Alan Ladd as Shane
By Steve Vivona
Paramount, $29.95, Fullscreen
Alan Ladd's smoldering good looks and laconic acting style made him a hot commodity in the forties. By the early fifties he was Hollywood's most popular leading man, but his films were becoming less memorable, and his alcoholism was taking hold of him.
His greatest role came during this period though. In 1953 he played the title character in director George Stevens' classic western, "Shane," a film that has made AFI's list for the top 100 films of all time.
Ladd was perfectly cast as the brooding ex-gunfighter looking to withdraw from a lifestyle whose time is nearly gone. With nothing but his bloody past Shane wanders on to the farm of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a homesteader trying to make the most of his little patch of land.
Shane soon finds himself in the midst of an escalating conflict between the homesteaders in the valley and Ryker (Edgar Buchanan) a ruthless cattle baron who wants their land to drive his cattle through.
When Ryker sends his men to threaten Starrett, Shane intervenes. In gratitude Starrett invites Shane to stay with his family and gives him a job. It's obvious there's an immediate attraction between Starrett's wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and Shane. His son Joey (Brandon DeWilde) sees Shane as a heroic figure who he soon comes to worship.
Shane enjoys his idyllic life with the Starretts but his past comes back to haunt him when he gets into a bar brawl with Ryker's man Chris (Ben Johnson). Starrett comes to his aid attracting the ire of Ryker who vows to bring gunfighters in to end this conflict.
The homesteaders vow to present a united front and refuse to be intimidated by Ryker's threats. He ups the ante by sending for Wilson (Jack Palance) a ruthless gunfighter with a dirty reputation. Wilson quickly disposes of one of the homesteaders (Elisha Cook), which is enough to send the rest packing.
Starrett convinces them to stay but realizes the time for talk is finished. He saddles up for a final confrontation but Shane knows he will be killed. Shane tries to convince the stubborn man he's the man for the job but Starrett is unmoved and the two get into a memorable tussle with Shane as the victor. Shane then sets out for one of the most memorable showdowns in film history.
Having only seen "Shane" for the first time after viewing Paramount's gorgeous DVD it's easy for me to see where Clint Eastwood drew his inspiration for "Unforgiven." Both films portray violent men looking to escape their past but inevitably drawn into conflict.
It's said that Alan Ladd invested more of himself in the role of Shane than any other character he ever played, and it shows. While he doesn't share Eastwood's weather-beaten features (he was only 40 at the time) Shane's weary face is one beaten by years of violence and death.
At the same time his life with the Starretts gives him hope that he can start life over. He returns to his old ways only because he knows it's the only way to save his newfound family, and he encourages Joey to emulate his own father and not follow the way of the gun that he's so obsessed with.
"Shane," unlike many Westerns of its era, is more complex than many of its predecessors. Under George Stevens' masterful direction it is presented as a world filled with gray areas. With the exception of Palance's evil gunman many of the film's characters cannot be broadly painted as black or white.
There are obvious hints of an attraction between Shane and Marian, and although nothing happens even the suggestion of an affair was farther than most white-hat westerns were prepared to go.
Coupled with "High Noon" the year before, "Shane" helped change the face of the Western, and not until the ultra-violent "Wild Bunch" in 1969 would there be one as influential. Both "Shane" and "High Noon" depicted the old West as brutal, savage and overrun by lawlessness.
"Shane" benefits from a stellar supporting cast. Heflin found his most rewarding role in this film as a man determined not to be bullied or coerced. His performance helps anchor the film. Jean Arthur, known mainly for light comedies, delivered a moving performance as a woman torn between her love for her family and a smoldering attraction for an intense stranger.
While not his first film, Jack Palance made a big splash as the despicable gunslinger (black hat and all), and many villainous roles followed.
Paramount has given "Shane" the treatment it deserves with this long-awaited DVD. The fullscreen image is awash with strong, vibrant colors, and the film's picturesque vistas have never looked this good.
George Stevens Jr., who served as a technical assistant on the film and co-producer Ivan Moffat provide an insightful audio commentary that sheds light on many aspects of the production. The younger Stevens obviously appreciates how well regarded the film is and reads notes from many who worked on it.
Thematically, "Shane" is perhaps the most important Western ever made. It changed a genre forever and gave rise to a realism that culminated in "The Wild Bunch" nearly 15 years later and inspired a new generation of filmmakers to revive it nearly 40 years later.
The final showdown.