Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Shane (1953)
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Background

Shane (1953) is a timeless, classic western tale - a very familiar and highly regarded seminal western and the most successful Western of the 1950s. The film's rich color cinematography captures the beautiful environment of the legendary frontier (filmed on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming) with its gray-blue Grand Tetons as a backdrop.

The screenplay was based on Jack Schaefer's successful 1949 book of the same name. The film received six Academy Awards nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Brandon de Wilde), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Palance), Best Director, Best Screenplay (by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.), and Best Color Cinematography, and won its sole Oscar award for photographer Loyal Griggs. Unbelievably, star Alan Ladd in probably his best known and realized performance, was un-nominated. Director/actor Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (1985) paid homage to Stevens' film with a similar storyline.

Veteran director/producer George Stevens' film is often considered the second film of his "American trilogy," positioned between A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956). Stevens self-consciously fashioned this simple western into a wide-screen, Technicolored panoramic masterpiece to create a symbolic myth: the age-old story of the duel between good and evil, the advent of civilization (with families, law and order, and homesteaders) and progress into the wilderness (a world of roaming cattlemen, lawless gunslingers, and loners on horseback), a land-dispute conflict between a homesteader and cattle baron, and the coming of age of a young boy. The film is dotted with classic sequences - the uprooting of the stubborn stump in the yard, Torrey's murder in the muddy street and his hilltop funeral, and the climactic finale.

The straight-forward narrative is told and seen mostly through the eyes of the young impressionable hero, who idolizes a mysterious, gunslinging hero from the wilderness who appears from nowhere - a man without a past or a future. The theme song of the film "The Call of the Faraway Hills" parallels the backdrop of the entire story. To heighten the effects of the violence (numerous fistfights and gunfights) and provide a striking contrast to the taciturn silence of the former gunslinger, director Stevens magnified the sounds of punches and gunshots on the soundtrack, but he never glorified violence for its own sake.

The Story

Under the credits in the opening scene set in the late 1880s, a lone, wandering rider (with a pistol visible in his right holster) comes from a trail on the left, descending into a majestic valley rimmed by mountains. After a long-shot view of the valley as the tiny horseman crosses, the camera locates a log cabin frontier homestead in the foreground with cook-smoke curling up from the kitchen. In the background are the majestic Grand Tetons. A young, wide-blue-eyed, eight year-old son, Joey Starrett (Brandon de Wilde) is tracking a deer with his unloaded rifle. Shane (Alan Ladd), a retired, golden-haired, mysterious, fringe-buckskinned gunslinger-knight, rides onto a Wyoming fledgling frontier farm on a chestnut horse with white-stockinged feet. The slow-moving rider is beautifully framed between the antlers of a stately deer as the animal turns its head in the direction of the approaching horseman. [A white vehicle appears to be moving behind the rider in the very far distance.]

Appropriately, Joey is the first to sight the lone figure riding toward the farm. His eyes open wide in awe. As the deer moves away, Joey runs back to the cabin. He locates his father, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a determined, hard-working homesteader who toils doggedly to build a life on the land with his family. Joe is using an axe to chop at an old tree stump in the yard. There is the faint sound of Marion Starrett (Jean Arthur) singing "The Quilting Party" in the house - viewed momentarily through the open window. Joey races over to inform his father:

Joey: Somebody's comin', Pa.
Joe: Well, let him come.

Soft-spoken and with a modest manner, Shane politely asks for permission to cut through their property ("I hope you don't mind my cutting through your place") after crossing the boundary stream. He compliments the shy boy for his attentiveness, prophetically sowing the seeds of hero worship in the youth: "You were watching me down the trail quite a spell, weren't ya?..Y'know, I...I like a man who watches things go on around. It means he'll make his mark someday." The stranger dressed in buckskin and packing a single pearl-handled revolver in his stud-decorated holster is offered water to drink from a water dipper.

Joey absent-mindedly cocks his rifle to show it to Shane. Hearing the click, Shane alertly and instinctively is provoked, drops the dipper with a clanging noise, and whirls and quick-draws his gun with lightning-fast speed. [It is implied that Shane is a gunfighter for hire with a violent past, but he wants to reform, put down roots, avoid his past and put the violence behind him - but the blood of past killings can't be washed away and will follow after him.] Capturing their attitudes toward weapons, Joe mentions how "touchy" the man is, and Joey is mildly cautioned by his mother: "Joey, you know better than to point guns at people." Joey eyes Shane and asks: "Bet you can shoot. (Hesitant pause) Can't you?" Shane replies, with understatement: "Little bit." A hoot and holler from a cowboy is heard, signaling the arrival of other riders.

