We’ve been looking at Westerns from that marvelous year of 1953. There were so many good ones, and our reviews of the likes of The Naked Spur (released February ’53), Hondo (November) and Escape from Fort Bravo (December) illustrate this. Click the links for those reviews. But of course the biggest Western of the year, by far, both in terms of critical acclaim and box-office sales (it grossed $20m) was Shane.
Indeed, there are those who would put Shane at the very top, the greatest Western ever, or at least to rank with the all-time greats. It won an Oscar and was nominated for five more. The American Film Institute ranks it as the third greatest Western (beaten only by High Noon and The Searchers). Critics then and since have waxed lyrical over it.
Myself, I think Shane is very fine, but just short of a masterpiece.
I don’t know how many times I have watched it; a lot, anyway. And fundamentally, though I have appreciated this part or that part more, I haven’t changed my basic opinion of it: that it is a mighty example of the genre; that it deals with classic Western themes; that it has great merits (notably visually); but that it is fatally flawed by the casting.
Producer/director of Shane George Stevens had started in the film business as a cinematographer in 1923 and added directing from 1930 but he specialized in comedies and had no reputation for Westerns. In fact the biopic Annie Oakley (1935) with Barbara Stanwyck was his only Western as director, until he decided in the early 1950s to make ‘the’ Western movie, Shane. And, like William S Hart before him, he seems deliberately to have set out to make the definitive Western, whatever the cost. As Brian Garfield wrote in his fine 1982 Western Films: A Complete Guide, “Shane is a conscious retelling of the purest elements of the classic Western legend.” In this way it is a most American film.
Stevens chose as his starting point the 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer, Shane. Many consider this to be a children’s book and in many ways it is. Schaefer revised the first edition in 1954 (i.e. after the movie had come out), taking out all the damns and hells and making it suitable as a book to be read in school. In fact the first time I read Shane was in a lovely boys’ edition illustrated by Wendell Minor in the Illustrated American Classics series. And it makes a good book for children because it is short, it is written in a direct, straightforward style, it has a noble hero to be admired and the story is told from the point of view of a boy on a farm with whom juvenile readers can identify.
The 1984 “critical edition”, however, edited by James C Work, University of Nebraska Press, makes excellent adult reading because as well as the unexpurgated text of the novel you get a series of interesting essays about the book and about the author, as well as reviews of the famous film. For of course this novel is much more than a children’s book. It has become an iconic statement of the Western myth. It has appeared in more than seventy editions and thirty languages.
Marc Simmons says of the characters in the story in the Foreword to the critical edition: “[They were] cut from noble cloth. They were strong, hardworking, brave, self-disciplined, responsible, honest; ungalled by self-doubt or any sense of inferiority. In short, they possessed those virtues that, by the mid-twentieth century, were increasingly being dismissed as outdated or unattainable.”
The tone of this quotation is perhaps nostalgic, even reactionary, and that is one weakness of the novel (and, by extension, the film). It has a certain naivety about it, an overly bucolic sentimentality that the “boy’s eye view” cannot wholly excuse or disguise. Another way to say it would be that it now seems terribly dated.
But perhaps this describes the appeal of all Westerns, books, movies or in other guise. They described a simpler time, when justice was administered directly and when if might was right, it was tempered by qualities of decency and fairness in the dispensers of the frontier justice. Of course, this time never existed but it makes a satisfactory myth.
Shane is in many ways the summation of the myth of the gunfighter, that samurai-like knight errant of the plains, sometimes a lawman, sometimes a badman, sometimes a gun for hire, whose skill with a firearm and courage to deploy it are summed up in the aphorism from the film, “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it”. It is a very American notion, at once popular and democratic yet at the same time quite ‘rightist’ and élitist. In an evil world, it seems to be saying, the only effective remedy is a good man with a gun. This notion still resonates today.
At any rate, that was the story Stevens chose. And in many ways it was well suited to his purpose because it was the archetypal treatment of that most Western of themes, the myth of the lone gunfighter as outsider who comes from nowhere, rights wrongs in a community and then rides off into the sunset.
