RetroReview: Shane (1953)

Westerns eh? Bit old, past it. It’s all been done before. There’s no modern take that will better the classics that have already been made. On the strength of this, they might be right.

As part of my continuing education into ‘films I probably should have seen by now, but haven’t’, I’ve been picking things off Lovefilm (Profile here) over the last year or so to fill in some of the classics. Finally, I’ve got around to this. And its good. Its very good.

In short form, with as few spoilers as possible, the story goes like this. White hat Shane (Alan Ladd) turns up at a remote farmstead in the middle of nowhere and is immediately drawn into the problems of the family that live there, as a ranch owner is trying to drive them off even though they have a legal claim to the land (although in my mind, this claim is always a bit ambiguous). Up until now its always just been a bit of roughing up, scaring off farmhands, just trying to make things difficult for people. But in the bleak mountainous landscapes, you know it is going to escalate.

Shane decides to stay on as a new farm hand, and is quickly added to the family as he is hard working, honest and friendly. The young boy in the family, Joey, quickly takes a liking to him, looking up to him as a gunslinging hero type. He clearly has a ‘mysterious past’, and refuses to carry his gun belt. First time into town on an errand, he is accosted by the local boys who are working for the ranch owner (including a familiar bit of dialogue;  Shane: ‘You talking to me?’ Cowboy: ‘Well I can’t see anyone else standing there, so I guess I must be talking to you’ ; borrowed by Taxi Driver, in case you’re wondering…), they throw a drink over him and insult him, but he doesn’t respond, just walks out again.

A pacifist hero in a 1950s western? Nearly. One of the other farmsteads has their crops destroyed by the local boys and is about to pack up and leave, but they decide to band together to make life easier on themselves. This introduces us to a few other players. Firstly, the owner of the farm Shane works for, Joe, the Swede (yes, a swedish cowboy, giving this film a great air of authenticity), a few other guys and ‘Stonewall’, so named for his confederate past, and remorselessly teased about this fact (much to his chagrin). Shane is in the group initially, but word has spread of his ‘yeller’ streak after the incident at the bar and he is left out of the conversation.

Anyway, banding together, they ride into town to get supplies. This puts out the local boys, who can’t rough anyone up in such a big group. Until Shane goes into the bar, and this time, decides to fight. So starts a good 10 minute brawl, with blood out of wounds and punches to the face, chair hits that look genuinely painful (?!) and a good streetfighting approach. A nice fight, that feels a lot more natural than many of these in other westerns from the period.

Anyway, after this, the ranch owner decides to get in a hired gun. Enter, stage right, Jack Palance, here credited as Henry Jack Palance, but you’d recognise that gaunt face anywhere. Anyway, using him as a threat, they manage to scare the farmsteaders again, apart from Stonewall, who has been standing up to them all film and you know whats coming. In a beautifully shot scene, he is provoked by Wilson (Jack Palance’s character) into drawing his gun, thereby justifying his own murder. Its 3 days ride to the nearest sheriff and the isolation is palpable. The Swede witnesses it and the local proxy for the Sheriff, the bar owner asks him if Wilson was using self defence. The Swede can only answer ‘Yes’. This whole scene shows how powerless the farmsteaders are. Following a moving funeral scene, we are approaching the finale. Shane has demonstrated whilst teaching the boy that he is ridiculously good on the quickdraw. Also, Joe’s wife at the farm has started to show an interest in Shane (pretty shocking for 1950s also!). Joe has decided to take down the ranch owner once and for all. Meanwhile, Shane, who has been torn about helping, even though throughout the film he could have done at any point, get changed, back into his gunslinger’s clothes and puts his belt on. After Joe hints to his wife that she would be looked after (and we can only assume he means by Shane), we can see he expects to die and lose his family to Shane. Shane doesn’t want that to happen, so he fights Joe. Another convincing fist fight occurs, ending when Shane pistol-whips him to unconsciousness. Shane rides to town, followed by the boy. The gunfight itself is very low key, a few words then Shane (obviously) outdraws Palance, and shoots the ranch owner. The boy shouts a warning, but a rifleman upstairs just clips him (maybe? you don’t really see) as Shane shoots.

A great little ending scene follows with Shane telling the boy he has to go now, he can’t go back to the farm, and to tell his mom that ‘there are no guns left in the valley now’. Shane rides off, slightly slumped (He may be dieing or even dead by the end).

So, an anti-war/violence western? You certainly get that feeling. The final shootout is very low-key, and you are left with the feeling it would be better for Shane if he hadn’t put his gunbelt back on. He was clearly trying to stop, but this film falls into the category of the the gunfighter who cannot stop and is resigned to his fate.

Wonderful cinematography and shot selection really show you how isolated this area is, how alone everyone is. The town, unlike most westerns, is really three shacks in a row, there are no roads anywhere, and everything feels very authentic and real. The camerawork itself is a lot less stagey than you would expect as well, particularly a very good tracking shot for stonewall’s last ride into town. Some fantastic skies too, using thunderstorms and clouds as much has the blue skies you would expect from a western. Everything seems cold, damp and hard work, not the cheery, sunny environment you’d be used to from watching westerns from this era.

There’s not a clear good guy/bad guy dynamic either. Apart from Palance’s character (who is portrayed as basically as psychopath), even the ranch owner comes across as somewhat reasonable (albeit manipulative), and even has one very good speech where you almost agree with his argument about owning the land. One of his ranchhands turns towards the end and warns Shane about the plan to kill Joe,  and all of this makes everything seem a bit more grey than usual in these things. Shane is not clearly the hero, although he is saving the life of his friend at the end, and you can’t quite shake the feeling that killing the old man who owned the ranch is somewhat harsh. Not clear cut at all, which is why its so interesting to watch.

Coupled with some very good acting (from actors who aren’t all matinée idols, only Alan Ladd as Shane really fits that model), particularly from the young boy, who plays a very natural 8-9 year old boy (unlike most modern child actors, who seem like creepily shrunk adults when they speak…) this film really shines. A few clunky scenes, but enough maturity and complex morals make this one of the best westerns ever made.
Shane [DVD] [1953]


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