Sunday 17 April 2016

Movie Review: Shane (1953)

A classic Western, Shane perfectly blends all the genre elements into a monumental package. The story of a mysterious gunman helping homesteaders defend their land against evil cattlemen captures the mythology of a changing landscape, with one lifestyle expiring and another setting down roots.

In rural Wyoming, Joe and Marian Starrett (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) are working hard to create a home for themselves and their young son Joey (Brandon deWilde). A soft-spoken loner known only as Shane (Alan Ladd) passes by and witnesses the Starretts being intimidated by cattleman Rufus Ryker (Emil Meyer) and his rough band of cowboys, including Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson). Rufus believes that homesteaders are unwelcome invaders, opportunistic latecomers to land tamed by cattlemen, disrupting the landscape with fences and crops.

Shane is attracted to the life of domesticity, and accepts Joe's offer of a job. He hangs up his gun and tries to adapt to life helping out on the farm. Young Joey quickly sees Shane as a hero and starts idolizing him. Ryker tries all combinations of threats and promises to scare off the Starretts and the other homesteaders including the particularly headstrong Frank 'Stonewall' Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.), but the stubborn Joe does not yield and repeatedly inspires the others to stand firm. In desperation Ryker brings in notorious gunslinger Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to threaten the farmers with abrupt violence, setting off a seminal confrontation.

Meticulously directed by George Stevens with exquisite care to achieve perfect framing and perspective, Shane is an engaging story presented as a feast for all the senses. The tension is introduced early on through the eyes of young Joey, and the confrontation between two lifestyles underpins an exploration of manhood and contrasting visions of the future.

The themes are grand and given suitable room to evolve in the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Shane is based on a 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer and inspired (although it is not mentioned) by the infamous Johnson County War. Joe Starrett and Rufus Ryker cannot both thrive in the future, and no less than the destiny of a nation is represented in their struggle of wills. Starrett represents hope that there is room for families, children, settlements and a lifestyle not governed by guns and violence. Ryker is threatened by fences, rows of crops, limits on where and when he can drive his cattle, and cannot fathom a West parcelled off and sold out to farming families.

The one thing Shane is sure of is that gunmen like himself and Wilson will have no role to play in whichever future unfolds. The days of disputes being settled by gunfights are drawing to an end, and Shane is already making his way to nowhere when the film opens. He desperately tries to fit into the Starrett's way of life, enjoying Joe's friendship, Joey's hero-worship and Marian's more coy but also unmistakable signals of attention. But he also sees his negative influence on Joey, the boy naturally attracted to gunmanship and violence, and in his own way Shane is just as incompatible with Joe Starrett as Ryker is.

Shane: What's your offer, Ryker?
Ryker: To you, not a thing.
Shane: That's too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you've lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The action set-pieces are magnificently staged. Shane's opening entrance and Wilson's later first appearance are brilliant examples of men drifting across the landscape to impose their will on the winds of destiny. There is a memorable bar fight between Shane and Chris Calloway that expands into a brawl. Stonewall trudges through the mud of a barely defined civilization with Wilson towering over him. And the final stand-off to settle the conflict once and for all is an echo from the past that will cascade into the future.

Alan Ladd as the gunman with a conscience and Van Heflin as the homemaker with an intractable dedication to his land deliver career defining performances, while Jack Palance creates quite an intimidating, almost soulless villain. Through no fault of his own, the performance of youngster Brandon deWilde has not aged well. The script saddled him with annoying lines of dialogue and endless whiny questions, with almost every single phrase out of his mouth containing Shane's name. In his one miscalculation Stevens includes endless reaction shots of young Joey's face, and the child actor was simply not up to the task.

Otherwise, Stevens' direction and editing is masterful. Filming near Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the imposing Grand Tetons providing a stunning backdrop, the film is filled with spectacular scenery. The choice of perspective is frequently dazzling, with the camera often placing seemingly peripheral children, wives and faithful family dogs at the centre of the screen while heated adult confrontations unfold. The men are settling the future, but it is the families who will live and die with the outcomes.

The audio effects are equally impressive. There are few shots fired in the film, but Stevens carefully recreated the deafening aural impact of every single shot, a rare instance where the startling impact of each bullet is emphasized to drive home the implications of life and death at the mercy of a gun.

Shane: I gotta be goin' on.
Joey: Why, Shane?
Shane: A man has to be what he is, Joey. You can't break the mold. I tried it and it didn't work for me.
Joey: We want you, Shane.
Shane: Joey, there's no living with, with a killing. There's no going back from it. Right or wrong, it's a brand, a brand that sticks. There's no going back. Now you run on home to your mother and tell her, tell her everything's alright, and there aren't any more guns in the valley.

Shane is the perfect ode to a remote west emerging from lawlessness, where a clash of ambitions defined the soul of a fledgling nation.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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