By 1953, when the movie Shane came out, Westerns had followed a slightly different trail. Through the late 1940s the genre had got ‘psychological’. Westerns were noir, Westerns were black & white, Westerns were intense. Movies like Pursued (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948) or The Gunfighter (1950) were dark, powerful films with Freudian touches. In a way the culmination of this type of Western was High Noon (1952), which had none of the sweeping wide-open vistas we usually associate with Westerns. Like The Gunfighter, it was almost a theater play, observing the classical unities, a town-based story with many interiors in which the characters interacted passionately in the face of looming tension and tragedy.
Stevens wanted none of that. He wanted to return to the epic scale of the open range, and he wanted a story of nobility and conflict set in mighty mountainous locations, and shot in stunning color. His town, such as it was, was a muddy street with a small and very authentic sprinkling of shacks dwarfed by the Wyoming vastness. Civilization is frail here. There is no marshal or sheriff. Men must make their own law and seek their own justice.
And of course the plot is another of those classic Western tropes, the big cattle rancher versus the humble homesteader. Although it is not explicitly referred to, there is a sort of Johnson County War theme to the story. This was one of the oldest and most commonly treated Western plots of all – see, for instance, the John Ford/Harry Carey Western Straight Shooting from 1917. Usually (though there were exceptions) the ranchers were portrayed in Westerns as ruthless plutocrats, little kings who had carved out their domains by fighting hostile nature and wild Indians and who were damned if they were going to let sodbusters come in and plow up their cattle graze, whereas the homesteaders were decent farmers, symbols of economic progress and democracy, exercising their rights as Americans to settle on open land. That was certainly the approach of Stevens and his screenplay writer AB Guthrie Jr. A key scene in the film is the moonlight debate (on symbolic July 4th) when the two sides state their case.
Guthrie was himself a noted Western novelist (Shane was his first screenplay). He depicted a rugged, generally unromanticized West, often filled with authentic historical detail. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1950 book The Way West (made into a so-so movie in 1967) and was equally well known for The Big Sky (published in 1947, filmed the year before Shane).
Both Schaefer’s novel and Stevens’s film open with the arrival of the mononymous Shane. The book’s Shane is dark, tall and dressed in the fine clothes we might associate with a high-toned gambler. Stevens elected to have short, blond Alan Ladd (replacing original choice Montgomery Clift) in soft buckskins. Perhaps the clothes were meant to suggest a past as buffalo hunter or plainsman, and certainly the ‘lightness’ contrasts suitably strongly with bad guy Wilson’s black garb, but, with the fancy silver-decorated gunbelt, the costume comes across, as William K Everson says in his 1969 book A Pictorial History of the Western Film, as pretty. And here we come to what is, for me, the principal weakness of the movie Shane. The part called for a classic tall Westerner, with an air of strength and toughness about him, even sinister in some ways, at the very least Peck or Fonda but ideally Gary Cooper. Instead, we got a Hollywood Shane in costume, with a Beverly Hills tan and coiffed blond locks.
Alan Ladd was certainly a very nice man and he could also be a good actor but he never suited Westerns, I think. He didn’t look convincing in them, and his clothes always looked like costumes. Before Shane filmed he had led in three Westerns (Whispering Smith, Branded and Red Mountain) but these had been pretty ordinary and Ladd didn’t seem quite suited. When in Whispering Smith he threatens, “I’ll give you forty-eight hours to run Barton out of Williams Canyon; if you don’t, I’m coming in after him,” you feel like saying, “Oh yeah, you and whose army?” Shane, probably Ladd’s most famous role, revived his Western career, indeed his career tout court, and made him a ‘famous’ Western star among the wider public. In fact on the back of the movie Ladd founded a company, Jaguar, to make Westerns. But he was always one of the weaker heroes in the saddle. Though Shane is by far Alan Ladd’s best Western, and he does surprisingly well in it considering, the movie never recovers from his performance.
