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Based on the novel Shane by Jack Schaefer, the film is seen through the eyes of a young farm boy, Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde), in the settled territory of Wyoming. Life’s a struggle for his proud but modest parents, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur). Besides the usual struggles against nature in the tough terrain, the area is owned by the ruthless baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who is trying to force the Starretts and the other local homesteaders off their land. When a drifter named Shane (Alan Ladd) shows up on horseback, the Starretts take him on as a ranch hand and he gets involved in the conflict between the wholesomely innocent homesteaders and the greedy Ryker and his posse of hired goons.
It becomes apparent that Shane is actually a gunman, a trained killer trying to put that life on the edge of society behind him. Though Shane and mother Marian seem to be attracted to each other she wants nothing to do with his guns. It’s here that the story’s moral center takes shape, as this seems to be the first time Shane has experienced the wholesomeness of home life. He takes young Joey under his wing and Shane becomes the kid’s idol. Joey is left to contemplate the meaning of guns and violence against hard work and “Christian values.”
Under Shane and Joe’s influence the homesteaders stand up to Ryker and begin to push their influence, so Ryker brings in an even tougher killer for muscle, Jack Wilson. As played brilliantly by Jack Palance (in a star-making performance) Wilson is one of the lowdown meanest, yet compelling, bad guys the screen had ever had at that point. In one scene he shoots a drunken homesteader (Elisha Cook Jr.) down in cold blood, just for kicks. This leads Joe to decide to resort to violence, but Shane steps in to take on Wilson himself, in order to spare the Joe from having to break his own moral code. This leads to a classic showdown as Shane takes on Wilson and his men; all witnessed by the bug-eyed Joey, who will never see the world so innocently again.
In some clever casting, the shrimpy actor Alan Ladd was a coup for Stevens. He became a star after his standout performance as the tough guy Raven in the quintessential Noir flick This Gun for Hire. But by the time of Shane ten years later, his career was all but washed up. With the aging gunfighter looking to retire he brings weariness and bravado, but unlike Gary Cooper or even John Wayne there is a mythical, angelic quality that makes an almost simple character seem even more complicated. The film is actually carried by ten-year-old Brandon De Wilde; he’s very much a little boy but unlike most kid actors of the period he is utterly credible as child of the frontier. Joey’s character arc is totally believable, thanks to the strong skills De Wilde brings to his performance. A decade later De Wilde would give another memorable performance as Paul Newman’s nephew in Hud, before dying tragically at the age of thirty in a car accident.
Stevens gives Shane an amazingly authentic look, shot in Technicolor with the stunning Grand Teton Mountains in the background. Both Shane’s interior and exterior locations look and feel much more authentic than most films of that period. Each frame of film looks like a rich oil color painting. Coming between A Place in the Sun and Giant, Shane is the second film in Stevens’s so-called “American Trilogy;” each film captures a different historical slice of American life, while also questioning the inherent greed in capitalism and how it effects the morals of man (or something like that). Shane is an incredibly powerful film—it’s small in scope but big in heart; it’s simple yet quietly complicated and like most myths it’s full of contradictions and that’s why it’s so much more than just another Western.
Shane was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance), Best Director (George Stevens), Best Screenplay (A.B. Guthrie Jr.), and won for Best Cinematography (Loyal Griggs).