“The greatest story of the west ever filmed!” is what the marketing insists you, but as to be expected from the hyperbolic labelling George Stevens’s Shane carries enough in order to prove itself an entertaining ride while it lasts. Although I’ve not yet been blown away by any of Stevens’s films, he was always a filmmaker whose work has consistently remained engaging and Shane continues a long streak for him. On some count this is arguably George Stevens’s most famous film and it’s easy to see why, for it shows a beautiful portrait of the American West as occupied by a highly political environment, together with the iconic closing sequence – but I’ve found still carries another particular tendency with Stevens that has always bothered me, but that’s not to say it makes Shane any less of a great western than it is.
Alan Ladd plays the titular Shane, a weary gunfighter who desires to settle in with a peaceful family as a farmhand. Hoping to take a job at the farm of local rancher Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), he ends up getting roped into battle once more after an encounter with a ruthless settler named Rufus Ryker. Nothing particularly unusual for stories being told about the American west, but nevertheless always a fascinating one because of what more is Shane covering about the sense of community that has occupied the land. Shane is a man who has seen everything inside of his past and hoping to leave that behind, he ends up coming into contact with an old sense of his own history and he must take on one last stand. It’s nice to see a more refined approach for the western genre coming from the hands of George Stevens through Shane, by mixing elements of family drama along the way, but there’s an extent to which I’m not always on board with every choice made.
What I like about this approach to the western genre is present is how the peacefulness coming in part of the battle almost comes out to represent differing ideas of society competing to become more dominant. Innocence finds itself shattered at the sight of ruthlessness because of society’s demands, but this is a family that tries their best to remain as strong as they possibly can with their peace and helps fight for such when the titular Shane comes along. But Shane, who presents a hero figure for the audience, is also broken as a result of what this world has made him into. This is where he’s left with one final shot at preserving what has formed the man he has become, and it’s a step to what makes Shane one of the most iconic tales to have been told about the American west. We don’t need shootouts so frequently, nor do we need riding around on horses all the time, just a man who wants to leave his own past behind but is left unable to escape such.
This is a story I could so easily find myself loving, but I can’t bring myself to no matter how much I try. This is a perfect western setup because it’s not something that has been attempted in such a manner, but it falls back as a result of the love triangle in the middle of everything. It becomes a particularly huge bother for me, because it raises what has been bothering me about George Stevens’s body of work, these parts of his own character arcs at times ring as unconvincing and it hinders Shane to that degree because I never bought a single second of any of it in here. It becomes far too melodramatic for my own tastes and in turn what I’m left with is in part a deconstruction of the values of the American western and a soap opera, and these two can’t ever find themselves mixing as well as they should if the film wanted to be so much better. Jean Arthur, whom I’ve fallen head over heels for since Only Angels Have Wings, seems to be struggling against adapting inside different environments here because the changes feel so abrupt for her own good, in spite of a dedicated performance.
But at its strongest, Shane isn’t a figure whom we see as a hero or a villain. Just the very nature of the film’s title, Shane, signifies how he’s an ordinary man like the rest of us. That’s what hit me so well about Alan Ladd’s performance in this and the way his character arc is developed as he weaves through past and present, peace and violence in order to find what’s his own sense of worth. To the innocent, they are made to see him as the hero, as shown to us by Brandon De Wilde’s performance as Joey Starrett. He idolizes Shane, but doesn’t understand why Shane is the way he is. To him, he’s a heroic figure because of what he’s done in order to protect the family at large; but to us, he’s only Shane, an ordinary man just wanting the best for himself. The tragedy of his arc finds itself present, but where it’s at its most moving comes the famous closing scene, and Joey yells the famous “Shane, come back!” as his own hero is about to meet his own fate. But that’s what’s beautiful about Shane, how the ordinary can become extraordinary.
It’s easy to see why Shane has gained its own reputation as a classic in the western genre, but there’s a degree to where it seems to be played way too straight and it becomes almost frustrating; because the melodramatic approach it takes can be both helpful and distracting in equal measure. When it’s not a soap opera, you have an otherwise thrilling and heartbreaking tale of the west, and it’s all been solidified because of what it is that we are seeing in Shane himself. For some, he’s a hero, but to George Stevens and Alan Ladd, he was just Shane. And Shane is one among us, an ordinary person who seeks an idealized lifestyle where a supposed peace is to be found. George Stevens may not have been John Ford, but he surely knew how to grab an audience with Shane. It doesn’t need the gunplay in order to be as thrilling as it is, but rather instead it’s what it says about the violence in this society that has helped in solidifying its status as a classic.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by George Stevens
Screenplay by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Jack Sher, from the novel by Jack Schaefer
Produced by George Stevens
Starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon deWilde, Jack Palance
Release Year: 1953
Running Time: 118 minutes