One of the finest of western films, Shane (1953, Paramount), was director George Stevens’ next major project after his highly successful A Place in the Sun (1951, Paramount). Principal filming was carried out in the summer and fall of 1951 in southwestern Wyoming in the shadow of the Grand Tetons — certainly one of the most spectacular settings in the long history of westerns. Heading the cast were Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, and Van Heflin. The result was a western film about which nothing was different and everything was different. That is to say, the basic elements were familiar to all — homesteaders vs. cattle ranchers, lone gunfighter trying to leave his past behind, climactic gunfight — but the way in which Stevens orchestrated them presented them in an entirely different light. Much of this was a reflection of Stevens’ Second World War service documenting the Allied advance in Europe after D-Day. What he saw and experienced there brought home to him the reality of violence and man’s inhumanity to others, and that is evident in his conception of Shane.
Shane went into general release in 1953 (there had been a prolonged editing period after shooting was completed) and was well received by the public and critics alike. It grossed $9 million dollars, spectacular results for the time, and certainly the highest of any film in which Alan Ladd starred. The film negative, however, suffered no better fate than most others of the time in terms of its preservation, so that when it was released to video, the versions that were made available both on VHS and later laserdisc paled, literally, in comparison to the vibrant Technicolor film that had originally appeared. So, fans have long been waiting for a video incarnation worthy of the film. Paramount has now released Shane on DVD in what for it is almost a special edition.
Shane, a gunfighter with a past unknown to us, rides down from the mountains into a valley where he encounters the homestead of farmer Joe Starrett, his wife Marian and their son Joey. It is soon evident that there is a conflict in the valley between a large group of homesteaders of which Starrett is the unofficial leader and the cattle operations of Rufus Ryker and his brother Morgan. The Rykers are trying to drive all the homesteaders out so that they can re-establish their control over the entire valley. Shane takes Starrett’s side in an initial confrontation with Ryker’s men and then stays on to work on Starrett’s farm. He soon becomes an idol to little Joey. As the homesteaders continue to resist, Ryker resorts to importing a hired gunslinger named Jack Wilson. Finally, one of the homesteaders, Frank Torrey, is goaded into a gunfight with Wilson and is killed. This leads to a final showdown between Shane and Wilson with the future of the valley in the balance.
The story of Shane, set as it is in Wyoming, probably owes much to the events of the Johnson County range war in the early 1890s. The subject was later covered more explicitly and in much greater detail in Heaven’s Gate (1980, UA — an over-criticized, under-appreciated film) and was also dealt with in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985, WB), essentially a remake of Shane.
It’s always a pleasure when I get to review one of the really great films, but it does pose problems — usually they’ve been written about extensively so it can be difficult to say something new or view it with a fresh slant. Shane certainly falls into this category, but let’s see what we can do anyway.
Although Shane has always been a film popular among both casual moviegoers and film enthusiasts, I think it’s fair to say that in terms of critical evaluation it has experienced ups and downs over the past 47 years, somewhat in the same fashion as has another great western from the same period, High Noon (1952). Certainly upon its initial appearance, Shane was highly praised. Based upon the novel of the same title by Jack Schaefer, part of the film’s success was due to an excellent screenplay by A.B. Guthrie Jr., who had a keen appreciation of the west reflected in his own original writing about it (such as “The Big Sky”). Equal contributors were the high caliber of acting from the ensemble cast, the cinematography that so effectively took advantage of the Grand Tetons location, the costuming and other attention to period detail, and a memorable Victor Young score — all orchestrated by George Stevens, then at the height of his directing craft. Shane was nominated for five Academy Awards (picture, direction, screenplay, supporting actor [both Brandon De Wilde and Jack Palance], and colour cinematography), but only won in the latter category, as another rather good film of the time — From Here to Eternity (1953, Columbia) — swept the field. (Stevens did win the best director award from the National Board of Review.) With time, however, some critical doubts began to set in. Re-evaluations suggested that despite its realities, Shane was a film that was in fact only a glorified B-western with its genre-types (sod-buster, rancher, gunfighter) and the almost mythical nature of its lead character, reinforced by our final image of him riding off into the mountains. The point that is missed in such evaluations is that the western is a genre and every genre has its “types.” It’s how those types are presented and the sophistication with which their issues are played out and resolved that helps to define a great film. It’s those characteristics that raise even some B-westerns into the category of a great film. In the same sense, there can be no denial of Shane’s accomplishment.