Joe is suspicious of Shane at first, believing that Shane is associated with the hired cowhands attempting to move the sod-busting "squatters" off the land to keep them from their claims. Starrett takes Joey's rifle, points it at Shane, and asks the stranger to leave: "It looks like your friends here are a little late - what are the Ryker boys up to this time?" Shane respectfully requests that Joe first put down his gun, and that he would prefer to leave by his own volition: "Would you mind putting down that gun? Then I'll leave...I'd like it to be my idea."

At the same time, an aging land baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) rides up with his cowhand ranchers [including his brother/foreman Morgan Ryker (John Dierkes) and cowboy Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson)]. Provoking a range war, they trample over Joe's garden during their approach, mockingly laugh at him for holding a rifle [his son's unloaded shotgun], and immediately threaten and intimidate the homesteader. However, white-haired Ryker's first words are: "I don't want no trouble, Starrett." He informs Joe that he has just signed a new government beef contract and now needs all the range land so that his cattle can run freely:

Ryker: I came to inform ya. I got that beef contract for the reservation...I'm telling ya now, I'm gonna need all my range.
Joe: Now that you've warned me, would you mind gettin' off my place?
Ryker: Your place! You're gonna have to get out before the snow flies.
Joe: And supposin' I don't?
Ryker: You and the other squatters...

This is a tense, violent confrontation between the fence-building homesteaders, and the open-range land cow ranchers - an allegory of the settlement and progressive civilization of the West.

Joe (insulted by them): Homesteaders, you mean, don't you?
Ryker (threatening him): I could blast you out of here right now, you and the others.
Joe: Now you listen to me, the time for gun-blastin' a man off of his own place is past. They're building a penitentiary right now that...

Marion, wearing man's trousers, emerges from the house and calms her husband's harsh words. Meanwhile, Shane has come onto the scene from behind the frontier house, and confidently and with calm authority defends Starrett by standing next to him. He is asked to identify himself: "Who are you, stranger?" With a methodical cadence while prominently displaying his weapon, Shane answers with utter confidence: "I'm a friend of Starretts." With that introduction, the cattlehands hurriedly leave, but not without single-minded Ryker's final caution: "Well, Starrett, you can't say I didn't warn ya." They again ride over some of the vegetables in the Starrett's garden in their retreat.

Much to Joey's delight, Shane is befriended and sensed to be a decent man by his father. Shane receives an apology from an embarrassed Joe for his earlier suspicious reception and is asked to stay. Shane introduces himself: "Call me Shane." With the prompting of Joe's "little woman" to invite Shane for supper, the buckskinned stranger decides to remain with the family.

As the meal is prepared, Joe explains his beliefs about the transformation of the West from herding to farming and fenced-in beef production with a simple eloquence:

These old-timers, they just can't see it yet, but runnin' cattle on an open range just can't go on forever. It takes too much space for too little results. Those herds aren't any good. They're all horns and bone. Now, cattle that is bred for meat and fenced in and fed right - that's the thing. You gotta pick your spot, get your land, your own land. Now a homesteader, he can't run but a few beef. But he can sure grow grain and cut hay. And then what with his garden and the hogs and milk, well, he'll make out all right. We make out, don't we, Marion?

Joe turns to his wife for a reply. There is a pause, and then as Shane looks with a smile at Marion, she responds: "Of course." [There is here and throughout the film an unspoken, de-sexualized attraction between Marion and Shane. In almost every gesture, glance, and scene between them, there is a subtle, idealized interest, attraction and love.] Another unexpected sound causes Shane to swiftly make a move for his holstered gun - an obvious contrast of the gunfighter's life to the tranquil, domestic life of the peace-loving family.

Shane's past remains a curious mystery and Starrett informs him: "I wouldn't ask you where you're bound." A drifter, Shane replies enigmatically:

One place or another. Some place I've never been.

