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Review by James Banks
Early in Shane, George Stevens’s classic western, the camera takes up the point of view of a boy named Joey (Brandon DeWilde); while trying to set his sight on a buck, he catches a glimpse of an approaching rider. Neither the perspective nor the focus of the film changes much after this. While it might be a conventional story of the Old West, with noble homesteaders fighting against an ignominious cattleman, Shane never strays from portraying the cruelties of the adult world through the eyes of children.
Life on this frontier might be nasty, brutish and short, but, from a child's perspective, a hero need not be John Wayne or Clint Eastwood to be larger than life. Alan Ladd, playing the eponymous hero, fills the role with a mixture of charisma and humanity that makes us understand why a man could be so well loved while also being so little known. A self-described “relic of the Old West,” Shane descends into a community of Wyoming homesteaders to hire himself out as a farmhand. As the film’s villain, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), points out, this is work well below his market value; Shane knows how to do more than swing an ax. He has also learned how to throw a punch and draw a gun. But hiring himself out to local farmer Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) offers Shane a chance at peace, if not redemption. Starrett and his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur) and son, Joey, are enthusiastic to accept Shane as a quasi-member of the family.
As in most westerns, though, beating a wheel gun into a ploughshare is always much harder than it seems. As Ryker says, he is not so willing to let homesteaders on the land for which he took an arrow in the shoulder. If their lives cannot be as nasty and brutish as his was, they will at least be much shorter. And even if Shane refuses to be a gun for hire, Ryker knows how to recruit with style: Among the hired goons that he puts together to threaten and eventually murder the homesteaders are screen legends Ben Johnson and Jack Palance, the latter of whom is one of the movie’s most memorable performances, though he probably mumbles fewer than 100 words.
Even for the Western genre, this story isn’t new. Neither is the conceit that society cannot accommodate the faceless heroes who make it possible. The gospel narrative—with its Christ figure bearing the burden hat makes the New Jerusalem possible—is coded into the DNA of many classical westerns; particularly those directed by George Stevens’ better known contemporary, John Ford. And Shane parallels these movies in ways that it doesn’t try to hide. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards—the morally ambiguous hero of The Searchers—is forever condemned to stand outside the doorway looking in on the domestic life that cannot accommodate his violent streak. This is true of Alan Ladd’s Shane as well; at one point he says that what makes him different than other Western relics is that he knows what he is.
But we, the audience, do not know. Shane may be in his element when he is drawing his gun, but when he is shopping for workmen’s clothes at the general store or participating in the town’s Fourth of July celebrations, he does not seem like a fish out of water. And neither does the community of farmers he has attached himself to. Unlike John Ford or, later, Clint Eastwood, George Stevens does not try to make the land seem as hardened as the people who occupy it. The farmers might have to band together to defend themselves, but they have time to celebrate independence as well.
There is much more at stake than the homesteaders’ livelihoods, though. As the conflict escalates from fists to guns, the protagonists start anteing up with their humanity. This is what makes it possible for us to empathize. The conflict is not just between courageous homesteaders (good) and greedy land barons (evil). Shane, Starrett, Marian and Joey are constantly set against their own desires and instincts: The desire to maintain their status while also living life in peace; to make a better life for the children while preserving the one they have for themselves; to live for those they love or die for the principles they cannot betray.
In this skirmish on the disappearing frontier, nothing seems inevitable and there are no guaranteed victors. But his heroism also makes Shane seem less doomed to be the lone wolf than those who tread the same path into the horizon. As the wounded hero makes his way back toward the wilderness from which he descended in the film’s opening shots, Joey calls for him to come back in the line from the movie that people tend to remember. The audience once again sees the world from Joey’s point of view and, like him, knows that Shane will not turn back. And also like Joey, all of us wish we knew why.
- Release DateApril 23, 1953