Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: A.B. Guthrie Jr. Jack Sher (additional diaologue)
Based on a Novel by: Jack Schaefer
Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, Emile Meyer
Running Time: 118 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
As if my love of westerns and its classic status weren't enough, I had a special reason for being interested in reviewing Shane, and it's that I've long had the memory of being told it's my grandad's favourite film. I can vaguely recall watching it when I was very young, but it was so long ago that before reviewing this beautifully remastered Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray release I regarded it as a blind spot. Now that I have seen it, I'm gutted I waited so long, as I can now wholeheartedly say that I share my grandad's enthusiasm for the film.
Shane (Alan Ladd) is a former gunslinger roaming the wilderness of Wyoming, where he comes across the Starrett family; Joe (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and their son Joey (Brandon De Wilde). When Shane sees that the family and their neighbours are being bullied into abandoning their farms and homesteads by the ruthless landowner Ryker (Emile Meyer), he takes pity on them and decides to help. He beats up one of Ryker's men and Joe gets involved too, stirring up courage from the other homesteaders, but this merely stokes the fire under Ryker and he hits back hard, enlisting the help of feared gunslinger Wilson (Jack Palance). Most of the homesteaders decide to leave by this point, but Joe is determined to stay put and convinces them to do likewise, resulting in tragic repercussions. Something drastic must be done, but at what cost?
This is all seen largely through the eyes of young Joey, who idolises Shane. Viewing him as a gunslinging hero, the boy doesn't always understand the way Shane and his father try to deal with the situation they're in as they try their best to do it without violence.
I was thoroughly blown away by Shane. Admittedly I'm big on westerns, but this had a level of depth and class beyond even some of the best examples of the genre. Some have called it a western for people that don't like westerns actually (according to the supplementary material), as it does its best to move away from classic genre tropes and myths. Some have criticised the film for trying too hard to do this, giving the film a lofty sense of importance. In my eyes it can get away with doing this because it achieves its goals with such skill and artistry.
One of the key things Stevens wanted to show (reportedly following his experiences in World War II) was the true power of the gun. He was fed up of seeing cowboys in the movies and on TV spitting out bullets from their six shooters without real consequences. A pistol can knock someone flat with one bullet and Stevens wanted to show this.
This is done most effectively through offering only a smattering of scenes of violence in the film. When they do come they're brutally effective, in particular the swift slaughter of one of the homesteaders at the hands of Wilson. This 'less is more' approach, added to the frightening display of the consequences of violence, gives the film an incredible tension and helps create a powerful final showdown.
There's no clear cut moralistic preaching going on though. It largely seems to be aiming for an anti-violence message, but Stevens doesn't shy away from the other side of the argument. A shoot out still gets the Starretts what they want and in one interchange between Marian and Shane, the latter states that “a gun is a tool; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” Although this is followed up with Marian's reply, “we'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley”.
This makes Shane as relevant now as it was then, with the gun control debate raging at the moment. I wouldn't be surprised if it got remade any time soon because of this.
The film as a whole is incredibly well controlled. It takes its time to tell its story and get its message across, but never feels dull or padded out. Stevens lets the pauses and build up do as much work as the big set pieces. Everything has been carefully thought through, from the more believably rough and dirty settings and costumes to the use of weather and the looming mountains that surround the valley.
Stevens' careful composition, aided by the excellent cinematography from DOP Loyal Griggs (who won an Oscar for his work here), makes for some visual poetry too. It's not a flashily beautiful film, but objects and the surroundings are used to frame characters in interesting ways, often symbolising the bigger picture or inner turmoils present.
What also impressed me was the warmth and naturalism of the family scenes. Back in the 50's, the nuclear family was generally depicted in an annoyingly squeaky clean, saccharine fashion. Here, although the love between the three of the Starretts is strong, you get a sense that they genuinely care about each other. There are also threats to their relationship coming from the supposed hero of the film, Shane. Joey tends to over-idolise him and at one point tells his mother that he loves him almost as much as he loves “his pa”. There are hints at a love between Marian and Shane too, but thankfully the film lets this bubble under the surface rather than explode in unnecessary melodramatics. This makes for an interesting and effective family drama as much as it is a great western.
I could go on praising Shane, but I think I'll stop now. It truly is a masterpiece in my eyes and a film that could fast become one of my favourites. It's hard to fault and easy to appreciate. All I can add is that my grandad has great taste and I'll have to ask him for some more recommendations!
Shane is out on 30th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is exceptional as usual for the label.
It's a comprehensive package too, with the film presented in three aspect ratios: the intended 1.37:1 presentation (disc one); the 1.66:1 original theatrical presentation; and an alternate 1.66:1 framing optimised for this ratio, supervised by George Stevens, Jr. (both disc two, limited edition exclusive). I watched the 1.37:1 version in case anyone's interested.
There's also an audio commentary by George Stevens, Jr. and associate producer Ivan Moffat as well as a video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard. The commentary has a few pauses here and there, but is full of interesting facts about the film. The interview is great, offering some thoughtful analysis of the film. Sinyard discusses some of the criticisms aimed at it too, which is interesting to hear. Added to these features is the complete Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Shane. It's fairly close to the film version so isn't revelatory, but I found myself listening to the whole thing whilst on my laptop after watching the film.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too, which makes for recommended reading as always. On top of vintage essays and interviews, there's a piece on the aspect ratio issue.