He steals a glance at Marion. Joe explains that the only way he will be taken off his beloved land where they have now planted roots is "in a pine box...they'll have to shoot me and carry me out." He complains that there is too much work for one man, and his last helping hand was roughed up by the Ryker brothers. After Marion serves a dessert of ample slices of apple pie, Joe comments on the fanciness of supper: "Say, we're kinda fancy, aren't we?...good plates, an extra fork," but she continues serving and says "nothing" is wrong. Sensing Marion's uneasy frustration, Shane compliments her on the "elegant dinner." When Shane excuses himself, Joey instantly worries that the enigmatic stranger might leave forever ("he didn't even say goodbye"), but his father reassures him that Shane wouldn't leave without his gun holster hanging on his chair ("He wouldn't go without takin' that").

In the next memorable and exhilarating scene, Shane joins forces with Joe that evening when they chop and pull up the large tree stump that Joe was struggling with earlier in the yard. [This is the first of two major instances when the two men aid each other in an effort that can't be accomplished by any single person. The second time is when Joe assists Shane during an uneven fistfight. The stump symbolically represents Ryker, who was once mighty, but now has to be removed.] After they swing axes together and use their own "sweat and muscle," in shots alternating between them, they dislodge, unearth and uproot the resistant stump to beat the forces of nature. Shane is asked to stay for the night - but will likely stay on longer and become a hired hand, renouncing his profession as gunfighter and joining the community of homesteaders.

The next morning, Joey is awakened by the noise of a deer eating in the garden planted outside his window by his mother. He grabs his rifle, races outside in his nightshirt, and fires imaginary shots at the intruder: "Bang, bang" and then mutters to himself: "I wish they'd give me some bullets for this gun." He finds Shane bedded down in the barn and hesitantly asks about Shane's future plans - he is anxious to learn how to shoot from him before his departure. Speaking on behalf of his parents, Joey invites him to settle down with them for a while:

I wish you'd stay here. Will you teach me to shoot?...Pa wishes you'd stay too. I heard him tell Mother...He said he didn't want you to fight his fights for him - but just help with the work. I'll bet you wouldn't leave just because it's too dangerous around here.

Exuberant that Shane will be staying around for a little while and will go to town to pick up barbed wire ("haul that little wire from Grafton's") for his father, Joey jumps onto the bed that his mother is making. Without his "six-shooter" gun on his hips because there's no "wild game in town," Shane goes to town to buy "soda pop" for Joey, and to purchase working farm clothes at the store for himself. He will be trading in his buckskin outfit for drab denim workclothes. As Shane steers the hitched-up team and wagon toward town, Joey runs after him until summoned back by his mother - a foreshadowing of future trailings. While Shane is absent, Joey play-acts shooting at the "Rykers" and is anxious to learn how to shoot. He provokes a jealous response from his father after a series of nagging comparisons to the potent masculine qualities of Shane:

Joey: Pa, do you think Shane will teach me to shoot?
Joe: I'll teach you myself, once I get the time, Joey.
Joey: Can you shoot as good as Shane, Pa?
Joe: How do I know? I've never seen him shoot. But I doubt it.
Joey: He didn't wear his gun today. Why is that, Pa?
Joe: Well, he's tradin' at the store, not holdin' it up.
Joey: But why, Pa, honest? Why didn't he?
Joe: I don't wear one myself.
Joey: It goes with him, though...Could you whip him, Pa? Could you whip Shane?
Joe: Don't you ask nothin' but questions?
Joey: But could you?

A buckboard enters the yard carrying another homesteader/settler Ernie Wright (Leonard Strong). Exasperated, the farmer is "pullin' stakes" with his family due to a raid by the "Ryker brothers" on his wheat crop - "fence cut, steers drove in, it's just stubs now." Although Ernie has seen enough harrassment and is tired of Joe's ineffectual pleas for him to stay ("I listened to you too much already"), Starrett convinces him to remain a bit longer and band together with other farmers:

Ernie: I'm wore down and out. I'm tired of bein' insulted by them fellas. Called a pig farmer. (A chicken cackles on the soundtrack) Who knows what comes next?
Joe: Well, don't throw your tail up. I'll tell ya what, we'll all get together right here tonight and we'll, we'll figure out something...I'll get the word around. It'd help if you can see Shipstead and Torrey, huh?
Ernie: All right, I'll tell 'em, but if we're gonna have a meetin', it had better come to more than just pokin' holes in the air with your finger.