Stevens didn’t think so. He is on record as saying that Ladd’s performance in the title role was one of the best ever by an American actor in a Western. Ladd excelled, Stevens thought, at conveying to the audience a large measure of reserve, dignity and decency. I think Stevens did have a point there. In fact Stevens was so impressed with Ladd’s work that he offered him a role in another classic but the actor turned it down because it would not give him star billing, so James Dean became Jett Rink in Giant instead. Ben Johnson also praised Ladd: “Alan did a wonderful job. I really liked Alan. He was a good actor – a very underrated actor.”
But not everyone agrees with this. They had to do 119 takes of the scene where Shane demonstrates shooting to Joey, which must have tried even the perfectionist director’s patience. The fancy gun-twirling that Shane does in the climactic showdown was actually performed by gunsmith-stuntman Rodd Redwing. For the fight with Calloway in Grafton’s saloon, they built a platform for Ladd to move about on and dug a pit for Ben Johnson, so that height difference between the actors would not be apparent. Actually, the fight is brilliantly staged. Johnson said that Stevens took seven days to do it! Other Ladd scenes were doubled by Henry Wills (later stunt coordinator on The Magnificent Seven). Well, that’s OK, most Western stars used stunt doubles.
Where Ladd shines, though, and he really does, is when displaying elegant manners and giving courteous compliments, best seen in his dancing gracefully with Marian, and Stevens was clearly going for an attempt at courtly love as the knight of the plains chastely woos the out-of-reach lady. The idea of Western heroes being aristocrats – or at least ‘nature’s aristocrats’ – was an old one. It went right back to Fenimore Cooper. The Virginian had it too.
But the film would have been so much better with an earthier, tougher, taller Westerner who gritted his teeth and did the decent thing.
In his review of Shane, Roger Ebert perceptively writes about the gunfighter:
“There is a little of the samurai in him, and the medieval knight. He has a code. And yet – there’s something else suggested by his behavior, his personality, his whole tone. Here is a man tough enough to handle any threat and handsome enough to win the heart of almost any woman. Why does he present himself as a weakling? Why is he without a woman? There must be a deep current of fear, enlivened by masochism. Is he afraid of women? Maybe. Does he deliberately lead men to think they can manhandle him, and then kill them? Manifestly. Does he do this out of bravery and courage, and because he believes in doing the right thing? That is the conventional answer. Does he also do it because it expresses some deep need or yearning? A real possibility. Shane never says, and maybe never knows. Shane wears a white hat and Palance wears a black hat, but the buried psychology of this movie is a mottled, uneasy, fascinating gray.”
As Richard Slotkin points out in his essay on Shane in his Gunfighter Nation, there is a symmetry to the story Shane. Sturdy farmer Starrett (Van Heflin) and autocratic rancher Ryker (Emile Meyer) are the leaders of their respective camps but both have to give way to their hired men who will decide the outcome of the conflict: Shane will fight for the common man’s rights and hired gun Wilson (Jack Palance) will seek to assert that might is right. Both are professionals. The first appearance of Wilson in the saloon is as dramatic as that of Shane, though darker, more fell. We see him as he enters Grafton’s saloon, dressed all in black to contrast with Shane’s light buckskins, viewed from a low angle so that he seems huge, and as he comes in with measured tread, in a masterful touch a dog gets up and slinks off. Wilson is the anti-Shane and it is crystal clear that the final battle will be between them and them alone. One of the most memorable shots in the film is of Starrett and Ryker exchanging hot words while the camera watches the silent Wilson and Shane sizing each other up for the deadly ritual to come, and smiling slightly.
The choice of Palance was inspired. A stage actor who had made his name as understudy for Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, finally taking over the part, he had made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets. An Eastern, ‘urban’ figure, he was a most unlikely casting choice for a professional gunslinger. He knew nothing of horses or guns. But he was brilliant, and despite (or even because of) only having sixteen lines of dialogue, he conveyed sadism and menace and indeed pure evil with real steel. One of his few lines is stunningly good. When Ryker says that he will kill Starrett if he has to, Palance quietly replies, “You mean I’ll kill him if you have to.” Ebert says, “He arrives in town on foot, leading his horse – an effective entrance, even if Hollywood lore says that Palance at the time was so awkward on horseback that Stevens put him on foot in desperation.” Palance’s Wilson is catlike, and this is greatly emphasized by the view of him mounting up: Stevens filmed him dismounting (which Palance could just about do) and reversed the footage.
