Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shane - 1953

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.

But there’s enough here, too, that we would expect from a Western: the greater themes of rugged independence, the familiar story of the gunslinger, the homesteaders versus the cattlemen who are losing their range to progress and the march of time. In this sense, the film may also reflect what was happening to us in the early 1950s, more than just a yearning for the past and that sense of unbounded freedom we think we have left behind.

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.

The score, responsible for much of the film’s magic effect, begins with the rhythmic, mournful tune as the lone rider, Shane enters from our viewpoint down into a scenic valley. There is the boldly ebullient theme played with a majestic pioneer American crescendo as Shane and Joe Starrett hack away at the tree stump. There is the soft, almost sad waltz we hear on a single violin when Shane and Marian are silently communicating to each other. And there are snippets here and there sung by the cast or played on a harmonica of traditional American tunes.

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, in tandem with the ethereal, the ordinary becomes sublime. First, the cast of character actors we already know, including Ellen Corby, and Edgar Buchanan. Nancy Kulp, who later found a regular gig on The Beverly Hillbillies, and little Beverly Washburn, who we saw last week in 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.

Most especially, we have Elisha Cook, Jr., in probably his best role. This diminutive man who played such smarmy heavies, here plays a homesteader. For all his bantam rooster swagger and hotheadedness, he earns our sympathy and our respect.

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.

Another such scene is when the bullying cattle baron, played by Emile Meyer, accosts the Starretts in their barnyard at night with his men to make a deal. While they talk, we see Shane and Jack Palance take each other’s measure, size each other up in a kind of threatening ritual where all they are really doing are climbing off a horse (really slow), and drinking from a dipper of water. There is so much to look at in this scene.

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.’

In the movie, we sense there is a romantic longing between Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur, who plays Marian, but it is such a quiet presence and handled so differently than we would probably normally expect in a movie. Just as we mentioned in our post on Trooper Hook, the romance is envisioned more through tenderness and respect, as a union of soul mates. It would have been easier to convey normal lust than it is to depict a romantic union of soul mates.

Especially when, in this case, the romantic union is between three people.

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.

Slow, rhythmic, comforting, almost mantra-like as she performs the same tasks she has performed a hundred times. There is a sense of freedom for her here, because the house is where she rules. (In the book, we are told it is not a cabin, but a white frame house with green trim, unusual in these parts, but built this way to remind her of her New England roots.) We catch glimpses her only through the cabin window, in the half shadow.

When the evil cattle baron’s gang comes to threaten Van Heflin off his land, Heflin stands up to them with nothing but a small rifle that belongs to his little boy and is not even loaded. Jean Arthur emerges from the shadows and, with a boldness that defies her shy demeanor, stands in front of her husband, blocking his body. We see, before they do, that Shane has returned and makes himself, and his gun belt, visible to the gang. It is as if these two, Marian and Shane, are already tag-teaming up to protect Van Heflin from the tragic consequences of his own courage. Perhaps this is the start of their unspoken bond.

I love the look of Alan Ladd leaning against the rough log cabin, looking strangely relaxed, his hip cocked like a fashion model. He is small and slender, and graceful looking. And the gang pulls back and goes away. The gun belt cinched around his buckskin shirt only accentuates his slimness, yet because of his prowess with a gun and because of his cool sense of judgment, he is a powerful man.

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.

As far as appearances go, we see a few shots where Jean Arthur is filmed in soft focus. She was about 50 when this movie was made, at least a decade older than Van Heflin or Ladd, but I think the soft focus, though used in a romantic sensibility, wasn’t really necessary, either. First, she had a youthful face and figure (she just concluded a smash run on Broadway flying around as Peter Pan for crying out loud), and for much of her career was successful at playing younger.

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.

The lined and weathered faces belong to Alan Ladd and Van Heflin. He would never be a matinee idol, Van Heflin, would never find his face on mugs or jigsaw puzzles or kitschy trinkets like you will Clark Gable or Cary Grant, but he was one of the best actors of his era. Probably because he never became a parody of himself, like those other gentlemen. His low-key approach to this role of the workhorse homesteader allows us to feel we really know him. Jean Arthur and Alan Ladd, and Jack Palance may be mysterious, but we know Joe Starrett.

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.

And then there is the boy. Brandon De Wilde is a marvel in this film. He is utterly and completely natural, seeming without any precocious proclivities or training. He wanders about his family’s homestead with the freedom and curiosity we may remember, and rejoice in, from our childhoods, and his responses and reactions are engaging without being too cute.

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.

