Classic Movie Review: Shane (1953)

Release Date: April 23, 1953
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review: I was under the mistaken impression that this movie was a Western about a boy and his dog, like Old Yeller. In fact, Shane (Alan Ladd) is a human, a drifter who arrives on the homestead of Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur) Starrett and takes up work as their hired hand. The Starrett’s young son Joey grows attached to Shane looking up to him with hero worship.

All is not well in the valley though. The Starrets and other homesteaders are routinely harassed by cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men who want to keep the range free of farmers.  Shane, who is suspected to have a past as a gunfighter, must chose between fighting Ryker’s gang and his newfound domestic bliss. Things come to a head when Ryker brings a gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), to do his dirty work.

On the surface, this movie appears to be aiming for a wholesome, All-American Western, but it has a lot of subtlety and nuance.  Shane never speaks of his past but we learn something of his character through his mannerisms.  There’s a definite attraction between Shane and Marian that is also never spoken aloud.  And the movie comes down against violence and guns, with only the child Joey buying into the myth of the Old West. When a saloon brawl occurs mid-film and a gunfight at his conclusion they pack a wallop because of all the tension building to these outpourings of violence.

This is a scenic film, with the jagged peaks of the Teton Range in the background of almost every outdoors scene. Having visited Grand Tetons National Park in the past year, it was fun to see it used as a film set. I also liked the scene set at a funeral which not only was a rare moment of grief in a Western, but the camera wanders around to children and animals on the edge of the crowd for a very naturalistic moment. I also appreciate that the 52-year-old Jean Arthur can look like a mother of a 9-year-old in her thirties. This is a big change from Sunset Boulevard a few years earlier, which depicted 49-year-old Gloria Swanson as impossibly aged.

Shane is an honest and nuanced film that does justice to the traditions of the Western genre without fall for its tropes and needless violence. It also would be great if it was retold in The Mandalorian.

Rating: ***1/2