Of the countless Westerns produced in Hollywood, Shane is among the most familiar and highly regarded. Its significance can be measured in terms of Hollywood's Western past, since Shane is a film that reflects upon the Westerns preceding it. It draws on the residue of this most enduring of film genres and abstracts its standard conventions, transforming them into myth. Given that many of the film's narrative events are seen through the eyes of a small boy, Shane further underscores the mythic status of the genre, suggesting its function as an outlet for the dreams and fantasies of youngsters.
The film's plot is deceptively simple. Shane (Alan Ladd), a mysterious, buckskin-clad loner, rides into a Wyoming valley during the late 1860's. He soon becomes a hired hand on the fledgling homestead of the Starrett family: Joe (Van Heflin), Marian (Jean Arthur), and young Joey (Brandon De Wilde). Shane is in fact a gunfighter who wants to change his ways; he hopes to settle down and start his own homestead. But Ryker, a cattle baron, intends to drive Starrett and the other homesteaders out of the valley, and Shane finds that he is being gradually drawn back into his past way of life. Because of Starrett's determined leadership, Ryker is unable to harass the homesteaders into leaving, so he hires Wilson (Jack Palance), a cold-blooded hired gun, to scare them out. After Wilson taunts, then easily kills one of the homesteaders in a one-sided gunfight, Starrett decides to put on his guns and stand up to Wilson and the Ryker bunch. Shane, however, knows that Starrett does not stand a chance against these seasoned killers, so he straps on his gun again. When Starrett insists on going, he and Shane wage a furious fistfight; Shane emerges victorious and rides off to meet the killers. In the town saloon, Shane outdraws and kills Wilson, as well as the Rykers. Though wounded, Shane rides out of the valley after indicating to Joey that he will never return.
Crucial to an understanding of Shane is its depiction of a mythic genre figure who tries to adapt to changing times by divesting himself of his heroic stature. The difficulty in making this transformation is first suggested when Shane trades in his buckskins for an outfit of drab workclothes. In these clothes, Shane enters a saloon, where he orders not the traditional shot of whiskey, but a bottle of soda pop. In the garb of a homesteader, Shane is taunted by one of the Ryker bunch. Since Shane wants to avoid trouble, he backs down from a fight, which leads the homesteaders to think him a coward. Wearing the same outfit, Shane eventually returns to the saloon, and with Starrett's help, bests the Rykers in a fistfight. The change of clothes allows Shane to initially "become" like a homesteader, but unlike them, Shane ultimately cannot back down from a fight.
Shane's relationship to the Starretts also points to him as one outside the locus of family/community/progress which they embody. While Joe likes Shane, and Joey worships him, Shane is nevertheless positioned as an outsider to the family unit. This is underscored by the unspoken love that he shares with Marian. Marian represents the nonheroic life style Shane can never attain, and their relationship is an idealized one. She is an insider while Shane is an outsider. The inside/outside duality is pointed up during a scene in which Shane stands outside in the rain while Marian is .inside the Starrett house. The cross-cutting between the two emphasizes the inside/outside relationship, just as the gentle rendition of "Beautiful Dreamer" on the soundtrack at this point emphasizes the impossibility of Shane's transformation. When Shane finally goes to his quarters—which are, appropriately enough, away from the main house—Marian implies her love for Shane to Joey, telling him, "He'll be moving along one day and you'll be upset if you get to liking him too much." She then blows out a candle, causing the room to go dark. This suggests that her own attraction to Shane is as unattainable as his desire for her.
While Shane can never be a part of this family, he performs a heroic deed so that they—and the other homesteaders—can thrive in the valley. Before Shane rides off to meet Wilson, Marian asks, "Are you doing this just for me?" Shane replies, "For you—and Joe—and little Joey." As Shane rides off to the gunfight, he is again clad in his buckskins and, of course, is wearing a gun. Once again, his outsider status in relation to the family unit is suggested by editing: the Starretts are seen together in a single frame, while Shane rides off alone. Moreover, the ensuing long shots of Shane framed against the sky and mountains reaffirm his status as mythic figure.
Shane's relationship with Joey points to the Western genre as a source of preadolescent wish-fulfillment. This relationship is delineated in a number of ways. The lengthy fight in the saloon contains several cut-ins of Joey watching in fascination, as does the final gunfight. During the gunfight, Joey gets to realize his wish of participating in Shane's heroic actions, since he warns Shane that one of the Rykers is about to ambush him from upstairs, enabling Shane to kill the man. Prior to the climax, Joey gets to "be like" Shane be means of cutting on sound. During the saloon fight, after Shane lands a .punch on the jaw of a Ryker henchman, a cut to Joey shows him biting hard on a candy stick. Here, the snapping sound of the bite replaces the sound of the punch.
