A story and film which sounds simple, and is often described as such, is really anything but, its complexity hidden by its scope and the subtle manner in which it is told. Shane is the mythic figure, riding in on the horizon and staying to help a family fend off a rancher trying to drive the farmers off their land. It is a story of changing times and complex relationships.
Shane forms a bond with farmer Van Heflin and becomes his friend because of his decency and acceptance of Shane, even though Shane's gun and his readiness to draw at the slightest sound reveals a past and a way of life Shane would like to live down. Shane knows he is on the way out as the west changes and it is ironic that he chooses to help the family trying to build a town and a community, the very things that will be his demise.
Brandon De Wilde is excellent as the young boy who needs a larger than life hero to look up to and finds him in Shane. As he and Shane form a bond, an inevitable confrontation between a deadly gunfighter hired to get rid of the homesteaders will force him to put on his gun and live up to everything the young boy feels in his heart for Shane.
Jean Arthur gives a wonderful and often overlooked performance as the wife who loves her husband and son dearly, but can not deny the feelings she has for Shane. There is a point in the film where she tells her husband to just hold her and not ask any questions; everyone who has been watching knows why she does this. It is a platonic love for Shane she would never act on but it is still there.
Heflin is also excellent as a solid man trying to hold the other farmers together even as a deadly gunfighter in black, symbolic of the good verses evil of the story, kills one of their own. He is no fool and senses the feelings between his wife and Shane, but knows that neither would ever betray him; Arthur because she loves him and Shane because it is not the kind of man he is.
Shane's feelings for Arthur are not the threatening kind, but more a loneliness when he looks at her, as she represents everything he wanted but knows he will never have because he is a gunfighter. He tells Arthur that a gun is just a tool like an axe or a shovel, no better or worse than the man who carries it. We know Shane is the good man, and Jack Palance the bad man, quick on the draw and evil, but no match for the soft spoken but deadly Shane.
The way the inevitable gunfight comes about and the way this film ends continues the larger than life myth of the American gunfighter. There is a nice score from Victor Young and good support from Edgar Buchanan as a farmer and Ben Johnson as a rancher who changes his spots, won over by the kind of man Shane shows himself to be.
Shane is not only one of the great westerns, but one of the best films of any genre. It is an artistic portrait of a gunfighter and the changing landscape of the American west, as general stores and churches began to replace the lawlessness that had been settled by a fast and accurate draw for so many years.
If you do not own Shane, your film library is incomplete. Every serious film buff has a spot for this masterpiece on their shelf somewhere. Make one on yours.
From the opening scene to the immortal closing shot Shane captures the imagination and the emotions. It is not that Shane offers anything particularly new in terms of storyline: the mysterious drifter wandering into a town where a struggle between homesteaders and cattlemen is going on was and has been a staple of Western story-telling from the beginning of the genre's popularity. Rather, Shane manages to encapsulate everything that we dream the West to be about - the good and the bad.
Each scene, character, line of dialogue, moment of action is so deliberately crafted and delivered that it borders on the extreme. Take for example Shane's arrival at the home of the Starrets, he is seen riding into view through the antlers of a grazing deer. Or the symbolic importance of Shane and Joe finally uprooting the tree stump which Joe states has been a burden for nearly five years - surely the fact that the stump is finally uprooted on the day of Shane's arrival and with his assistance holds serious implications for the meaning of Shane's presence in the valley. These are but two examples in a film which makes a point in every scene.
Such an approach to telling this tale has lead to the claim that Shane is film dedicated to the myth of the American West, that through the characters and the words they speak we see the West as we imagine it to have been, not what it was or will ever be. However, more than that the myth that pervades Shane is one that is true for all people in all places at all times: the hope for a new start, a life of peace and prosperity earned through hard work and self sacrifice, the renunciation of violence in favour of dialogue and compromise, integrity and principle instead of meaness and greed, chivalry, fidelity, friendship and love. The list is not complete, but you get the idea.
Shane was made more than 50 years ago. It is still as beautiful to watch today as it was back then when it won an Oscar for photography. As for the story, that too is as relevant today as then - by its own admission Shane is a fairy tale of sorts and as such is eternal.
One final point. In my book Once Upon a Time in the West is the ultimate Western fairy tale. Sergio Leone set out to deliberately tell a Western tale which drew on all the earlier great Westerns and present them in a romanticised fashion. The fact that Shane figures heavily as a point of reference in Leone's film is of no surprise. What precisely those references are I'll leave to you to discover for yourself!
A beautiful understated study of unrequited love, perfectly acted by Jean Arthur and Alan Ladd, set against a magnificent landscape. Van Heflin being the opposite of Alan Ladd: uncharismatic, stolid, ordinary yet even so managing to convey convincingly a character that Jean Arthur would stick by. Brandon De Wilde growing up before our eyes, culminating in the poignant final scenes where we see the end of his childhood. Jack Palance giving us a great villain and the only hissable baddie in the film. All the supporting characters have light and shade, even the diehard free range cowman is able to explain where he is coming from and gets our understanding if not our support.
Although, technically unsophisticated by today's standards and the studio interiors do let the atmosphere slip sometimes, the DVD shows how superb tripack Technicolor was. I don't think the day-for-night shots have ever been bettered.
George Stevens has created a work of great depth in a simple style.
Oh! And the wood chopping sequence with Victor Young's music is one of my all time favourites.
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