Both Watson and I ranked Logan as our Best Movie for 2017. Heck, Watson put that movie on his all-time favorites list. As it is, the movie clearly was inspired by numerous old Westerns of gunfighters hanging up their weapons for the last time, in particular the 1953 film Shane. Shane, my dad tells me, was my grandfather’s favorite Western (his all-time favorite movie is coming up in this series eventually). And while Logan recycles themes and even speeches from this old film, it’s really a masterful way to show the standard Western of bringing justice to a lawless land, and seeing civilization take root.
It’s also the only George Stevens directed movie on the AFI list so far that I have actually seen before I sat down to do this series.
Yes, how the heck did George Stevens get so many movies onto this list anyway? Shane is his third, and as much as I like old movies, I don’t think the name ever registered with me all that much before. But here we are, and after seeing both A Place in the Sun and Giant, we’re looking at one of his movies again. It’s not that Stevens is a bad director. Far from it. But unlike other great directors, I don’t see any common themes or styles to his work. He produces good work, but there wasn’t anything to it that I felt was a “Stevens stamp” of any kind. Heck, for all I know, he has two or three more movies on the list, so I’m not going to say anything more about the guy right now.
Instead, let’s talk Shane, as well as Shane. Is that his full name? Apparently. Shane is played by Alan Ladd, and he doesn’t look particularly dangerous. Heck, he looks like a nice, friendly guy all told. I’d criticize it, but I think that may be the point.
Shane rides into the Starrett farm, looking to hang up his guns. He’s quick on the draw, but he doesn’t want to be the violent guy anymore. The thing is, he’s good at it as he proves later. Family patriarch Joe will welcome any help, and Shane proves his worth when he helps Joe try to take down an old tree stump that has been baffling the Starretts for two years. Wife Marion is a little wary of Shane at first but soon takes a shine to the man. Their son Joey is enamored with Shane from the first, idolizing the man he knows very little about. As for Shane himself, he’s happy to go to work for the Starretts especially as they seem to be good people and they have a problem in the form of one Rufus Ryker.
Who is Rufus Ryker? He’s a rancher looking to run the homesteaders like the Starretts off their land. He hangs out at the local general store/saloon, and would be a more sympathetic figure if he wasn’t using his gang to constantly hassle the homesteaders. Really! He has a speech at one point where he talks about how he arrived in the area first and then the homesteaders came along, diverting the river and costing his herds the water they need. That speech made the character more three-dimensional, but then he goes right back to his hassling ways to drive the farmers off their land.
It likewise doesn’t help when Ryker hires obvious bad guy gunfighter Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).
From the moment Palance enters, the obvious showdown between benevolent Shane and dastardly Wilson has to be coming. Not only does Wilson goad another homesteader into a gunfight the farmer couldn’t possibly win, but he glares silently quite a bit at Shane and pretty much everyone else he meets.
Will Shane return to his violent ways? Of course he will, against his own desires and Marion’s wishes. She believes guns are hateful instruments of death. Shane insists guns are tools as bad as the person using it. Since gunfights in the street are not the way of a civilized society, Marion’s way will win out, no matter how much the young Joeys of the world idolize tough guys like Shane. Eventually, the real climactic violence isn’t the shootout between Wilson and Shane, but a fistfight between Joe Starrett and Shane. Ryker has sent an agent to get Joe down to the saloon to negotiate a truce, but the whole thing is a trap. Joe more or less figures that is true while Shane was told it was true, and the two men fight to see who will go to the saloon. Shane wins by cheating, pistol whipping Joe with his six shooter, and off he goes.
Shane, of course, prevails, but there is a good bit of debate on whether he’s alive at the end or not. He’s wounded, and Joey (who followed Shane with the family dog) notes Shane is sticky somewhere. Shane does look a little slumped as he leaves, but it’s hard to say. Shane did tell Ryker that both of them were part of a dying breed, the difference being Shane recognizes this fact. He does not belong in the world Joe and Marion are trying to build, he knows it, and whether he’s alive or not, he has to leave, no matter how much Joey cries for Shane to come back.
There’s no room for the Shanes of the world anymore. Civilization marches on, and the lawless need to move on or die. It’s the story of many Westerns, and few get that done as well as Shane while also asking if those sorts of people can change enough to live in the world to come. For Shane, the answer is a sad no as he continues a lonely life on his own.
NEXT UP: Well, time for another musical with 1951’s An American in Paris.