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Shane (1953)

by on 2011/06/17

“Joey, don’t get to liking Shane too much.”

* * *

I’ve spent a lot of time with Shane, perhaps too much.

In a past life, as a film student, I studied it as an exemplar of a structural mode in narrative. According to Will Wright, author of Sixguns and Society, most westerns fall into one of several categories, one being the “classical plot” typified by Shane.

In another life, as a poetry student, I composed a series of poems based on it. Using what I’d learned in film, I wrote a piece for each pivotal moment, from the perspectives of various spectators. The professor was enthused but, by then, I was not. I may have burned myself out on it.

The story meanders and yet is hardly complex. The lone stranger wanders into town, tries to stay out of trouble, fails to, and finally leaves. I’m hardly spoiling details for anyone who’s ever seen a western.

Alan Ladd plays the titular Shane by way of Robert Mitchum, though never quite succeeding in the attempt. The script has more faith in him than he does in himself. He becomes the lodger, employee, and ultimate protector of a family called the Starretts: father Joe (Van Heflin), son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), and tempted wife Marian (Jean Arthur).

The antagonists are the Ryker family, who are trying to claim — or reclaim — the Starretts’ land. When their efforts are thwarted by the locals’ solidarity, they hire a gunman (Jack Palance) for motivation.

Now, unlike the homesteaders, I don’t have a problem with the Rykers. My problem is with the Starretts. Most notably, Joey’s distracting to a fault. I’m sure Brandon De Wilde was a nice enough kid, but all of the gosh, gee, and golly gets old. Such mannerisms may have been common in the Fifties, perhaps still charming to some, but Joey could have been played by a dog. I’ve seen better performances from Dakota Fanning, Haley Joel Osment, or any of the Culkin kids. (See our Witness review for more on child actors.)

Similarly, Jean Arthur’s given a terrible role here. She’s visibly more talented than the shrill, ineffectual nag she embodies. Her unscripted performance is the unsung hero of the proceedings, without a doubt. I don’t expect a 19th century wife to act like a 21st century one, but I doubt any pioneer was ever so useless.

These character blights mar a serviceable endeavour, but it’s even further burdened with flab. This movie is slow. If Joey’s inclusion suggests a flick playing to kids, then the pacing would lose them, I’d bet. And if the threat of Ladd versus Palance means action is in store, then the wait to eventually see it is far too long.

I can’t recall the number of scenes in which the Rykers and their cronies just sit around. We see them loiter at a single location, Grafton’s Saloon, on many occasions, too rarely advancing the plot.

Furthermore, we are subjected to overlong sequences of local homesteaders meeting, celebrating, and mourning. Their presence might be justified by function, but their welcome is worn out long before they go.

Which brings me to another issue, exemplified by the celebrations. The movie’s tone overall is almost cloyingly wholesome and bright. For a tale of hardship, overshadowed by danger, and building to a final showdown, it’s counterintuitively light. Chipper settlers on artificial-looking sets, making small talk, telling dumb jokes, and singing cheesy songs . . . well, it feels like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

I’d suggest they’re channelling Little House on the Prairie except for the intrusion of Ladd. Although Michael Landon’s (later) series had its share of strangers passing through, something about Shane reminded me of 1968’s Teorema. In that film, Terence Stamp’s Christ-like visitor seduces each member of an Italian household.

Early on, Shane and Joe uproot a tree stump in a scene as homoerotic as any western I’ve seen. (Yes, even the soul-crushing Brokeback Mountain.) Later, Marian’s attentions to him are clearly more than hospitable. Unfortunately for her, I noted at several points in the viewing that Shane came across like an aging pederast, aware of — and embarrassed by — his obvious effect on women.

However, to suggest Shane is very like Teorema could be misleading. The latter is an artistic effort, the former a popcorn diversion. A more overt comparison might be drawn with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both feature a confrontation in which a dangerous gunslinger is unwelcome, and ordered to leave the vicinity. Both Shane and Sundance stand their ground, willing to depart only when offered the choice to do so. As with many aspects of their respective features, Shane’s scene was first, but Butch Cassidy’s was better, subtler and more elegant.

That said, Shane remains a widely held classic, though one I have dwindling patience for. It’s a meat-and-potatoes western with too little meat (though no shortage of beefcake). I think I’m finally done with it, and I won’t say I’m sad to move on.

* * *

Rated PG

117 minutes

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