Shane… Come Back!

Posted: 08/03/2013 in 1953, Western

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George Stevens’ Shane is, quite simply, an excellent piece of solid film-making.  With this April release, the awards race for this year has officially begun!  I wanted to sleep on this one before writing a 100% rave review, and sure enough, this complex western still resonates the day after.  In fact, I am quite sure it will continue to resonate long into the future as Brandon De Wilde’s voice will constantly ring in my ears.  My plan is to watch Shane again and again as the years go by.  So what makes this the first rave of the year?  Quite frankly, Alan Ladd commands the screen from the first scene that he enters as Shane.  Just as the Starrett family falls in love with him nearly instantly, so does the viewer.  There is something intriguing about this character, and to the final moment of the film, one is begging Shane to “come back” as well.  Like an alien out of a science-fiction movie, Shane leaves us wondering exactly who he is and where he is from right until the final moments of the film.  It is this level of intrigue, coupled with a brilliant screenplay, skillful directing, and a stellar ensemble cast that leads Shane to being the work that the rest of the year’s films will be compared to.

While Alan Ladd commands his title role to subtle greatness, it’s Brandon De Wilde as Joey that everyone will be talking about tomorrow morning.  There is something about this performance that launches it beyond a child performance.  Young De Wilde exudes the longing of a young boy who is in need of a hero.  He captures the level of obsessiveness that so many develop for heroes or “role-models” that they know so little about.  His troubling fascination with violence is tempered by Shane’s apprehension towards it, considering his little known, perhaps checkered, past.  In a film about the coming of age of the American west, as the values of ranchers and homesteaders clash, Shane is just as much about Joey (perhaps the symbol of an America about to enter adolescence) as it is about Shane.  An additional thank you must be given to Van Helflin and Jean Arthur for providing very human foils to Shane’s other-worldliness.   I especially want to single out Miss Arthur because she gives us so much to chew on.  She forces us to question the validity of guns in a youthful America, one that will continue to embrace firearms far beyond what her character Marian could have ever imagined.  Her clear attraction to Shane is in constant conflict with her love for her flawed husband Joe.  She is the moral weight behind this film, and she does it so effortlessly.  Finally, what can be said of the very embodiment of evil in Jack Palance?  It is very difficult for me to resist a film that showcases two faces of one man, and really Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson are those two faces of a gunslinger.  The fact is that there is very little that separates these two characters, and this is the likely reason for the fascination that they seem to have for one another.  This year has already given us some excellent villains, but Palance is in a league of his own.  Although he has very little screen time, he steals the show and attention away from Shane in every second that he is on the screen.

Without a doubt, this is an actor’s showcase that would not have been possible without George Stevens’ masterful directing and a beautiful screenplay by A.B. Guthrie Jr.  Shane is a historical piece, it’s a character study, it’s a musing on love, it’s a criticism on violence, and all of these themes are woven together with great care into a beautiful cinematic garment by our writing and directing team.  The more I reflect on it, the fusion of the themes addressed in this film would have been too much to handle by most directors.  But Mr. Stevens takes on these themes with grace and thoughtfulness   This is a thinking-man’s western that he gives us.  One with skillfully choreographed fight scenes, but one in which gun-slinging is illegal, the west is settling down, and families dream of putting their stamp on the emerging “American dream.”  A.B. Guthrie nicely compliments Steven’s work with sparse dialogue  laying words out when they count, words that make us question our thoughts on violence and how the west was really won.  Due to Guthrie’s writing, it never is completely clear that the homesteaders are the protagonists.  Despite their threatening tone, Ryker and his ranching men long for a world that is being lost to settlement.  Of course, he’s reminded that decades earlier he inflicted the same damage on the natives of America.  It’s this ambiguous tone that makes Guthrie’s a winning one.  Finally, in addition to the aforementioned raves, Loyal Griggs work in photographing this film, one that showcases the emerging cultural landscape of Wyoming,  is a lovely cherry on top.  Thanks to Mr. Stevens and Mr. Guthrie, we now have a western that dumps silly cliches, and forces us to think about the history of the United States and the values, some laudable and many troubling, that emerged as the country came of age.

**** ~AOS

Up next, our first religiously-themed film of the year, Irving Pichel’s Martin Luther.

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