I'll warn you of something right up front: this is gonna be a gushy post. I love this movie more every time I watch it. "A stranger comes to town and everything changes" is probably my single favorite western motif, and this film epitomizes it. "Rich man tries to control town, and someone stands up to him" is another favorite, and that's here too. In fact, this is going to be more of an exploration, a mulling-over of the movie rather than a simple, straight-up review. It'll be a bit spoily, too, I'm afraid. I'll try to let you know where to skip things so you don't know the whole ending.
Also, I'm giving away a copy of this movie! You can enter via this post here, or this one on my book review blog. I'm also giving away three other wonderful westerns -- check out either of those posts for details.
Shane is one of those movies that makes me both sad and happy. Sad because I can't climb inside it and live in the world it depicts, but happy because at least I can watch the movie and imagine myself inside it. And the character of Shane makes me sad and happy too -- sad because he's so lonely, and happy because at least for a little while, he found some peace and joy.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Shane begins with a lone man (Alan Ladd) riding down out of the mountains in Wyoming. He stops at the homestead of Joe and Marian Starrett (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur), where he makes polite conversation with them and their son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde). The stranger is soft-spoken, with a shy and gentle smile. He says they can call him Shane. His buckskin clothes and battered hat are the color of dust and earth, unassuming, easy to ignore.
By stark contrast, he wears a sleek pistol strapped to his side with a fancy black gunbelt decorated with gaudy silver buckles. For the most part, he's slow-moving, weary and calm. The only time he moves quickly is when Joey, who's playing he's a mighty hunter, cocks his little rifle. Then Shane spins like a tornado, gun out of his holster and in his hand, crouched down and ready for trouble. The Starretts all stare at him, and he shamefacedly holsters his pistol, not explaining why he's so jumpy.
Joe Starrett offers him a drink of water, and they exchange some pleasantries. The two men seem to like each other immediately, both sensing they've found another straight arrow in a world full of crooked ones, I suppose.
But then, across the river, a whole lot of riders approach, and Starrett turns on Shane. He accuses him of being one of Ryker's men and orders him off the property. Shane insists he has no idea who Ryker is, but mounts up and rides away morosely.
Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his brother Morgan own a big ranch across the river. They ride boldly up to the Starrett house, deliberately trampling on Marian's vegetable garden the way they intend to trample on the Starretts' future. Ryker tells them they have to leave because he's gotten a big beef contract and will need all the range. Joe Starrett refuses. Ryker is on the verge of ordering his men to destroy more than some vegetables when Shane sidles up along the side of the cabin and leans ever-so-casually against it, right where Joe Starrett can't see him, but Ryker can.
The Starretts are completely shocked to see him there, but they don't let on. Intimidated by Shane's menacing presence, Ryker leaves, muttering threats and trampling the garden again. Shane watches them go, never moving, never taking his eyes off them until they're gone.
Joe realizes now what a fool he's been, thinking Shane was one of Ryker's hired men. He apologizes, invites Shane to supper, and holds out his hand. Shane hesitates -- he's both touched that Joe has behaved so squarely and is now offering him the hand of friendship, but also cautious about what could happen if he dares to make even tentative friends here. But he shakes Joe's hand, and that's that.
(By the way, that's one of the few shots where you see them standing anything like on a level and near each other. Van Heflin was a good 6 inches taller than Alan Ladd, and they try not to show that off much.)
The family has supper together, and Joe tells Shane all about his ideas for his farm, the troubles with Ryker, and generally lays his hopes and dreams on the table. Shane listens intently, truly interested, and also gobbles up every bite of food Marian puts near him. He's as hungry for companionship, for friendship, as for food.
After supper, Shane graciously thanks Marian for what he calls an elegant meal, then walks out the door. But he doesn't leave. Oh no, he attacks the tree stump Joe'd been working on when Shane first arrived. Joe hustles out to join him, and the two spend the rest of the day working together to get rid of that stump. They settle into a smooth, business-like rhythm, two determined, somewhat solitary men figuring out how to work as a team after spending so long struggling on their own.
Before I go any farther, I should mention that they shot this on location in and around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so all that amazing scenery is real, not matte paintings. Isn't it glorious?
Finally, that evening, they reach a point where they've chopped all they can chop, and decide to push it down. Marian and Joey have been watching while fixing up the garden, but now they leave the plants to watch. Joe and Shane push and heave, pause for rest, then push some more. Marian suggests they hitch up the team and have the horses pull out the stump, but Joe refuses. It's got to be manpower, or they could never say they'd truly bested that tree stump.