Woody Allen is, surprisingly perhaps, a huge admirer of Shane and he has said:
“If any actor has ever created a character who is the personification of evil, it is Jack Palance. We’ve all read about the size of the horse, how Stevens put Palance on a smaller horse so he’d look even bigger. But when he arrives – the music is great – he’s all in black; he’s so poetically evil. He looks like he’d gladly kill the guys who hired him if they looked at him wrong. He’s just bad news. Serpentine. In our minds, he’s set off against Shane, one particularly good, almost too good to be true, and the other is totally evil.”
Van Heflin, second choice after William Holden – who would have been splendid – turned it down, did a good job as the stolid settler Starrett, tall, broad in the beam, not over-gifted intellectually but basically decent (he was in some ways to reprise that role in 3:10 to Yuma four years later).
As his wife Marian, Jean Arthur was very good indeed. She was another unlikely choice. She had been Oscar-nominated for another George Stevens movie, a comedy, in 1943 but Shane was her big-screen adieu. She was in her fifties yet played a young mother with skill, and her sublimated romance with Shane is marvelously well done. It is said that Katharine Hepburn had been considered for the part; certainly, that would have completely changed the character. The book calls for a person of reticence and restraint. Arthur did that admirably and hers was a nuanced, subtle portrayal. She was always great in Westerns, I think. She went right back to The Iron Horse in 1924 and did 22 silent oaters before being Calamity Jane to Gary Cooper’s Wild Bill in The Plainsman in 1936, and she headed the cast in the fun Arizona in 1940, her last Western before Shane, her final one, for which she came out of retirement.
There were many plaudits for child actor Brandon De Wilde as the Starretts’ son Joey. And indeed he was nominated for an Oscar for the part. Myself, though, I found him too young and too whiny, perhaps because I already had a clear idea in my head from the novel of an older boy, a tough teenager. This is no criticism of De Wilde, for many of these child actors were astonishingly good and you can’t expect more from a boy of ten. I criticize the casting choice rather than the child. TV Rin Tin Tin lad Lee Aaker had originally been penciled in. I always thought Aaker an excellent boy for Westerns (he was brilliant in Hondo the same year as Shane) and it’s a pity he didn’t do it. He was only nine but he would have been a better and gutsier pioneer child, I think.
But the story revolves around the boy and so that casting was vital. As Philip French wrote in his 1973 book Westerns,
“In a rather old-fashioned way, Westerns assume that young people have a lot to learn from their elders and very little to teach them, and that the process of learning is long and painful, that a man must prove himself in a variety of rituals before he can take his place in adult society.”
Nowhere is this truer than in Shane.
The farmers are good, particularly the great Edgar Buchanan as Fred Lewis in a cap and Elisha Cook Jr as feisty bantam Stonewall Torrey. The death of Stonewall is famously done. Stevens had won the Legion of Merit for his work heading up a combat motion picture unit in World War II. He filmed the Normandy landings and had seen death at first hand. He later said that Shane was a Western, yes, but essentially a war film. He knew what gunshot wounds were like and he was determined that there would be none of the usual fake B-Western ‘deaths’ in his picture. Elisha Cook had to be jerked backwards on a wire as he was shot by Wilson, and land flat on his back in the mud. Death by gunfire was inglorious and squalid, shocking and loud, and that’s the way Stevens wanted to show it – the shot is really percussive. Woody Allen again: “There’s never been a shootout in a cowboy movie to equal it, in terms of evil against innocence.”
