Shane (1953) elevates to godlike stratosphere the beauty of restraint.
This is going to be another very long post. So much for restraint.
Continuing our look this week at two Western movies based upon the original works of novelist Jack Schaefer, we tackle what is often called one of the best Westerns ever made, a movie which influenced the Western genre ever after, but which has its roots, despite its gorgeous and emotionally moving cinematography, in a work of literary fiction. Mr. Schaefer, as we mentioned in Monday’s post on Trooper Hook (1957), never intended to write a pulp Western, having never read one. The West was the backdrop he chose to write about men and women.
Director George Stevens certainly returned from his World War II experience a more serious man, who took a drastic turn from his past in screwball comedies that thrived on chaos, to wrangle some sense of order in the weirdly ominous landscape of the post-war world. Shane takes us back to another time, but it is not nostalgic. It is not a better time or a freer time. But there is sense of simplicity here that engages, and allows us to stop and think, and feel.
Throw in the magnificent background of the Grand Teton range of Wyoming, almost never out of sight in this film, and we have a feast for the ears and the eyes. The enormous snow-covered mountains seem to demand that we look up, and beyond what we know. We are called to a higher plane. Masterfully set up by the director to experience this film with more than our ears and eyes, with our hearts and minds, it becomes one of those movies that we live, and not just watch.
Here Comes the Groom.
Jack Palance makes an extraordinary contribution to the film. He’s in the film only minutes, but he is one of the most memorable features about it.
Ben Johnson, so revered for his work in Western movies, is the first to undergo a kind of soul’s conversion because of Shane, but only after a famous fight.
The principals in this film are two men, a woman, and a boy, much like the configuration we saw in Monday’s Trooper Hook. Unlike that film, in Shane the only one with an uncomfortable past is Shane, played by Alan Ladd. We sense it follows him like a long shadow, but there is no discussion about it. We just know, and the Starretts know, he is a gunfighter.
The conflict in this film occurs minute by minute, and so it is not about the past, but about the present, which makes the story seem more intimate and full of action when there are really only a few action scenes. It is edited beautifully, and usually more than one thing is happening in each scene, so none of the scenes are static.
For instance, the scene where the homesteader men are having a meeting in the Starrett’s cabin and Marian and her son are eavesdropping from the boy’s room. The camera shifts between the rooms, and the eavesdroppers react to what they hear. It is more interesting than just leaving the camera at the table where the men are sitting to watch them talk.
The script by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. follows Jack Schaefer’s novel pretty closely, with only a few changes and additions. Foremost is that the relationship between Marian and Shane is acknowledged earlier and more openly in the book. Note this passage from the novel:
From Shane - The Critical Edition by Jack Schaefer, edited by James C. Work (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1984): p. 202 “Did a woman ever have two such men?” And she turned from them and reached out blindly for a chair and sank into it and dropped her face into her hands and the tears came. The two men stared at her and then at each other in that adult knowledge beyond my understanding. Shane rose and stepped over by mother. He put a hand gently on her head and I felt again his fingers in my hair and the affection flooding through me. He walked quietly out the door and into the night. …
Gradually mother’s sobs died down. She raised her head and wiped away the tears.
He turned and started in and waited then by the door. She stood up. She stretched her hands toward him and he was there and had her in his arms.
‘Do you think I don’t know, Marian?’
‘But you don’t. Not really. You can’t. Because I don’t know myself.’
Father was staring over her head at the kitchen wall, not seeing anything there. ‘Don’t fret yourself, Marian. I’m man enough to know a better when his trail meets mine. Whatever happens will be all right.’
‘Oh, Joe…Joe! Kiss me. Hold me tight and don’t ever let go.’
Van Heflin is the third member of the triangle. He is Jean Arthur’s husband, a hard-working homesteader who hires Alan Ladd as a farmhand. They become true friends, and have such regard for each other that Alan Ladd would not presume to treat Heflin’s wife with anything but gentle respect. Heflin is aware of their attraction, and once he has made the decision to go on a suicide mission to save the settlement by shooting the bad guys, feels comforted that his wife will have a man he respects to take care of her and love her.
Jean Arthur loves and respects them both, and does not betray either of them. How, we might wonder with our modern cynicism, is a movie to carry any drama amid this polite mutual admiration society? Remarkably, however, the movie is as sensual as it is innocent.