And this shot is only here because it's such a nice shirtless shot of Alan Ladd and I like it. I must admit I'm kind of crushing on him right now, thanks to this movie and Whispering Smith (1948).
Anyway, they conquer that stump, and Shane agrees to stay on as a hired hand, and everybody goes to bed happy. Shane settles in to live on their farm, and for a few days, life is peaceful. Well, except when he goes into town the next day to buy farm clothes and gets razzed by some of Ryker's men, especially Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson). Joe's farmer friends think that his refusal to fight Calloway has marked all farmers as cowards, and they hold a big meeting at Starrett's to discuss what to do about how Ryker is trying to push them all off their claims.
At this meeting, we particularly encounter a farmer named Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a Southerner who encounters a lot of mostly good-natured ribbing about his being a Reb from the other settlers, most of whom seem to have been on the Union side, or else are recent immigrants.
I've had a fondness for Elisha Cook, Jr. ever since I first saw him play Samuel T. Cogley, Attorney at Law in the Star Trek episode "Court Martial." He's really sweet in this too, though I've seen him play baddies too (especially opposite Humphrey Bogart in both The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep). His character here, Torrey, is a very sweet, somewhat downtrodden guy, loyal and determined, but not especially sensible.
The other farmers get pretty mad at Shane for giving Ryker's men something to jeer at them all about. He looks at them all sadly for a moment, wisdom and sorrow and compassion in his eyes (Alan Ladd has very eloquent eyes, you see).
Rather than talk back about how it's way harder to get called a coward and a stinky pig farmer and walk out, instead of attacking, he just gets up and walks out here too, out into the rain. He stops outside, right by the window to little Joey's room. Marian's been reading Joey a bedtime story, and she sees Shane stop outside the window, so she opens it and speaks to him.
Gradually, we realize that Marian and Shane are having an Enchanted Moment. Out loud, they're discussing the situation with Ryker, the rain, very mundane things. But they're both exchanging Looks that show they're standing on the edge of some rather perilous emotions, both shocked and worried to discover themselves there.
The moment passes, and Shane goes to his bunk in one of the outbuildings. The farmers decide that from now on, it's not safe for them to go to town alone, so they're all going to caravan there together every Saturday. Safety in numbers and so on.
So next Saturday, all the homesteaders go to town (which is really just a cluster of about four buildings). But Ryker and his men are there too, including Chris Calloway.
I'm actually very fond of Ben Johnson too, because he's played so many really nice characters. I wrote him a fan letter once. But he proves in this scene that he can play mean and nasty bullies really well too.
Of course, Shane knew full well what he was doing when he crossed from the general store side of the building into the saloon. He knows there needs to be a fight, and he's ready for it. And indeed, he and Chris have a long and glorious brawl.
When it becomes obvious that Shane, though older, smaller, and lighter, is handing Chris his butt on a tin plate, Ryker tries to bribe Shane into coming to work for him. When that doesn't work, Ryker's other men gang up on Shane. They're beating him very badly indeed when Joe Starrett marches in and starts evening the odds. And then begins a positively joyous western brawl, the sort where every single chair gets smashed, bottles get thrown everywhere, and there's a lot of general mayhem. But you can see Joe and Shane are thoroughly enjoying themselves once they can team up. They dispatch those cowhands the way they dispatched that tree stump.
But unlike removing tree stumps, brawling takes a toll on our heroes. Back at the cabin, Marian fusses over them both, bandaging them up.
Joe's fixed up first, and goes to bed, as does Joey, leaving Marian and Shane in the kitchen alone. They come closer now to saying what's on their minds, that they admire each other a great deal, albeit rather against their own wills.
Marian gets called away by Joey, leaving Shane to ponder alone what's likely to happen next in this increasingly confusing situation.
When Marian's finished tucking Joey in, Shane is gone. She runs to Joe's arms and begs him to hold her, clearly seeking reassurance of where her rightful place is. This unwanted glimmering of romantic entanglements is fascinating to me -- a woman happily married, a man who is good friends with both the woman and her husband. What must they be feeling? How are they going to deal with it?
I'm not a huge fan of love triangles in general, because they've gotten used an awful lot in fiction and film of late. But a love triangle like this feels very real, like it could invade and disrupt any real person's life. I really admire how it's conveyed almost entirely with looks and behavior, not with words. And that both Shane and Marian, while aware of their mutual attraction, never act on it. Never even behave as if they're interested in acting on it. It's amazing.