And I liked Emile Meyer as Ryker, perhaps his finest Western role (of 70). As Paul Simpson points out in his 2006 The Rough Guide to Westerns, in his shaggy mane he looks like an Old Testament prophet. Amusingly, as an ‘old timer’, Meyer was actually ten years younger than Jean Arthur’s ‘young mother’ Marian. The first thing Ryker says is that he doesn’t want any trouble. At several later points during the movie, he tries to be reasonable, at least according to his own lights. He attempts to convince Starrett to come work for him, and later he tries to hire Shane. He is no cardboard cut-out villain. You can see his point of view even if you are, as Stevens wants you to be, on the side of the homesteaders.
Among the extras, two Ladd sprogs feature as ‘little girl’ and ‘little boy’ and Clayton Moore, then in dispute with the producers of The Lone Ranger and being temporarily replaced by John Hart, is a Ryker henchman. Director Stevens’s voice can be heard off-camera shouting encouragement in the saloon fistfight.
For me, though, one of the best actors in the movie had a minor part. It was Ben Johnson (it is perhaps no coincidence that Johnson was a John Ford protégé) as Chris Calloway, the barroom bully bested by Shane who comes to decency. Johnson was one of the finest Western character actors of all time and he was rarely better than in this small part. Everson, mentioned above, estimated Johnson to be the best actor in the cast, and I must say I am tempted to agree.
Visually, Shane is stunning. As Bosley Crowther said in his New York Times review of April 24, 1953, “Beautifully filmed in Technicolor in the great Wyoming outdoors, under the towering peaks of the Grand Tetons, and shown on a larger screen that enhances the scenic panorama, it may truly be said to be a rich and dramatic mobile painting of the American frontier scene.”
DP Loyal Griggs rightly won an Oscar for it (the movie’s only Academy Award in the end) and this despite subsequent cropping to fit the new widescreen format that was all the rage. Long lenses were used to bring the Tetons ‘nearer’ to the characters and the Technicolor is superb. The film has to be seen in a theater; even the new large TVs don’t nearly do it justice.
There have been criticisms of the look of it and indeed there is something almost picture-postcard about the film, like a chocolate-box lid illustrating the beautiful West. It isn’t John Ford. It is only really during the tree-stump scene that the characters truly interact with the land; otherwise it is there as a beautiful backdrop. I myself love the Corot-like trees on the way to town. Stevens has been accused of being ‘mannered’ and The BFI Companion to the Western talks of the film’s “self-consciously mythic qualities”. Certainly Griggs and Stevens took ages to frame shots, often reshooting, using miles of film, to the frustration of Paramount, and then spending almost a year editing the results. But in the last resort, Shane is a visual masterpiece.
The chocolate-boxiness is heightened by the Victor Young music which is probably too ‘sweet’ and cloying. Stevens evidently thought so too because he replaced Young’s score for Shane’s ride to the showdown with music previously used in Paramount’s Rope of Sand, and in the saloon before the final confrontation the music is from Ladd’s own crime noir movie The Glass Key. Everson thought the score “incurably romantic”, though Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of Westerns calls that criticism “a bit shortsighted” and says Everson “negates [the score’s] overall excellence and impact.” Fagen thinks the music is “beautifully melodic yet dramatically stirring.” As with all else, this remains a subjective judgment, and viewers will make up their own minds.
The film, just under two hours long, has a purposeful, almost languid pace. Film critic Dave Kehr calls it “Overblown, overlong, and overelaborated.” The Variety review of the day said that “Stevens … never rushes the picture or a scene” and added that “This measured, deliberate handling in many of the sequences may seem too slow for the tastes of the more regular run of audiences.” Certainly the action, when it comes, is sporadic, sudden, episodic, almost unexpected, which, I suppose, ‘action’ usually is.
And then the ending. Is Shane dying as he rides away? It’s very possible but Stevens rightly leaves us guessing. The man is slumped over in the saddle. Wounded? Yes, Joey notices blood. Fatally wounded? Remember, earlier, when Ryker taunts him by saying he is “a dead man”, Shane makes the baleful retort, “That’s the difference between us. I know it.” Or is he simply deeply sad at leaving Marian and Joey, sad at the failure of his attempt to hang up his gun and find peace? You sense that Shane always leaves after a showdown. “There’s no living with a killing,” he tells Joey. “There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks.”
