This post is part of The 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon, hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!
I’m a last minute entry in this blogathon. I noticed host Virginie wonder on Twitter why no one had grabbed some of Jean Arthur’s non-screwball efforts, and mentioned Shane as one of the blogathon wallflowers.
“I love Shane. I would love an excuse to write about it.” So I volunteered to take it on only a day before the start of the blogathon.
It’s no secret around here that I’m a huge, huge fan of Westerns. Winchester ’73 and Shane alternately vie for the top spot on my list of my favorite Westerns. Which is not at all odd, since they share one very important thread in common:
They actually take the time to contemplate the cost of violence in our mythical conception of the American frontier.
While I absolutely love Shelley Winters as Lola in Winchester ’73, she doesn’t come close to the complexity and importance of Marian Starrett in Shane, played by Jean Arthur.
Shane is a film whose influence expands beyond the Western genre. Warren Beatty cited it as an influence on Bonnie & Clyde. Woody Allen named it one of his favorite films. It influenced and is even reference is the 2017 film Logan. These are only a few examples.
It’s so influential the plot will seem utterly familiar to modern audiences. A stranger named Shane (Alan Ladd) wanders onto a homestead and starts working for its owners Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian, and their son Joey (Brandon deWilde). He walks right into the middle of a range war. A man named Ryker (Emile Meyer) who wants to run cattle through the valley is trying to drive out ranchers who took claims under the Homestead Act. He is not above using violence to accomplish his goal.
The ranchers are conflicted about whether to pack up and move on or stay and fight for their land. Shane shows himself a superior gunman and fighter and is soon drawn into the fight. He is also drawn to Marian, and she to him, as well as earns the worship of young Joey. Everything escalates with the arrival of a gunman hired by Ryker named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).
There are many elements of the film that elevate it. (I hate to say “for a Western” because it’s baloney that Westerns can’t be complex and rich. It’s just an elevated film, period.) First is how the story is told mainly in the point of view of young Joey. He is clearly captivated by Shane and dazzled by his prowess with a gun. Through this relationship we get hints that Shane is not particularly proud of his gift as a gunman, and feels the weight of the deaths he has caused.
That said, Shane is not merely a man who regrets his deeds as a gunfighter. Like much of the film, it’s much more complex than that. He also seems to lead into situations where it’s inevitable a fight will break out. He walks into a bar and orders a soda pop for Joey, leading Ryker’s henchmen to think he’s a sissy and easily intimidated. The ensuing confrontation and its follow up fist fight show it’s almost impossible for Shane to avoid being violent, that he may, in fact, have a compulsion to incite it.
The relationship with Marian could easily have been a roaring cliché, but it never gets to that point. Marian and Shane are so obviously taken with each other that even Joe notices. Unlike many a love triangle in Westerns, Joe is not an abusive or neglectful husband and father. Nor is there any sign that Marian is disenchanted with her marriage or that Joey doesn’t respect his father. Joe even implies at one point that if something were to happen to him, he would be glad to know Marian and Joey would have Shane to look after them.
Unlike most female characters in Westerns, Marian has a distinct point of view of her own. Shane feels modern today because it presents a strong argument for and against the American love affair with gun culture. Marian is the one who wants to see guns eradicated from their lives.
Another superb element of the film is the direction. The word that kept coming to mind during my most recent viewing is “elegant.” Director George Stevens was simply an elegant director no matter what genre he was working in. The fights, both with fists and guns, are impeccably shot and choreographed. Yet there’s still an organic feeling to the fights. (During one, Joey casually munches on a peppermint stick while watching the fracas.)
In spite of the elegant virtuosity of the direction, the violence is not cleaned up or romanticized. In a scene often noted for its ugliness, one of the homesteaders (Elisha Cook Jr.) confronts gunman Wilson. The pitiless way Wilson dispatches him and how he ends up dying in a patch of mud are devastating to watch.
Shane is a hero (or perhaps anti-hero, it’s hard to categorize him totally as one or the other) who saves the homesteaders from having to degrade themselves by taking the lives of their enemies for them. Then he leaves, in the most iconic scene in the film, riding away as Joey famously calls his name and begs him to come back.
Jean Arthur retired from film after she appeared in Shane. Marian Starrett is one of the few Western film heroines who really matters to the story and Shane is one of the great Westerns of all time. While hardly a typical role for her, it was an amazing bookend to her film career.