Back to the plot. Another lone man arrives soon, riding down out of the blue like Shane did.
But he's a very different man from Shane. Dressed all in black, mean-looking, and packing two guns very proudly. He's played by Jack Palance, and he says Ryker is expecting him. We all know no good can come of this. (Also, are you appreciating how beautifully this movie is filmed? There's some amazing composition in some of these shots -- I ended up taking more than 150 screencaps because there are so many wonderful images in this film.)
Next thing you know, it's the 4th of July, and all the farmers are going to get ready for a little celebration. That morning, Joey finally works up the courage to ask Shane to teach him how to shoot. Shane had put away his pistol when he agreed to work for Joe Starrett, a way to help himself put his past away too. But now, flattered, he agrees to show Joey a few tricks of the trade.
You'll notice Joey has taken some pieces of metal and stuck them all over his own little gunbelt, in imitation of Shane's fancy rig.
Anyway, Joey asks him to show off some fancy shooting, and in a flash, Shane fires off six rounds at a little rock on the other side of the corral. (From what I've read, director George Stevens wanted Alan Ladd to shoot that rock himself, with no camera tricks. Ladd didn't think he could do it, or didn't want to do it. They finally got the shot they use in the film after more than a hundred takes. This amuses me greatly.)
Joey's reaction to Shane's prowess is so priceless, I have to include it. (I know some people are very annoyed by Brandon De Wilde's acting. I don't care about him one way or the other, but this shot just cracks me up.)
Marian had come up around the side of the barn just before Shane started firing, and you can see her suddenly reassess what kind of man he is. I think she'd forgotten for a while what he probably had been, had done, before arriving in their little world.
She interrupts their lesson, and Shane acts oddly for a moment, too jocular, too loud. He calls her Mrs. Starrett very ostentatiously, like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Once Joey's gone, he settles back to his usual quiet, serious self, and goes back to calling her Marian.
Shane tells her he believes a gun is a tool like any other. He says, "A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it." Marian disagrees, saying she wishes there weren't any guns in the whole valley, including his.
After this little disagreement, off they all go to the 4th of July celebration. Turns out it's Joe and Marian's wedding anniversary (which helps explain why she's wearing her wedding dress. Man, I wish I still fit in my wedding dress). Everyone stops the dance to commemorate the occasion, which is a surprise to Joe and Marian.
Joe watches from the sidelines, grinning and jovial at first.
Neither Shane nor Marian are smiling, however. They are very, very serious about this courtly, genteel dance.
And gradually, a new thought comes to Joe. He sees. He begins to understand. He knows.
And what does he do? Does he call Shane out for getting too close, physically and emotionally, to Marian? Does he make a big fuss? Does he say anything at all? (If you don't want any spoilage, now would be a great time to skip way down to the bottom of the post. Find the Period Drama Challenge logo and start reading again there.)
Nope, he doesn't do any of that. Because Joe Starrett is an amazing man. He trusts his wife, and he trusts Shane; he believes that they both love him the way he loves them both, so they would not hurt him, just like he would never hurt them.
When the Starretts and Shane return home from the party, they find a welcoming committee formed by Ryker and his pals, including that new gunfighter, Wilson. Shane and Wilson size each other up, wordlessly and thoroughly.
Ryker leaves again, angry that Starrett has refused his "generous offer" to sell out and leave. And somehow, this altercation has united Shane and the Starretts again, erasing the cracks that might have gotten bigger and bigger.
And then more plot stuff happens. That evil gunfighter, Wilson, just keeps on being evil.
Little Stonewall Torrey calls him out and pays for his bravery with his life.
Another homesteader brings Torrey's body home, stopping at the Starrett's along the way. Look at this shot! Shane's trying to distance himself, feeling like an outsider again, looking on and observing and knowing that this is not exactly his problem, and yet... it is. Oh, I tell you these filmmakers didn't miss a thing!
I've mentioned "the town" a few times. You can barely call it that, though. That's it in the middle distance here, just a cluster of buildings in the middle of nothingness.
The farmers bury Stonewall Torrey in the little graveyard overlooking town. Down by the saloon, Ryker's man watch and laugh. All except Chris Calloway. He's starting to look downright disgusted with how things are going. I think that meeting up with a truly brave man or two has started him thinking about his companions, his job, and what's going to happen.