“I don’t like to think that he’s dead,” Woody Allen said, putting into words what many of us hope. ”Just that he’s wounded. I hate to think that he dies in the end. I think they probably are pointing to the fact that he’s dying because, you know, he’s ascending. But I don’t like to think that he’s dead yet.” Shane’s world is dying though, the world of gunfighters and the Old West. He knows it and so do we.
Originally scheduled for 48 days of shooting with a budget of $1.9m, the picture finished after 75 days of filming at a cost of over $3m. Shot July – October 1951, it underwent endless editing and didn’t première at Radio City Music Hall until April 23, 1953. The studio execs despaired and at one point tried to offload it to Howard Hughes but he refused it. When he saw the first cut, though, Hughes changed his mind, but that made Paramount hang on to it – rightly, because it was a big box-office hit, grossing $20m in the first year. Patrick Brion in his guide Encyclopédie du Western suggests that Paramount held the picture’s release back deliberately, to punish Ladd for not renewing his contact with the studio but I tend to think the delay was more the result of the producer/director’s perfectionism.
The critical reception was immediately ecstatic. The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the great tumbleweed sagas of the decade.” The Motion Picture Herald waxed lyrical: “It has sweep, suspense, authenticity, technical detail, powerful drama. It has Western flavor so real you can taste the dust. It is a Western in the classic tradition which must rank amongst the greats.” Variety enthused, “Stevens handles the story and players in a manner that gives his production and direction a tremendous integrity.” TIME magazine euphonically called it “a celluloid symphony of six-shooters.” The New York Times said the film had “the quality of a fine album of paintings of the frontier.” The New York Post said “it’s only a Western in the sense that Romeo and Juliet is only a love story.” And so on.
It was in fact instantly hailed as a classic. Ben Johnson sure knew that. He said the picture “was made with a lot of integrity. It was so real it was just incredible. It stays with you. I was in it and I still like to watch it.”
It was nominated for six Oscars, winning one. BAFTA, Directors Guild of America, Laurel Awards, National Board of Review, Writers Guild of America and more all lauded it.
It was a monster box-office hit. In fact it was the third biggest grossing picture of the year after The Robe and From Here to Eternity (the latter the picture that beat it out at the Oscars), unheard of for a Western. Michael Coyne, in his book The Crowded Prairie, estimates that when adjusted for inflation Shane was the third-biggest grossing Western of all time.
Later critics have not universally adored it. In The Western Film (1976), Charles Silver said, “[John] Ford sees that progress and history are not necessarily synonymous, while Stevens tries to keep things simple for his audience.” I don’t really agree with that. Dave Kehr says that in Shane “Stevens is aiming to have the last word on a genre: everything aims for ‘classic’ status, and everything falters in a mire of artsiness and obtrusive technique.” That too is perhaps being overly harsh.
Others have been great admirers: Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Leone, Eastwood.
You can pick Shane apart, and some film critics (such as François Truffaut) have done so, but despite its apparently clichéd plot and stylized nature it remains moving, entertaining, beautiful and subtle. And as Fagen says, “Few films have integrated script, narrative, photography, music and drama so successfully.” It is quite clear why many regard Shane as ‘the’ Western.
In 1966 David Carradine was Shane in a not very good ABC TV show which only lasted one season. There has never been, though, a straight remake, as has happened to other great Westerns, such as Stagecoach, say. Clint Eastwood made a homage to Shane which you might call a remake in Pale Rider (1985) with cinematography by the great Bruce Surtees, and this the equal of Shane visually. Eastwood himself in the central role was much stronger than Ladd. Pale Rider is perhaps less subtle and complex than Shane and of course less original but it is in other respects grittier and more ‘Western’.
I would suggest that Shane is a must-read and a must-see, and both are leading examples of the Western genre. Both have real merit and even beauty. The movie is one of the great American films. But neither the book nor the motion picture was the greatest ever example of its kind.