he’d been pushed back 10 feet from the blast. It’s an effect that makes the gunshot and the death seem that much more violent without actually showing blood, lending the death a strong sense of gravity. Second, with Stevens being a war veteran, he didn’t want anyone underestimating the destruction that a gun could do, and this was emphasized even to the sound of the gunshot. Gunshot sounds in most westerns are rather weak and muted on the soundtrack and are usually that particular stock gunshot sound that can be heard across hundreds of westerns. It starts to become unimpressive when you hear the same thing over and over again. To achieve a unique, deafening, and fearsome gunshot effect for Shane, Stevens experimented and recorded the sound of a Howitzer cannon firing into a garbage can, thus capturing a shocking and explosive sound which helps to deglamorize the violence and emphasize the lasting impact of a loss of life. Stevens also understood that if you heard the gunshots too often, it would no longer have impact. It’s almost a full hour into the film before Shane teaches Joey to shoot. Once those enormous gun shots go off on the soundtrack, it’s incredibly jarring and sounds unlike any other gunshot in any other western. It’s literally the loudest thing you hear in the movie…which is as it should be. Torrey’s death is given further magnitude with much emphasis paid to the funeral sequence involving all the homesteaders. This becomes a polarizing moment for many….some convinced they should stay and some convinced they should leave. Thus, Torrey’s death provides the impetus upon which the mechanics of the finale swing, emboldening the homesteaders, in particular Joe Starrett who realizes something must be done to respond to this death. It can probably be argued there is no other death in any western in which a side character’s passing provides such an important impact upon the story.
The iconography of the final showdown between Shane, Wilson and the Ryker brothers, as Shane jarringly reappears in his white buckskin riding into town, is enhanced by the pounding and propulsive score leading up to that sequence. Indeed, the score written by Victor Young is astounding throughout the film, as he seemingly wrote a theme for most of the characters, from the playful tune to mark Joey’s perspective, to the romantic ballad given to Marian, to Ryker’s descending notes of doom upon every appearance and also Shane’s larger than life nostalgic notes. I think the highlight is that finale march by Shane into town with Joey and his dog running after. Young’s music builds the stakes and the suspense as it leads us to Shane’s entrance into the saloon, with Shane taunting Ryker and then challenging Wilson’s manhood, dictating the scene’s action.
Shane: So you’re Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What’s that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I’ve heard about you.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane (pausing): …….I’ve heard that you’re a low-down, Yankee liar.
Wilson (softly): ……Prove it.
Then the sudden and swift power of this final shootout unloads with a deafening roar, young Joey looking on from under the door as Shane shoots both Wilson and Rufus Starrett in quick succession. Joey involves himself in the proceedings when he yells “Shane lookout!”, giving Shane a chance to shoot Morgan Ryker off the upstairs balcony, probably saving his life. After the final shootout, Joey must say goodbye to his hero, as Shane has returned to his destined role and rides across the valley and up into the mountains, with those iconic words said by Brandon De Wilde, “Shaaaaaaaaane……..Come Baaaaaaaaaaack!!!”
Though filmed in 1951, the film didn’t release until 1953, due to Stevens’s remarkable diligence to editing and re-editing. One can see from the way he incorporates different points of view, angles, edits, sound effects, and musical scoring, that he paid so much attention to the look and feel of the final product. It is reported that the scene when Shane teaches Joey how to shoot took 116 takes. Jack Palance in fact had so much trouble mounting horses that Stevens had to use a shot of Palance dismounting and then played it in reverse to show him mounting. Additionally, the whole shoot was plagued with terrible weather in Jackson Hole, with rain often postponing the schedule. The shoot went over-budget and overtime significantly, but the film did huge business at the box office, raking in $20MM with a budget of $3MM. Shane has been a highly popular western throughout the decades, yet I would wager that even 10 or 15 years ago, this film wouldn’t have placed anywhere outside the top 10 of any western countdown, maybe even top 5. I wonder whether today’s audiences find the emphasis on emotion as fulfilling as audiences in prior decades? We seem to be ingrained these days to distrust or even to mock honest emotion. Thus, more subversive works, and particularly the spaghetti westerns get more interest these days, or at least films that are filled with more psychological shading. Call it old-fashioned if you want, but the sort of story and execution on display inShane is actually what many of the more modern westerns are built upon, including the spaghettis. Without the mythology, there is nothing to subvert. Without the traditions inherent to the genre, there is no need for revision. This film plays better as an emotional experience than as a revisionist western, and for some, that may be a drawback. But, for my money, Shane is the grandest and most emotionally involving examination of western mythology and thus my personal favorite western. Stevens has such a terrific sense of pacing throughout that allows a beautiful emotional arc to unfold, giving weight to life and death, to childhood and family, and to a man’s code of honor. This is Steven’s most lasting legacy with this beautiful film.