12/10/2011

Shane (1953)



Alan Ladd and young Brandon De Wilde in George Stevens' unusual and enduring pacifist Western Shane, about a jaded former gunslinger who drifts into the middle of a conflict between greedy Wyoming cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and a gaggle of homesteaders who just want to live peacefully on land Ryker considers his. Shane (Ladd) eventually takes up with the Starrett family after intervening in a skirmish between pater familias Joe (Van Heflin) and Ryker's posse and tries domesticity for a while, exchanging his trail duds for work denims and firmly buttoning his holster, much to the disappointment of Starrett's impressionable son Joey (De Wilde). Eventually Shane's non-violent stand is challenged by Ryker's crew who bully, humiliate and beat on him until he is finally forced to take arms against this sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But personal vengeance is not Shane's motivation. He enters the final shoot-out as an act of self-sacrifice in the stead of a proud but better man, knowing that he will never be able to live in the second Eden he's helped create as, like Ryker or Victor Mature's Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine (1946), he's a relic from a savage past that must die before the West can truly be won. Sure enough, Shane rides off into the sunset at the film's close like many a cowboy star before him. But unlike them, he's bleeding from a bullet wound to the guts that will presumably prove fatal. Shane leaves us a self-imposed exile on the dirt road to Cemetery Hill, a legend in the territory and, perhaps more importantly, a hero in the eyes of Joey, its future. There'll be peace in the valley. But not for Shane.



Shane's story, taken from a 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer, is a simple one but packed with hard-felt emotion and mood. Like the brooding purple mountains looming over this disputed stretch of boggy grazing country, there's an overpowering melancholy about the film that stem's from the grim inevitability of its subject's end, something the man himself appears to recognise and understand implicitly all along, accepting it with a stoicism and dignity that underscores the character and is subtly evoked by Ladd. OK, so De Wilde's idolising youngster is a tad cloying and a heavy-handedly allegorical role to begin with, but most of the performances here are first-rate with Jack Palance fascinating as Ryker's enigmatic, man-in-black hired gun and Jean Arthur as lovely as ever in her final screen appearance. For me, the stand-out scene is probably Ladd's brutal punch-up with Ben Johnson's cocksure barfly Chris Calloway, who has earlier splashed whisky on Shane and insulted him as a "sod buster", which is as physical and adrenaline-fuelled an action scene as you're likely to see. Apparently Paramount nearly canned Shane in pre-production because Montgomery Clift, William Holden and Katharine Hepburn were not available to play the leads.

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