Screening Classic Hollywood: “Shane” (1953)

In keeping with the western theme I seem to have going on “Screening Classic Hollywood,” today’s film is George Stevens’s Shane, released in 1953 and starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, and Van Heflin.  Shane (Ladd) is a roaming gunman who enters a seemingly idyllic valley.  Once there, he quickly becomes embroiled in the growing conflict between the homsteaders (led by Van Heflin’s Joe Starrett) and the cattle ranchers (led by Rufus Ryker, portrayed by Emile Meyer).  Tensions continue to mount until Shane ends up slaying Rufus and several of his hands, after which he rides out of the valley, as Jim’s young son Jimmy cries out for him to come back.

At first glance, Alan Ladd makes something of an unusual choice for a roaming gunslinger; he does not have the imposing physical presence of a Wayne, for example, nor the grace of a Randolph Scott.  Nevertheless, there is something disarmingly charming about his portrayal, which in turn grants a measure of humanity to his otherwise sociopathic figure, a hint that perhaps, beneath his loner exterior, there is a measure of interiority and softness that saves him from being an absolutely cold-hearted killer.   The obvious chemistry that simmers between him and Joe’s wife Marian (Arthur) and Joey (Joe’s son), hints at the life that could await Shane if he would but give up his wandering ways, settle down, and accept the new rule of order and domesticity.  Of course, such a settling down is an impossibility for the western hero, and so that possibility is infinitely deferred.

The most compelling character, however, has to be Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson, the gunman brought in to do away with Shane and cow (pardon the pun) the homesteaders into submission and flight from the valley.  The dispassionate ease with which he dispatches local homesteader Stonewall is truly chilling, and is in keeping with Palance’s midcentury star persona (he became quite famous for playing villainous and sometimes sociopathic characters, such as Simon the Magus in The Silver Chalice, released the following year).  What is most unsettling, however, is the underlying similarity between Wilson and Shane; though they exhibit widely different personalities, they are in essence the same kind of person, loners and killers whose very presence threatens the stability and order of the home.

Opposed to both of these figures are not only the homesteading men (such as Van Heflin’s rather worn-looking Joe), but their families.  Arthur seems a bit miscast as Marian, and she often comes across as an unpleasant mixture of simpering and strident, as she attempts to keep both of the men in her life from endangering themselves and the life that she has so assiduously cultivated.  Similarly, Brandon De Wilde is also somewhat screeching as Joey, often erupting onto the scene in bursts of unruly energy that are unpleasant precisely because they disrupt the peace and serenity of the house (his scenes are frequently punctuated by his imitations of shooting, and he is constantly asking Shane to teach him how to shoot).

Domesticity and its denizens do not seem like such a pleasant alternative, but neither does the other possibility.  The cattelmen are a group of rough-edged loners who care nothing about the other residents of the valley.  They frequently heap insults upon their fellows and, as we have seen, they are not afraid to stoop to extreme violence when it proves necessary (in their view, in any case).  While the film seems to ultimately side with domesticity–with the cattlemen and their ilk dead, Shane riding off into the sunset–there is a note of melancholy about this, a feeling that something has been lost in this battle for the soul of the valley (and perhaps for America as a whole).

Unsurprisingly, the film ends with the admission that the world Shane has helped to bring into being–one defined more by the bonds of family and stability than by the lone wolf mentality of the cattlemen–also has no place for him.  As he says to the young Jimmy, “There’s no living with a killing,” a profound statement that makes it all too clear that his type of masculinity has become increasingly superfluous to the gradually-domesticated wilderness.  Further, the film does not shy away from showing us the savagery of the conflicts that shaped much of the western part of the United States (indeed, Bosley Crowther made a point of mentioning such in his review for the film).  Joey’s strident cries for Shane to return–calls that go unheeded–sound the final note, one faintly sour and unsatisfactory one.

All in all, Shane is one of Stevens’s better works, a rather thoughtful and sad reflection on the gradual decline of a certain way of living, a recognition that beneath the veneer of adventure that dominates ideas of the west, there lurks a more troubling set of issues and contradictions that are not so easily resolved.

Score:  8/10

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