Cowboy Country: George Stevens’ Shane (1953) – Blu-ray review
There are westerns, and there are Westerns. Shane is in the latter category: the grandest of horse operas, with an eye on mythic melodrama.
(George Stevens, 1953)
Westerns don’t come much more classic than Shane – but it was always destined to be so. Whereas other Hollywood Westerns were seen as genre pieces, even those by Oscar laureate John Ford, George Stevens brings a flair for melodrama that gives an air of prestige to proceedings from the off. Few Westerns have been so self-consciously iconic.
This, then, is a film with big ideas on its mind, about family and society and individual morality… but Stevens’ approach to the material largely justifies such pretensions. The film slots right between the films that Stevens made either side of this – A Place In The Sun and Giant – just as much as it shares kinship with, say, High Noon and The Searchers. Despite the setting, it’s a Western with few of the genre’s usual tropes; the characters are pointedly shying away from shootouts and the tension is psychological more than physical. With minimal alteration, this story could take place in the past or the present, in rural England or the urban jungle.
But what gives Shane its power is precisely that it is a Western, and that both sides in this land dispute have resorted to hired guns, the outsourcing of dirty work. The difference between the two sides is essentially that Alan Ladd’s titular hero is a reluctant killer who only steps up when it is necessary to do so, whereas Jack Palance’s black hat is willingly evil, and has the skull’s grimace to go with it.
Stevens shoots classically to the point of anonymity. Unlike the mythic grandeur of Ford, Stevens’ film takes place in a deliberately hostile environment, with sparse plains overlooked by forbidding mountains. It isn’t exactly the place to be setting up a community, but that’s the point – this is America on the cusp of civilisation, just one step in the country’s ‘progress’ from the villainous Ryker’s seizing of the land from the Indians. What’s particularly interesting is that Ryker is given plenty of plausible motive and you can certainly see it from his point of view. Except: it’s the point of view of an unscrupulous landlord, and there’s a potentially left-leaning subtext about a workers’ revolution… provided you can look past the story’s all-American (and positively Freudian) advert for the way of the gun.
Ultimately, Shane is the story of a boy’s hero worship, and whether to grant it to his pacifist father or the more direct title character. The film wants it both ways: the bullied homesteader is played by Van Heflin, himself a matinee idol and far from a pushover, but when it comes to it, the one who deals in lead is the one who gets results. The ending – the boy confirmed in his decision even as the object of his adoration rides off to (we presume) die in peace – is clearly ironic, yet in its awkward fudge of ideology it says more about its nation’s conflicted politics than more overtly opinionated Westerns.