We do not exactly know why Jean Arthur and Alan Ladd are drawn to each other or when it began. Again, in the book, we are shown plainly from the beginning that he is a novelty to her. The author tells of their introduction:
“Good evening, ma’am,” said our visitor. He took her hand and bowed over it. Mother stepped back and, to my surprise, dropped in a dainty curtsy. I had never seen her do that before.”
And she explains her appraisal of Shane to her husband:
p. 75 - “I like him.” Mother’s voice was serious. “He’s so nice and polite and sort of gentle. Not like most men I’ve met out here. But there’s something about him. Something underneath the gentleness…Something…” Her voice trailed away.
“Mysterious?” suggested father.
“Yes, of course. Mysterious. But more than that. Dangerous.”
A sense of danger that makes her concerned for him, not afraid for herself. She even asks him what he has noticed in his travels about the current fashions for ladies’ hats:
“You’re the kind of man that would notice them.”
P. 81 - “He sat there, easy and friendly, telling her how they were wearing wide floppy-brimmed bonnets with lots of flowers in front on top and slits in the brims for scarves to come through and be tied in bows under their chins.
Talk like that seemed foolish to me to be coming from a grown man. Yet this Shane was not bothered at all. And father listened as if he thought it was all right, only not very interesting.
We aren’t given such a cozy introduction to their relationship in the movie, but George Stevens’ direction adds something more to the telling by giving us plenty of mystery that keeps us engaged. We never get flat-out answers, but are tantalized by images.
We see Shane approach on horseback from a great distance away, through the antlers of a deer. It is like a foreshadowing, as if he is already in the crosshairs of a gun sight.
We switch to the homestead, where Jean Arthur croons “Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party”, a 19th century folksong to herself while she gets supper ready.
In the sky the bright stars glittered,
On the bank the pale moon shone;
And 'twas from Aunt Dinah's quilting party,
I was seeing Nellie home.
I was seeing Nellie home
I was seeing Nellie home;
And 'twas from Aunt Dinah's quilting party
I was seeing Nellie home.
I was seeing Nellie home.
Stories have been repeated through the decades about how Alan Ladd, being a small man, was required to perform on boxes or other contrived camera angles to make him look taller. You can see in this film there were some scenes this was applied, but I think it was unnecessary. First, in the novel Shane is described as a small, slight man. Second, there’s no reason a man five feet, six inches can’t walk tall.
Second, a tintype of an actual frontier woman from this period would show us a lady much older than her years, her skin aged by sun and wind, and the exhausting work of living hand to mouth. A few lines on Jean’s face would have been appropriate. Like Alan Ladd’s real height, Jean Arthur’s real age is, in this magical world of a movie set plunked down in Wyoming, irrelevant.
And this was not the first time Jean Arthur and Van Heflin were paired together. Have a look at Tuesday’s New England Travels for a post on their appearance at a Broadway-bound out-of-town tryout nearly 20 years earlier in 1934 where Jean was the star and Van Helfin a newcomer.
I love when Shane first meets him and notes that the boy has been watching him. Brandon’s face drops, horribly embarrassed, but he must confess, “Yes, I was.” His curiosity over the stranger soon turns to hero-worship, and we may remember that lovely, heart-wrenching feeling from our childhoods as well.
It is a movie of small moments made as large as the mountains outside. Jean Arthur comments softly to her husband that supper will be ready soon, but it is really a suggestion for him to ask Alan Ladd to stay. She exchanges no words with Ladd during supper, but Van Heflin notes aloud she has brought out the good dishes and given them an extra fork to eat their pie. He also notes, almost in the same breath, that she seems unsettled, and his look of befuddlement is only an instant but is comic as it is foreshadowing of a more serious conflict. All that in a look.
Alan Ladd, by way of returning their hospitality, starts hacking away at the enormous tree stump, and Mr. Heflin joins him, the two slashing with axes and grinning at each other. The music swells, and as nighttime falls, Heflin in his grimy undershirt and Ladd, bare-chested, the sweat on his skin glistening in the moonlight, wrench the stump from the ground at last. As the stump topples over, Ladd falls over on top of it, his body lying across the stump as he lifts himself with a pushup, glancing up at Jean Arthur. It’s as close to a carnal symbolism as we’re going to get.
In town, Ladd is aghast that a pair of jeans and two work shirts will cost him $2.25. Yikes.
