Shane (1953) Review

Shane (1953) Director: George Stevens

“Shane! Come back!”


Amidst panoramic shots of the Grand Tetons near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Shane is an extraordinarily beautiful Western about a mysterious drifter. It was the first film shot in “flat widescreen” -a style of widescreen filmmaking invented by Paramount Pictures to better display panoramic vistas. Its technicolor style is brilliant. The story is based on the famous 1949 novel of the same name by Jack Schaefer, which is loosely about the1892 Johnson County War in Wyoming, a famous battle between cattlemen and homesteaders. The script was written by A.B. Guthrie, Jr -a novelist who won the Pulitzer for The Way West in 1950. Shane was the most successful Western film of the 1950s.

The film is about a lone gunman named Shane (played by Alan Ladd, who was ironically not comfortable with the use of guns). Shane is a mysterious man, perhaps a drifter, who wanders into a humble valley in Wyoming sometime after the Civil War. He begins working for a homesteading family, Joe Starett (played by Van Heflin) and Marian Starett (played by Jean Arthur -best known for her roles in Frank Capra screwballs like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936, You Can’t Take It With You in 1938, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington in 1939). Despite the legality of the Homestead Acts in the late 19th century, the local cattlemen terrorize the homesteaders in attempt to push them off the land. The conflict comes to a head when Shane comes to town. The final straw strikes when another notorious gunslinger, Jack Wilson, comes to town and ruthlessly taunts and guns down Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, an ex-Confederate homesteader. The outrage leads Shane to dramatically kill Jack Wilson and the other offending cattlemen. In the end, Shane leaves town. We are left with the iconic scene of the young Starett son shouting after Shane as he rides off into the evening: “Shane! Come back!” It is not the triumphant conclusion we would expect from a Hollywood Western. The homesteaders are saved -but are they happy? Is Shane happy? The film is mysterious and leaves much to speculation.

The hero archetype is exemplified by the laconic Shane. He is unusual. He is dressed in uncommon ranger garb for a western gunman, he drinks soda pop instead of whiskey, he is distinct from a proudly-ignorant John Wayne-esque character, and perhaps what is most striking about Shane is his unspoken attraction with Marian Starett (she also returns the admiration -at the outset of the film she wears dirty pioneer cloths but shortly after Shane arrives she begins wearing a dress). We get the sense that Shane would make an ideal father-figure, yet he cannot seem to remain fixed in place long enough. Like Sisyphus, Shane is trapped in an endless cycle of might over right -the quintessential problem of the Old West. Shane seems to want to settle down but he also knows that a killing is coming and then he will need to leave the valley: “There’s no living with a killing… There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks. There’s no going back.”

Is it better to stay and fight for land and family, or else escape and find a better or more hospitable place to live? Shane longs for the rootedness and connectedness of Joe Starett and his married life, but in a lawless world only the gunmen with a moral compass like Shane cane bring hope for a higher order.

“You’re both out of your senses. This isn’t worth a life, anybody’s life. What are you fighting for? This shack, this little piece of ground, and nothing but work, work, work? I’m sick of it. I’m sick of trouble. Joe, let’s move. Let’s go on. Please!”

Director George Stevens was nominated for Best Director. While Shane is often considered his masterpiece, Stevens also directed amazing films like Swing Time, A Place in the Sun, and others.

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