I have owned this on DVD for somewhere around a decade, having inherited it from a friend when he was liquidating his collection before a move, and yet I just never put it in and sat down to watch it. It’s strange, too, because I’ve heard all my life, especially from my father, uncle and late grandfather, that it is one of the best westerns of all-time and, according to AFI, one of the top 50 films ever made, full stop. I will need more time to digest and at least one or two more viewings to be able to give it such levels of accolades, but it is most certainly a wonderful film and I can see why it made such a mark in 1953.
Alan Ladd plays the title character, a drifter with a mysterious background that rides into a Wyoming settlement and ends up helping a family that is having troubles with local roughnecks trying to drive recent homesteaders off the land. If the plot sounds familiar for a western, that’s because it is, but this also predates quite a few of the others that I’ve already seen (and came out thirty years before Pale Rider, for example). Van Heflin and Jean Arthur play Joe and Marian Starrett, who, along with their young son Joey (Brandon deWilde) inhabit the home Shane happens upon and put him to work, giving him something serene and perhaps ideal for someone who may have a past as a hired gun. This is a level of normalcy Shane has wanted to know for some time, and his gratitude is real. The other homesteaders are just as grateful for Shane’s arrival, especially as he helps them fight back against the villains that want them driven off their land.
The film was nominated for multiple Oscars and won for its cinematography, which is gorgeous for its time frame. When you’re watching something close to seventy years old, you have to take the limitations into consideration, but even with that in mind, this is beautifully shot. The landscapes are lush and look especially alive for remote, Wyoming country, and the bright blue sky against the backdrops constantly serves to remind the characters that brighter days lie ahead.
The performances are great all around, and the characters feel motivated. The villains may be cliche and not terribly strong, but we spend most of our time with Shane and the Starrett family, so their various relationships are strengthened as a result. The film’s close is widely heralded (some of its dialogue even recreated word-for-word in the finale of Logan) and the final shot is subject of endless debate, which helps give the film a lot of replay value. I found myself in Joey’s shoes, wanting Shane to stay and settle into a permanent home, but with the ambiguity of Shane’s fate hanging in the air, it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to put Joey through seeing him die, should that be the case. If he rides off into the night, maybe Joey will be angry with him, but anger is easier to deal with that sorrow.
Shane has earned its status as a classic and this certainly won’t be the only time I watch this film.