Later his forbearance will make him the disappointment of the settlement, and he excuses himself from the men’s meeting in disgrace. Jean Arthur watches him through the window as he stands in the rain, and offers comfort.
“I think we know…Shane.” She hesitates with his name and says it tenderly. We know at this point she has feelings for him, because she warns her son not to get to liking him too much. It is a warning for herself, and she blows out the lamp in her son’s room. Just a few lines, and we get the whole story. It is the beauty of economy.
You knew you weren’t going to get away without a little nitpicking.
Young Brandon returns his empty soda pop bottle in exchange for a huge peppermint stick. Sometimes I think I’d rather have that than the nickel.
It turns into a free-for-all merely because evil cattle baron Emile Meyers needles Ladd with the remark, “Pretty wife, Starrett’s got.” It’s a fight for her honor, and standing outside with her Mason jars, she has no idea.
In the book, a similar scene has Marian chastising her men for fighting over a mere remark. “I’ll have you two know that if it’s got to be done, I can take being insulted just as much as you can.”
But both Shane and Joe are astonished and answer what better reason can a man have to fight, except for a woman’s honor?
The fight scene ends, in the book, with Shane getting the worst of it, and allowing Joe to carry him in his arms to the wagon, because, as the boy narrator puts it, his father was the only man Shane trusted, enough to show weakness and let himself be helped. The film gives us only a brief shot of Ladd slumped in Jean Arthur’s arms on the wagon ride home.
In another moment, Brandon is off to bed, and behind closed doors telling his mother his not-too-well-kept secret, “I just love Shane!”
That doesn’t happen until the 4th of July picnic, also the day of their wedding anniversary. Jean searches her old trunk for something to wear, and pulls out the dress she wore at her marriage ceremony. Edith Head just had to have something in this movie to put her teeth into.
Brandon De Wilde dances with little Beverly Washburn.
The romantic trio keep us wondering, not because of their emotions, but because of how they handle them. Van Heflin is not a brute, just less intuitive than Ladd. Ladd is not more heroic than Heflin, only more adept at fighting evil. Both are gallant, and both would die for her. Both will have the chance soon.
Too late, though, Alan Ladd has put back on his buckskin and his gun belt, and he’s taking on Palance himself. Van Heflin and Ladd fight in the barnyard to see who will go on the suicide mission. We see shots of them through the horse’s legs, as the terrified animals stampede around them. Van Heflin is the stronger man, so Ladd must whack him on the skull with his gun.
They slump together against the stump that had bound their friendship.
Jean Arthur looks horrified at the gunslinger she had forgotten was a gunslinger and asks with some guilt, “Are you doing this for me?”
Alan Ladd rides to town in the darkness, with Brandon running after him.
“My days? What about yours, gunfighter?”
“Difference is I know it.”
Even the dog, clearly a Method actor, slinks away as they prepare to draw.
All tiny fragmented mysteries. For decades, people have come up with their own answers.
On a personal note, I first saw this movie when I was in my late teens or early 20s, on TV. My father, then in his 60s, put the movie on, settled himself on the couch with a root beer, and said the title of the movie, Shane much in the same loving way Jean Arthur repeats the name. When Jean Arthur first came on screen, he said her name, with the same manner, and I think he was a little in love with her.
When they fought in the saloon, I knew Father was slugging it out. He pulled his attention away from the screen briefly at Jack Palance’s entrance to make sure I was still following the movie as avidly as he wanted me to, and he grinned when Brandon De Wilde called “Shane!” for the last time. I can never watch this film without recalling his total absorption in the story, and seeing him, as I'm sure he saw himself, in those scenes.
It is not the same for everyone, however. Marc Simmons, who wrote the foreword of the edition of the novel Shane from which I’ve quoted in this essay had a much different experience at a college film festival in the late 1970s.
p. xi “I recall attending a showing of Shane twenty-five years after its release, during a film classic series on a university campus. I was not surprised that it now appeared a bit dated and that some of its original luster had faded. But I was wholly unprepared for the reaction of the young audience. Throughout, they laughed at serious moments, jeered at Shane’s deference toward women, and hooted at Bob’s open admiration for his hero. Without making too much of that single incident, it seems to me at the very least that some of our youth have capitulated to the doctrine that the world is without serious purpose, chaos is our destiny, and serious thought is a pointless exercise in futility.”
For yet another, more personal, recollection of the film, have a look this blog post on “Compass Rose” .
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.