At Grafton's Mercantile, one of only a few buildings set in the middle of the frontier wilderness, Shane is observed by two folks:

Shane explains that he's "workin' for Starrett," and asks for some "ready-made pants" that might fit him. As Shane tries on blue-denim pants and a light-blue workshirt, cowboy Chris Calloway enters the store from the adjoining saloon through swinging half-doors and smiles at Lewis' teenaged daughter Susan (Janice Carroll) as she models a new hat. Back in the saloon, the bartender informs Calloway that a new squatter has arrived in town and he replies: "Oh, a new sodbuster, huh? I thought I smelled pigs."

Wearing his new store-bought outfit [identifying him with feminine weakness], Shane enters the saloon (where Calloway is sitting at a table) to get soda pop for Joey. [A minute earlier, Grafton had complimented Shane on his intent to purchase soda pop while glancing at Lewis: "I wish more men around here would drink it."] He is laughed at for ordering a child's drink instead of a traditional shot of whiskey when Calloway shouts to the bartender: "Will, let's keep the smell of pigs out from where we're drinkin'." Shane is mocked and treated as one of the cowardly homesteaders: "Well, what'll it be - lemon, strawberry, or lilac, sodbuster?" Shane responds: "You speakin' to me?"

Shane does everything in his power to resist a showdown. He attempts to ignore the cowboy, even when his new shirt is splashed with whiskey to make him "smell like a man." One of the bystanders grins: "Chris just fumigated a sodbuster." Shane tells Calloway that he is working at the Starrett's place. Calloway threatens him to never come back: "Now you and your soda pop get out of here and stay out of here - and don't come back." Although thoroughly humiliated, Shane obliges peacefully to avoid trouble.

Homesteaders who meet at the Starrett's home later that evening share stories of how Ryker has threatened all of them with "war parties." Joe bravely insists on staying on the land: "I ain't leavin' now or any other time." When Shane enters the room, he is introduced to the other farmers. Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and Lewis - who are aware of Shane's encounter with Calloway in town, believe that they can't count on the cowardly Shane to join them ("He let this Chris buffalo him in Grafton's saloon"). [The meek sodbusters project their own self-contempt and "womanish" cowardice onto Shane.] The drifter is again humiliated and shunned when his avoidance of violence, to lay aside his buckskin past, is mistaken for cowardice. Joe defends the newcomer: "I told Shane to stay away from trouble now. He did and did right." Scorned by them, Shane leaves the meeting and stands outside in the torrential rain [pointing up the insider/outsider duality, and the outsider status that he occupies].

In the bedroom, where Joey is being read a story by his mother, they have overheard the entire meeting. Joey can't comprehend that his hero would back down: "He didn't, did he?" and both of them speak supportively to Shane through an open window - understanding that he could have defended himself if he had chosen to:

Joey: Shane, I know you ain't afraid.
Shane: It's a long story, Joey.
Marion: I think we know, Shane.

The group vows to stand firm, stick together, and go to town together once a week (on Saturdays) for supplies ("There's some strength in a whole bunch"). Hot-tempered, ex-Confederate "Stonewall" Torrey (identified with the rebellious South by the playing of Dixie and Marching Through Georgia on a harmonica) refuses any assistance, boldly stating: "I don't need no bodyguard. I put on my .38, and go into town any time I please."

Marion implies her love for Shane as she cautions Joey about becoming attached to Shane and liking him too much:

Don't get to liking Shane too much...I don't want you to...He'll be moving on one day, Joey. You'll be upset if you get to liking him too much.

Then, she blows out the candle in the room, causing the room to go black, suggesting the unattainable and impossible love that they have for each other.

The next Saturday, all the homesteaders meet at the Starrett's place to band together for protection and go to Grafton's Mercantile Store for supplies. They are detained, partially because Joey is secretly fondling Shane's gun holster in the barn, and Marion has taken time to 'prettify' herself and change into a more feminine blue skirt - prompting Joe to express his patronizing appreciation for her:

Joe: One thing a married man has gotta get used to is waitin' for women...but sometimes the waitin' is worth it. You take care, Shane, you'll get a woman that's worth waitin' for.
Marion: You think I can get ready in the time it takes you to hitch up a team?
Joe: Now hold your horses, we just wanted to see how pretty you were. We couldn't wait.


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