Monday, January 16, 2012

Shane: George Stevens' Classic Western Film

Alan Ladd as "Shane" (1953).

Alan Ladd starred in the classic western "Shane" (1953). Filmmaker Woody Allen and critic Roger Ebert share their thoughts on this George Stevens' film.

A mysterious drifter rides into a small farming community, accepts a job helping out Joe Starrett and his family. It turns out that the stranger knows how to handle a gun. Starrett's young son idolizes him and his wife, Marian, is attracted to him. There's a conflict between the homesteaders and a big-time cattle rancher, Ryker, who wants the homesteaders gone so he can run his cattle through the entire valley unimpeded. Ryker hires a gunslinger, Jack Wilson, to help him get rid of the homesteaders.

The above, in a nutshell, is the storyline of Shane, the western film based on the novel of the same name by Jack Shaefer. The film is considered a classic by many, and is one of the few westerns to be officially listed in the U.S. Library of Congress National Film Registry.

Shane is among Woody Allen's favorite films

The filmmaker Woody Allen chose to watch Shane with New York Times reporter Rick Lyman for an article dated August 3, 2001, calling it, "...a great movie [that] can hold its own with any film, whether it's a western or not." Alan Ladd starred as the lead character of Shane and his performance is considered the finest of his career. Due to Hollywood politics, however, he was not nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for Shane. The actor had left Paramount before its release and the studio wanted to punish him for leaving.

Paramount bought screen rights to the book

When Paramount purchased the rights to the Jack Shaefer novel in 1949, the two actors being considered for the leading role were Alan Ladd and Ray Milland. The role of homesteader Joe Starrett was originally given to William Holden, who was not replaced by Van Heflin until shortly before production was to start. Jean Arthur was cast as Starrett's wife, Marian; Shane was the final film of her long career.

Woody Allen saw Shane when it was first released in 1953. He enjoyed it then and his appreciation if it has grown over the years. Allen has seen it "many, many times...more than 20. I've also taken people to see it, people who tell me that they can't stand westerns. Because it's more than a western. It's a fine movie."

Woody Allen considers Shane to be "poetry"

The filmmaker describes Shane as "a lovely film, or a beautiful one and praises it for its poetry and elegant flow, words not normally associated with westerns," writes the New York Times. Allen compared Shane to High Noon, another classic western: "I would say that Shane achieves a certain poetry that High Noon doesn't....probably because [director George] Stevens himself had some of the poet in him." Allen calls Shane "a fine piece of poetry."

Allen discusses the town in Shane, calling it, " of the great images in American film." It is "in the middle of nowhere" and consists of only a general store, a bar and a livery stable. "You have a sense that this is what those western towns really looked like," said the filmmaker.

Roger Ebert on Shane

On his website, the well-known film critic Roger Ebert takes a psychological approach in his review of Shane: "There are intriguing mysteries in Shane, puzzles and challenges, not least in the title character and the way he is played by Alan Ladd."

Ebert also focuses on the use of conversation in the film, "The people in the valley...struggle with ideas about their actions. Ryker (Emile Meyer) twice tries to convince Joe [Starrett] to go to work for him and once tries to hire Shane." Woody Allen hits on a similar vein, "...the bad guys are handled in a great way...The first word out of Ryker's mouth is that he doesn't want any trouble....Ryker tries to be reasonable. So it's not just a bunch of bullies. it's more complex than that."

Jack Palance is Wilson, the "personification of evil"

The character of Wilson (Jack Palance) is the antithesis of Shane. Decked-out in black, his spurs jangle loudly as he walks into the bar for the first time. Allen says that Wilson is the "personification of evil...he's so poetically evil," while Ebert writes that he "exists primarily as a foreboding presence." Yes, as Allen says, Wilson is "just bad news" and "[s]erpentine."

"one of the saddest shooting deaths in any western"

The character of Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is a stubborn Southern hothead. He walks to the bar and Wilson appears, smiling. The gunslinger lures Torrey into a gunfight. It unfolds slowly, "then there's the ritual of it, with [Wilson] putting on that glove," Allen tells the New York Times. "It's just his eccentricity...a part of his artistic process, in a sense." Ebert calls the scene "chilling." He describes how Stevens "orchestrated it with hard-edged reserve, staying almost entirely in long shot," and calls it, "one of the saddest shooting deaths in any western." Allen says that there's "never been a shootout in a cowboy movie to equal it, in terms of evil against innocence."

From that point onward, the whole movie "builds to the inescapable fact that Shane must eventually face Wilson."

The climax of Shane

Starrett arranged a meeting with Ryker at the bar. Shane discovers that it is a trap. Wearing his gunfighter clothes and gun, Shane announces that he, not Starrett, will meet Ryker. The two men fight and Shane knocks out his friend with the handle of his gun. Shane rides off into town.

He walks into the bar and confronts Wilson. Shane dispatches him with two shots. The others try to kill Shane, but he shoots them all dead. One of them, however, has wounded Shane.

Ebert writes of Shane that there "is a little of the samurai in him, and the medieval knight." Woody Allen says, "I keep referring to Shane as the artist. You see, that's what he is. Shane is the guy who has brought this gunfighting to the level of art."

Shane says "goodbye" to Joey

Outside the bar, Shane and Joey, who had run after him, talk. Shane tells the boy, "Joey, there's no living with, with a killing. There's no going back from it....Now you run on home to your mother and tell her, tell her everything's alright, and there aren't any more guns in the valley....You go home to your mother and your father. And grow up to be strong and straight. And Joey, take care of them, both of them."

Shane rides off into the sunset, and Joey, who was the first to see him arrive, is the only one to see him go. He calls after him: "Shane. Shane! Come back!"



Lyman, Rick. "Watching Movies with Woody Allen: Coming back to 'Shane,' " The New York Times, August 3, 2001.

Shane. Great Movies

filmsite: Shane (1953)

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Notes on Shane (1953)


  1. This was my Dads favorite western, everytime I watch it I think about him.

  2. One mistake. Riker arranged the showdown not starter.


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