One of the glories of Shane — its cinematography — hits us right at the beginning of the film and is a continual pleasure throughout. That first image of the Starrett homestead sitting isolated in the green valley with the mountains framing it from behind and the almost impossible blue of the stream running beside it is one that never leaves you. The location shooting lasted some 50 days with many of them cloudy or rainy. Weather transitions are evident throughout the film and the constantly changing cloud patterns are almost worth watching on their own. The difficulty that conditions posed and the results that cinematographer Loyal Griggs was able to coax out of them produced a remarkable looking film that rightly won Griggs his Academy Award. In 1951, the film had been composed for the 1.37:1 academy ratio of the time. By 1953 when the film was in general release, however, Cinemascope was making its mark. Paramount, eager to adapt to the new phenomenon, actually trimmed some prints to fit the new wider screens, subverting Griggs’ framing. It didn’t go un-noticed, though. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review at the time, for example, recognized the trimming on the top and bottom, although it’s not completely clear whether he was concerned about it or not.
According to George Stevens Jr., son of the director and a production assistant on Shane, initial casting for the film called for Montgomery Clift to play Shane, William Holden to be Joe Starrett, and Katharine Hepburn to be Marian. Obviously, none of this came about and it’s certainly hard to visualize Shane with these three in the key roles, particularly Clift, even though he was effective in an earlier western Red River (1948, UA). The three who did come to play these roles in the film were all under contract to Paramount at the time. Van Heflin was always an excellent actor, doing well in both character and leading parts, and he maintained that record in Shane as Joe Starrett. Jean Arthur was a bit of a gamble for the part of Marian Starrett. Her last film had been A Foreign Affair (1948, Paramount) and she had turned down all subsequent scripts preferring to try her hand on the stage. In the event, her performance in Shane has come to be regarded as one of her best in a film career of 89 films beginning in the silent era. Her scenes with Shane as he prepares to leave the homestead for good are poignant and reveal an acting subtlety that was not so evident from her many prior comedic parts. The role of Marian Starrett was Jean Arthur’s last film appearance. Then there was Alan Ladd as Shane.
Alan Ladd never received the recognition that his work as an actor deserved. He was always taken for granted by Paramount, who seemed content to cast him in just about anything, knowing that an Alan Ladd picture would make money no matter what deficiencies, script or otherwise, it might have. When Ladd was able to break away from Paramount, his own selection of scripts was not the best either, and too many so-so films resulted. But when the material was good, he could be superb. He was that, in This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Whispering Smith (1948), and Appointment with Danger (1951) — all for Paramount. In Shane, he was at his best portraying a man seemingly calm and controlled on the outside, but obviously troubled on the inside as he seeks to deal with a life as a gunfighter who knows his time is past. Ladd has fewer lines in Shane than Van Heflin, but his face conveys so much that you never really notice how little he does in fact actually say. Alan Ladd should have had at least an Academy Award nomination for Shane, but he appears to have been overlooked due to studio politics. By the time of Shane‘s release, he had already made the decision to move to Warner Brothers, so Paramount didn’t give him the support he deserved, preferring to back their own man William Holden for Stalag 17 (1953, Paramount).