After the funeral, the Starretts go home, where Ryker's brother tells them that Ryker expects Joe Starrett at the saloon that night to give him a final answer about Ryker's offer to buy him out. They all know that really, Ryker and his hired hands, and his pet gunman Wilson, will be waiting to finish Joe off. Shane acts like he's not involved, like he almost doesn't care, as Marian pleads with Joe, then with him, to somehow stop this from happening.
Eventually, he comes to a decision. He gets up and leaves. Shane goes back to his quarters in the barn, and there encounters a surprise. Chris Calloway arrives to tell Shane that he's had enough and he's leaving Ryker. He also warns Shane that Joe Starrett is walking into a trap if he goes to that saloon -- Ryker and his men are lying in wait, and intend to make his murder look all legal and proper.
Back in the house, Marian has run out of ways to reason with Joe. He's set on going, and nothing she can say will dissuade him. Finally, he sits down beside her and explains that he knows she and Shane have feelings for each other, though he doesn't say it quite so plainly. He tells her he knows she'll be well cared for when he's gone -- cared for better than he could do himself. And then my heart breaks into about seventeen pieces and I start to tear up because wow, could any of these people be any more wonderful?
That's when Shane returns. He's dressed the way he was the first day they met him, with his gunbelt strapped to his waist. And he's not going to let Joe walk into Ryker's trap.
But of course, Joe doesn't want Shane to go off to certain death any more than Shane wants Joe to do it. So they have a big fist-fight, which is my least-favorite part of the movie. It's shot frantically, noisily, in an almost ugly way. Which works, because both men are frantic, desperate to stop each other from being killed. And maybe a little bit slugging out the aggression they feel over who is married to Marian and who isn't.
In the end, Shane wins by trickery, and prepares to face his doom in town. Marian needs to know one thing, though.
Is he doing this for her?
Yes, he is -- for her, for Joe, for little Joey. For all of them. He's heading off, nobly and honorably, to preserve this family he has grown to love and cherish. And Marian understands.
(So is Shane.)
Okay, fine -- if you're like Joey and have to know how it all turns out (or if you've seen the movie already), then you can keep reading.
Wilson makes some smartypants remarks, and Shane says he's heard of him. In fact, he's heard that Wilson is a no-good Yankee liar, which is what Torrey called him, and got killed for. Wilson and Shane both go for their guns.
And I love this shot. It's really hard screencapping fights, as you might imagine, because everyone's moving really fast. But I managed to grab this one of Shane right after he fires. Look at how mournful he is! He doesn't want to be here, killing men. Doesn't want to be a gunfighter again. He'd found happiness and peace in this valley, or something close to it, and now he's having to turn his back on it so that Joe and Marian and Joey and their friends can have happiness and peace from now on, even though he can't.
Yes, he wins the gunfight. Gets minorly wounded in the process, but he clearly will be fine. And then he walks out of the saloon and gets on his horse, ready to leave a better world behind him than the one he'd found.
But he can't leave just yet. Because little hero-worshipping Joey is there, needing to know why Shane won't come home with him.
And Shane smiles that same soft, shy smile he favored Joey with when they first met. (Also, by this point, I've given up trying not to cry.)
"Man has to be what he is, Joey. Can't break the mold."
Joey, crying like me over the unfairness of the world, refuses to accept that. And Shane understands, but he leaves anyway. There's no place for him in that town anymore. Everyone would look at him like he was a dirty killer like Wilson. They'd fear him, forgetting why he'd killed, that it was to save all of them.
And so Shane rides away, back into the distance from whence he came. Joey calls and calls for him to come back, but of course, he doesn't.
As bitterly hard as it must have been for him, Shane keeps right on riding and never looks back.
Pardon me while I blow my nose.
Safe to read now again, if you were avoiding spoilers! This is my fifth movie watched and reviewed for the Period Drama Challenge! Go here for more info on the challenge, and to join up if you've a mind to.
I've shown off a lot of the costumes throughout this post, so I'm not going to add any more pictures here about them. But I will mention if this movie is family friendly. IT IS. There's some western violence, as I've detailed -- a couple of brawls and some gunplay. No bad language, no taking God's name in vain (Joe Starrett does say "by Godfrey" once), no objectionable scenes. Joe and Marian do kiss a couple times. And as I've discussed, although Marian and Shane are attracted to each other, neither of them ever do anything that could in any way be construed as breaking her wedding vows. They are tempted, but never succumb. It's amazing and beautiful and... just go watch this movie, okay? I don't care if you don't like westerns! I don't care if you don't like old movies! I don't even care if you don't like Brandon De Wilde! This movie is so much more than any of those ideas.