Monday, 25 May 2015

Shane (1953)

Shane, Den Tavse Rytter
It is time for another western. The fifties seem to be the heyday of the genre and I have already been through quite a few of them. I am not as negative to the genre as some and in general the westerns from this period have been decent. Some even good. “Shane” is a middle of the pack film with outstanding elements, items which have become classic and other element which already at the time were so classic they may be considered downright cliché.

“Shane” is visually a pretty film. It is shot in Technicolor, which when done well makes the picture spring to life. The downside is that although some of the scenes are shot on location many are not and in those cases the studio environment is just a trifle too artificial. I suppose that is the price to pay for good, saturated picture and crisp sound, but by now I have seen enough location shot movies to appreciate the difference. Also I learned that this movie pioneered the wide screen format, something I have been looking forward to for a while (I have a system to project the picture up on a wall), but for whatever reason my DVD came in the standard 4/3 format. Disappointing.

Story-wise I am a bit on the fence here and that may be simply a matter of too many westerns. I am pretty sure I have seen this story before and also before 53. It is a simple story, but also the grand story of the settlement of the West (and yup, I can even from a European perspective appreciate that story). The setting is the high plains of Wyoming a decade or two after the civil war. The ranchers who wrested the land the land from the Indians are now themselves under pressure from homesteaders. Like the Indians before them the ranchers considered the open land theirs to use as they pleased for their cattle with little concern for property. Now they find homesteaders fencing off tracts of land and limiting access to water. Although in this grand land this incursion hardly register the ranchers are terribly upset by the principle and probably what they see as a future with less and less room for them and their way of life.

In “Shane” the ranchers are represented by the Ryker clan, led by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer). They are of the old west. Tough and self-contained theirs is a frontier mindset where law is dictated by the strongest and comes out of the barrel of a rifle. When they set themselves up here they were far outside civilized law and they would like to run their own affairs without interference from outsiders.

The homesteaders represents the next phase in the settlement. They come with a different attitude. Yes, they are also pioneers and are carving out a living from the wilderness, but they bring with them civilization. They form communities, raise children and bring with them different ideas. Their claim is not supported by brute strength or guns, but by law and civilization. In fact they shy away from guns and violence.

There is the conflict and the question is, has the homesteaders come too far? Out here the law is very far away and there is no protection but what they can offer themselves. Joe Starett (Van Heflin) is the focal point of the homesteaders. His is a small, but slowly prospering place that he runs with his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and son Joey (Brandon deWilde). Joe is trying to encourage his fellow homesteaders to stand up against the bullying of the Rykers, but it is a losing battle. One by one the homesteaders are giving up. Enter the mysterious stranger, Shane (Alan Ladd).

Shane is the key between the new West and the old. His roots are in the old, but when offered a job by Joe Starett he eagerly embrace this new life of hard work and pacifism. We feel there is a back story to him, but while we never learn exactly what it is we know there is a danger about him. But a danger to whom?

When it is finally time for Joe to go head to head with the Rykers and their hired gun-man Shane assumes his place (well, through a long and effective fist fight with Joe, that is) and take out the opposition in a short, but effective gun fight. Following this Shane says his goodbyes to little Joey and leaves.

The key point is that you need fire to fight fire and that there is no room for the old frontier in the civilized land. Joey is the new order and he watches the old order end and the legend of it begin.

This is so classic a setup that really I have lost count on how often it has been used. There is a lot of American self-understanding in this and it is the underlying story behind almost every western, though it is not usually spelled out this clearly. Therefore in a sense this is the quintessential Western.

Then comes the question, is this then the best rendition of that story? I am not so sure of that. Oh, there are many good moments, but a few things are also off. One thing is Alan Ladd as Shane. Considering that he is supposed to have a history as a tough gunslinger he is just way too tidy and pretty. There are absolutely no rough edges to him and only his handling of his gun indicate anything sinister. Even his outfit dammit is more at home at a rodeo than on the frontier. I would have liked him cursing or slobbing down the food or being dirty, but his hair is always perfect and his manners always impeccable. What kind of a roughneck is that?

Heflin’s Joe Starett is a lot more believable as the homesteader and so are his colleagues. They are spot on. Quirky and warm and hot headed when angry. It is fun to watch Jean Arthur now so many years after her heyday around 1940. This is a very different role for her, but she is okay in it. I might have wished for a stronger character, after all life is pretty tough out there and Marian have a very gentle character. Some decisiveness would have suited her well, but that is a detail.

The flow of the story is good and if the above details are detracting I also must give it credit for entertainment value. It was one of those movies where time flew by. So, yeah, a decent and pretty western, but also a movie that is a bit stuck in the fifties.


  1. Shane is stuck in the 1950s, but keep in mind that a lot of what makes it a 1950s movie started here. Shane is a definitive film for the Western and for the decade.

    I like it a lot.

    The real question to be asked needs to be asked under a spoiler tag.

    So, is Shane alive or dead when he rides off?
    ***END SPOILER***

    1. That may be. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a cliché and the original source of the cliché.
      I suppose the answer to your question is less important. The old west is disappearing. Wounded, dying, gone. It is quite symbolic.

  2. I need to see this again. I generally lov anything by George Stevens. Surprised that Alan Ladd comes off as weak. Have you seen any of his films noir?

    1. You watch it and tell me. While watching it I could not put my finger on what was wrong and only afterwards it struck me that this guy is way too nice and polished to represent the old west. I am sure Ladd is a nice guy and a great actor so maybe it was just a bad cast or, even worse, the anticipation that the audience would would or even need a nice guy as the hero. Reading Guthries novel might give the answer.

  3. I liked this one. I would have liked it more if I didn't find the little kid so annoying.

    In regards to the story, years from now you'll watch an unacknowledged remake of it with Ryan Gosling's modern-set movie Drive. (It's on the list.) Your concern about "not menacing enough" might be addressed by the Gosling version.

  4. I know of Drive (Refn is a big name in Denmark), but I have never seen it. I just never got around to it. It is one I am looking forward to and I do not know if I can wait, uh, 20 years or so to get there.
    That childwas obnoxious.

  5. I haven't seen this but my vote goes to number 5. Well, maybe number 7.

    By the way, just about all Italian films of this period were dubbed. Cinecitta where they were filmed was built during the silent era and did not have sound stages. So the dialogue - even of Italian speakers - was looped in during post production. You are lucky if you get the same actor doing the dialogue as the picture. Claudia Cardinale's natural husky voice was not heard until Fellini finally used her to do the dialogue track for her part in 8 1/2.

    I agree the dubbing is often disconcerting.