Also crucial to an understanding of the film is the structuring opposition of civilization versus savagery that is a vital part of the generic structure of the Western. The valley town is not a thriving community but a few spread-out buildings and some tents. We see a disparate group of settlers (including an immigrant family and a family headed by a man who fought for the Confederacy), and the film posits that this cross-section holds the promise for a future—the transformation of a wilderness into a garden. The settlers are shown as nonviolent, and they are further ennobled by their harmonious relationship with the earth. During the scene in which they ride into town as a group, they are framed against the majestic mountains, the morning mist, and a sparkling brook. Moreover, the settlers clearly represent progress. This is suggested when Joe looks at a store catalogue from the East, and from his point of view we see the pages, full of appliances, dress suits, and so forth. The settlers, however, lack the ability to bring law to the savage land; they are ill-equipped to stop Ryker from transgressing nature. One homesteader notes that there is not a marshal within a hundred miles. The law, then, belongs to whomever has the fastest gun.
Within this opposition, Ryker and Shane, both of whom represent savagery, have no place in the advent of civilization. While Ryker is a villain, there are shades of gray to his character. He is the man who tamed the valley with his own sweat and blood. As he tells Starrett at one point, "We made this country. We found it and we made it." But Ryker's frontier dream has been perverted by his capitalistic greed, and Starrett's reply to his remark, "That ain't the way the government sees it," suggests the homesteaders are sanctioned by culture and law. The film closely equates Starrett with democratic populism. This is especially suggested during the Independence Day celebration—the day honoring the establishment of the United States is also the anniversary date of the Starretts. During the celebration, the American flag is featured prominently.
While Shane clearly champions the populism represented by Starrett and the settlers, it also sadly concludes that there is no place for the rugged individualist within this new system. Finally, the film demonstrates that Ryker's kind of capitalist individualism violates law and community, while Shane's individualism enforces the principals of collective life. When Shane tells the cattle baron, "Your kind of days are over," Ryker replies, "My days? What about yours, gunfighter?" But Shane's next line, "The difference is I know it," stresses his own awareness of what he is. Shane, then, is the noble outlaw/savage who cannot be accommodated by civilization. It is he alone who is equipped to take effective action when words have proved to be inadequate.
In recent years, many revisionist critics have sought to devalue Shane because of its rigorous classicism. These critics argue that the "real" Hollywood Westerns have been made by once-slighted directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher. While the great contribution made to the genre by these directors is incontestable, George Stevens' brief foray into a genre in which he had never worked (and never again worked) can be equated with the writers who came from the East to write about the frontier. Stevens takes the most familiar conventions of the West and stylizes them considerably. For him, the generic material becomes a means of glamorizing this most durable of Hollywood forms. This material also becomes a means of self-expression, and Shane's greatness is due in no small measure to Stevens' pictorial style and personal vision. Stevens himself has been devalued by revisionist critics, but he represents the best of the classical Hollywood cinema. Few directors used the close-up as effectively as Stevens, and the editing patterns linking close-ups of Shane, Marian, and Joey serve to make the film genuinely touching and dramatically potent. This kind of editing recalls Stevens' great love stories, including Swing Time (1936), Woman of the Year (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), and A Place in the Sun (1951). After Shane, Stevens was weighted down by several elephantine spectacles which contain only flashes of his early brilliance. Shane is perhaps his last fully realized work. It is like those Stevens films in which a social misfit/outcast helps to make life better for someone who has a position within the social order, but who has certain problems which only the misfit/outsider can resolve. Notable among these films are Vigil in the Night (1940) and The Talk of the Town (1942). Other Stevens films detail the trials and tribulations of the social misfit/outcast in general, especially Alice Adams (1935), A Damsel in Distress (1937), A Place in the Sun, and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).
Shane was made during the peak of Stevens' career, when the release of any film from him was considered an event (in this sense, Stevens was like Capra, Wilder, and Hitchcock). At the time of-its release, Shane earned as much acclaim as any film of the 1950's. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing (screenplay). De Wilde's poignant performance was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as was Pa-lance's menacing Wilson. Loyal Griggs received an Oscar for his breathtaking color cinematography. Stevens won the National Board of Review's Best Director award, and was also honored by the Director's Guild for quarterly directorial achievement. Shane was included on the ten best films of the year lists of the National Board of Review, Time magazine, and the New York Times. The film's box-office gross of eight million dollars made it the third biggest moneymaker of 1953, and even today, it is one of the most financially successful Westerns of all time.