It is, of course, impossible to talk about Shane and not mention a couple of other actors: Brandon De Wilde and Jack Palance. De Wilde played Joey, through whose eyes much of the story is seen. His character is the one so many people remember about the movie — his wide-eyed innocence, his hero-worship of Shane, and particularly his plaintive cries of “Shaaane” as Shane rides off at the end. It’s the only role De Wilde’s remembered for; he died in 1972 at the age of 30. Jack Palance is another matter. He has had a long and generally productive career, culminating in his Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for 1991’s City Slickers (Castle Rock). Shane was one of his earliest films, but who can forget his Jack Wilson portrayal: the slow, almost balletic dismount and remount of his horse at Starrett’s farm; his nonchalant yet taunting leaning against the outside wall of Grafton’s one boot up against the wall for support, thumbs stuck behind his gunbelt; and then the slow walk along the wooden deck outside Grafton’s as he slowly pulls on his black glove, goading Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) into a gunfight. The look of distain on his face after he kills Stonewall is frightening.
The killing of Stonewall is worth noting for another reason. It was probably the first time that the effect of a person being shot by a bullet from a .45 was realistically portrayed. Until then, most characters being shot in a film tended to react by grabbing themselves and slumping down forwards. No account seemed to be taken of the force of the bullet’s impact. That was not the case here. When Stonewall was shot, his body jerked backwards suddenly and thudded into the mud and water of the roadway. The sense of finality that that conveyed really brought home the violence and viciousness of the act. But this was only the most obvious example of the reality that director Stevens brought to Shane. Care was taken to ensure that all physical props were true to the period, that buildings were built to specifications typical of the time, and that clothing was authentic looking — well-worn, dirty, and wrinkled as appropriate. Stevens even imported cattle from elsewhere that were scrawny enough to represent the look of cattle of the era. The cattle that were available in the area at the time of shooting were apparently too healthy-looking to be realistic.
I could go on more about other aspects of Shane, such as the wonderful music of Victor Young, but maybe it’s time to look at the DVD that Paramount has given us. Paramount undertook a restoration of the Shane negative a year or so ago and the results are evident on the DVD. This is a stunning-looking transfer for much of the film — sharp and colourful, with good shadow detail — and it’s presented in the 1.37:1 full frame ratio, as originally conceived. Shane hasn’t looked this good since 1953. There is some slight loss of clarity in the dark scenes at the end. That was a part of the film that was shot day-for-night originally and in earlier video versions had almost seemed like daytime. Now the correct colour and degree of darkness have been restored. Some shadow detail has been lost in this process, but the compromise is not a problem. The audio is clear of noise and both dialogue and music are rendered faithfully.
We all know that Paramount has not been big on supplementary material on their DVDs, although this has begun to change of late. Shane continues this trend with the inclusion of an audio commentary by George Stevens Jr. and Ivan Moffat. The latter had a long association with George Stevens and acted as associate producer on Shane. The commentary is a very good one, providing a lot of background information on the location, shooting techniques, and the cast — drawing upon Stevens Jr. and Moffat’s memories of the shoot as well as notes and memos that Stevens Jr. has accumulated over the intervening years. A theatrical re-release trailer is also included on the DVD.
I was almost tempted to say nothing in this section because you’ve probably gathered that I’m pretty happy with both Shane the film and Shane the DVD. Just so you don’t think I’ve approached this with rose-coloured glasses, however, I will grumble a little about the DVD packaging. The front cover has the same old picture of Shane that graced the last VHS release. Couldn’t Paramount come up with something fresh for a classic like Shane? As I recall, they did the same thing with their DVD releases of True Grit (1969) and El Dorado (1967). I didn’t like it then and I’m no happier now. And what’s with the image of Alan Ladd on the back showing him all dressed up in a fancy western outfit seemingly embroidered with grapevines. He never looked like that in Shane and it certainly doesn’t belong on the DVD. And, oh yes, why do the credits on the back use the term “A Paramount Re-Release”? It sounds like they just copied them from a re-release poster for the DVD.
Well, this will be short and sweet. Shane is one of the top western films. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat. If you have seen it, it’s time to see it again. This DVD from Paramount will make the viewing a pleasure and the supplementary audio track will double that pleasure. Of course, classics like this always warrant more supplementary material than studios seem inclined to give them, but that’s another story.