Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Forgotten Films: Shane

You haven't forgotten Shane, you say? I'd expect most readers of this blog to remember it, but I wonder how many people these days remember westerns at all, even one as famous as this.

I saw the movie in the theater when I was about 12 years old. I loved it without knowing why, but it seems obvious now, looking back more than 50 years. For one thing, it's a simple story that I'd seen plenty of times in the black-and-white B-westerns at Saturday matinees: ranchers vs. homesteaders. Shane was in beautiful color, but it was black-and-white in its depiction of two of the central characters. There's never any doubt that Shane is the good guy and that Jack Palance isn't. Palance is great as a man who's as thoroughly evil as a man can be, and loves it. He dresses entirely in black and is a real prince of darkness. The scene where he provokes Elisha Cook, Jr., into drawing on him was a shocker to me, and probably to some of the adults in the audience, too.

That's not to say the movie's morally simplistic. Shane's relationship with Marian Stewart (Jean Arthur) and the ranchers' grievances against the homesteaders are more complex that you might think at first, and they give the movie some depth.

Another typical western element is the use of the lone stranger who rides in to set things right, reluctantly, of course. Alan Ladd was never anybody's idea of a great actor, but he's really good here, mainly because he underplays everything. He's all quiet strength.

There's also the coming-of-age story with Brandon De Wilde, the kid who begins to realize that things aren't as simple as he thought and that even doing the right thing has a price.

And then there's the scenery. This must surely be one of the best-looking westerns ever filmed, in Technicolor and wide screen, with the Tetons as a backdrop to a lot of the dramatic action. To a kid who'd never been out of Central Texas, it was like seeing a movie filmed on another world.

There are people who don't Shane is a great movie, but it will always be on my list of best westerns. (The Mad parody is pretty good, too.)


  1. And, of course, Schaeffer's novel and the film (and perhaps more driven by the film) also got a good YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS parody, and two interesting-enough answer films in the '80s (an Australian original and a US Lifetime-channel remake starring Amanda Donohoe) involving a female motorcyclist stranger in town helping to make things less wrong, all called SHAME.

    It's not as if westerns have gone away...it's just that there aren't nearly as many as there were...

  2. Or, even, Jack Schaefer's novel.

    I think you can make a case for Brandon DeWilde as unjustly overlooked actor, too...maybe less so for SHANE than much of his later work...

  3. I like this movie a lot and would certainly rate it high among westerns. Not that I am claiming an expertise in this, but I watched most of them as a kid because my Mom loved them.

  4. No doubt about it, SHANE is one of the all-time great Westerns --- both as a book and a movie.

  5. Steve Oerkfitz7:43 AM

    Great movie altho I've never been a Alan Ladd fan. Remember reading that Ladd often had to stand on a box when opposite his leading ladies becvause he was so short.
    Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider is pretty much a carbon copy of Shane.

  6. I worked in a used bookstore in the mid-80s and Shane was the "Jaws" of westerns. Every box of books that came in had a copy of Shane.

  7. The perfect Western. I always find something new in it, everytime I watch it again. Check the looks that Emile Meyer, John Dierkes, and Jack Palance exchange when they're sitting in the saloon, Palance having just arrived in "town," and Elisha Cook is blowing off steam at the bar. Right there you know Cook is going to be a goner.

  8. Anonymous12:14 PM

    Watch the dog in the saloon when Palance arrives and then before the final shootout.

  9. It gripes me that they couldn't have Shane say, "Your dad is something I could never be - a leader." Because, to me, the dad is the real hero of the movie.

    Instead the boy is left idolizing a gunfighter and drifter (even if he is a nice guy).

  10. I like anything with Jean Arthur in it. And I love the fight between Ladd and Ben Johnson. But the shooting of Elisha Cook, Jr. where the force of the bullet hitting him is portrayed in a realistic manner unusual in westerns of the day.

    The director George Stevens said in interviews that showing the reality of violence was one of his aims. "In most westerns, everybody shoots and nobody gets hurt. One thing we tried to do in Shane was reorient the audience to the horror of a pistol. We used gunplay only as a last resort of extreme violence," Stevens told Joe Hyams. "The principal terms of a Western are violence, but the results of violence are usually glossed over. In Shane a right-hand punch hurts. It can knock a man down and a bullet destroys."

  11. It's a shade too deliberate for my tastes, but thee's some good stuff thar.

  12. I'll never forget driving an editor around Jackson Hole and having him say in a tone of awe, "This is where they filmed SHANE."

    I think it's a great movie. Definitely one of my favorites.

  13. The problem with SHANE is the same problem with all Alan Ladd movies: All of the shoot-arounds and camera tricks that have to be used to disguise the fact that Alad Ladd was shorter than most of the other actors. When watching even a really good Alan Ladd movie (and this is probably his best role), I keep noticing the staging and set-ups. It would be another decade before Dustin Hoffman made it OK for a leading man to be shorter than the actors around him.