Oct. 5, 2009

Shane (1953)
Grade: 73/100

Director: George Stevens
Stars: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde

What it's about. It's the old west, and once again the cattlemen and farmers are at odds. Sodbuster Van Heflin is the unofficial leader of the farmers, who are bedeviled by angry white-bearded rancher Emile Meyer and his hired men. The settlers are intimidated and overmatched, at least until Alan Ladd wanders onto Van Helfin's spread.

The polite and potentially useful Ladd is promptly convinced to stay, to aid the cause of Van Helfin and his family. This consists of loyal wife Jean Arthur and adorable post-toddler Brandon De Wilde. Because it's a movie, 5' 5" Ladd beats up a barroom full of Meyer men. Meyer responds by hiring sinister gunslinger Jack Palance, which leads to an inevitable showdown with heroic Ladd.

How others will see it. Shane routinely places high in all-time best lists. The American Film Institute recently ranked it as the #3 Western. Following Stevens' well-regarded A Place in the Sun, Shane was also a commercial hit, and garnered several acting nominations, including one for the wide-eyed, soft-voiced Brandon De Wilde (ten years later, he was still considered young when he made Hud).

Not too surprisingly, older audiences approve of this highly traditional western. No question who wears the white and black hats here. The only waverer is Ben Johnson, who finally gets fed up with Ryker. Men like it more than do women, as one might expect from its masculine theme. Less reverent viewers will notice various problems with the film's assumptions. I will tackle some of these shortly.

How I felt about it. No, Alan Ladd cannot single-handedly hold off a room full of surly cowboys. He probably wouldn't get into a fist fight with Van Heflin to keep him from his suicide date, a plot device we expect more from the likes of Armageddon. Ladd is not going to outdraw three people at opposite ends of the bar. And immature Elisha Cook Jr., proud Southerner that he is, still knows better than to draw on a professional gunman.

So, this really isn't a truly great movie, or even a great western. It is merely a well made film, no small achievement in itself. Perhaps Brandon De Wilde is a bit too precious, and Alan Ladd is too gentlemanly. It is how we wanted the Old West to be, instead of how it actually was. Fortunately, the illusion is so handsomely presented that even as we scoff at it, we also admire it.

Shane was the final movie for Jean Arthur, who was AARP-eligible (in modern terms) when it was filmed. She did make a brief mid-sixties television comeback. Arthur was actually ten years older than Meyer, who played the ornery old rancher. Her casting was due to director Stevens, who had made two successful romantic comedies with her some years before (The Talk of the Town and The More the Merrier).