Hidden Gem: ‘Shane’ (1953)

By Syd Slobonik

The 1950s was the decade that saw three of the most exceptional Westerns in all Hollywood history. While many regard Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” (1952) and John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) with the highest esteem, for some reason, they don’t seem to remember George Stevens’ “Shane” (1953) as fondly. The only reason that comes to mind is that its hero Shane was played by Alan Ladd, who simply wasn’t as dynamic as Gary Cooper’s Will Kane from “High Noon” or John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in” The Searchers.” Taking a closer look at this week’s film gem “Shane,” you will see why “Shane” is deserving of equal respect.

Stevens’ Western tale was based on Jack Schaefer’s 1949 famous novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning A. B Guthrie, Jr. It featured cinematographer Loyal Grigg’s outstanding color photography and the crisp editing of William Hornbeck and Tom McAdoo. In addition to Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin star as the troubled homesteaders Marion and Joe Starrett, who welcome the quiet stranger Shane into their lives.  Young Brandon De Wilde is so memorable as their wide-eyed son Joey in his film debut. 

At first glance, “Shane’s” plot is deceptively simple. Shane, a lone gunman, rides into the outskirts of a small Western community. He begins working for a family of homesteaders threatened by the Ryker family. These much wealthier cattlemen vow to run off the dozen or more families farming the land that their expanding herd could take over. Clan patriarch Rufus Ryker (Emile Mayer) hires a menacing gunfighter from the Cheyenne, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), who will provide the needed muscle to terrorize the farm families. Shane decides to step up and help his employer Joe Starrett in their fight against the Rykers.

But this tale of family greed and intimidation is seen through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy Joey Starrett, who becomes fascinated by this mysterious hired hand who is so different than his father and seems to be hiding his unique skill at shooting a pistol.  Added to this, the boy’s mother, Marion, also develops a quiet interest in this man her son finds so fascinating. When Joey tells his mom he thinks he loves Shane. She warns him not to like Shane too much, “because he’ll be moving on one day.”

Several classics, conventional Western situations are handled by director Stevens with delicate visual flair and dynamic editing. When Shane enters a local general store and adjacent saloon for supplies and a soda for young Joey, one of Ryker’s men, Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), decides to flex his muscle.  Tensions build until a fistfight breaks out, which Joey witnesses with childish fascination. Stevens cuts from the multiple views of the fighters’ combat to the wondrous stares on Joey’s face. 

Later, when Shane finally teaches Joey how to shoot a pistol and place his holster for a proper quick response, Stevens quickly and so smoothly blends Shane’s lightning motions with loud gun blasts and Joey’s responses. Marion witnesses this event and promptly warns Shane, “Guns aren’t going to be in my boy’s life.” And Shane politely responds, “A gun is a tool, no better or worse than any other tool. It is as good or bad as the man using it.”

Eventually, the tension and suspense build to where Joe Starrett decides the only way to stop the Rykers’ terror is to face them with guns. This leads to two fine climactic scenes with Shane’s grit, resilience and gun skills save the day.

“Shane” received six Oscar nominations, including ones for best picture, director, screenplay and best-supporting actors Jack Palance and Brandon De Wilde.  It took home the Oscar for best cinematography. According to several sources, “Shane” was Clint Eastwood’s inspiration for his 1985 film “Pale Rider.” Critic Richard Schickel called Eastwood’s film “Shane with a supernatural twist.”

According to biographer Evan Thomas, both “Shane” and “High Noon” were President Dwight Eisenhower’s favorite films viewed in the White House during the 1950s.