His mouth full, he talks about the economic advantages of raising cattle in a fenced in area rather than the old way of cattle drives and constantly moving stock to better pasture. It is our history lesson and our plot exposition at the same time. We are reminded here, and in other points of the film, that the evil cattle baron Emile Meyer is a man about to be downsized by the force of economics, and we may even pity him for it. The wheel of time turns, and some of us get caught in the spokes.

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.

The next morning, when Brandon De Wilde begs him to stay on and innocently hints of his father’s battles with the cattlemen, we see a flicker of concern in Alan Ladd’s face. Is it a premonition that he knows how it will end, with him using his gun?

When he agrees to hire on as a farmhand, and Heflin sends him to town for supplies, we have another interesting scene that frames the story for us. Heflin sits down in his son’s room to put on his boots and tells Ladd what he needs from town. Alan Ladd stands just beyond in the cabin’s common room. We see him through the doorframe.

In the other room she shares with her husband, Jean Arthur is busy making the bed, and we seen Ladd again through the doorframe. He is the outsider looking in, but in very close proximity. He calls her “Marian” almost from the start.

In town, Ladd is aghast that a pair of jeans and two work shirts will cost him $2.25. Yikes.

He is also teased by the bad guys, but takes their guff so as not to put Van Heflin in danger. He also boldly requests a bottle of soda pop for the boy. Only a real man would walk into a bar full of violent men and ask for soda.  It's something only Daffy Duck would do.

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.

The settlers band together for protection to go into town to shop at the trading post. It’s a cute scene when Jean Arthur examines the new Mason jars and wonders, “What’ll they think of next?” This is a bit of an anachronism, though. Mason jars were around since the early 1860s, and if Marian was originally from New England, she would have likely known about them.

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.

Mr. Ladd, however, takes the boy’s empty soda bottle to the bar, in order to redeem himself in the eyes of the settlers and his new family. He picks a fight with Ben Johnson, and we get the memorable scene of a one-on-one fistfight that turns into a brawl, with Van Heflin joining in to help Ladd.

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.

One of the best scenes is when they get home and Miss Arthur tends the wounded. Brandon flutters around the room like any excited, fidgety kid and re-lives the fight. The men are bone tired but pleased with themselves, and Jean Arthur winces herself over every cut and bruise. There is a brief comedic bit when she is about to dab Alan Ladd’s cut scalp with turpentine, and just before she can, Brandon warns, “Stings like anything.”

Jean pulls out one of her nervous, perfectly timed comedic double takes. But in another moment, she tackles his receding hairline again, crooning sympathetically, “It does smart. I know.” He yelps for Brandon’s benefit.

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!”

We hear, and Alan Ladd hears, and he soberly leaves the cabin. Does Van Heflin hear from the other room? Another mystery. When he opens the door and Jean Arthur, agonized by her feelings for Mr. Ladd, demands Van Heflin to hold her, he does not look knowing.

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.

The settlers serenade the Starretts with a chorus of “Abide With Me,” and at the conclusion of their celebratory kiss, she looks back to where Ladd and Brandon are standing. Her face is turned away from us. Is she looking fondly at her boy, or at Ladd? Another mystery.

Van Heflin dances awkwardly with his wife, and seems to be counting his steps. Ladd takes a turn with her in a modified formal contra dance to the waltz tune of “Goodbye Old Paint.” He is graceful. From behind the corral fence, Van Heflin grins at them, then slowly his expression turns to cold realization that they are in love. Curiously, there is no anger or jealously in his face, only stupor, and a sense almost that he is looking upon something that is none of his business.

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.

Evil cattle baron Emile Meyer hires himself a gunslinger, Jack Palance, to rid himself of the settlers. Palance makes an indelible impression in this film as the oily, sinister, remorseless symbol of brutality. He practices first on Elisha Cook, Jr., and the scene of Mr. Cook getting flattened into the deep mud of the main street in town by the force of gunfire is stunning. Another settler, the mild Shipstead, played by Douglas Spencer, has the sickening job of dragging Cook’s body through the mud under Palance’s amused stare, terrified he will be next. When he takes Cook’s body back to the settlement, he hollers the news from a long distance, and we know the cabin dwellers can’t hear him, but we know what he is saying.

We hear “Abide with Me” again up on Cemetery Hill at the funeral. It is clearly an all-purpose hymn, “In life, in death, oh, Lord, Abide with me…”

The harmonica player who earlier teases former Confederate soldier Elisha Cook with snappy renditions of “Marching Through Georgia,” now plays “Dixie” slowly as a requiem. Like Royal Dano’s gray kepi we mentioned in our post on Monday about Trooper Hook, we are reminded that the West is a place of new beginnings.

Now it’s showdown time, and Van Heflin has decided to rid the settlement of Jack Palance and hopefully chase off Emile Meyer. He has a quiet moment with Jean Arthur, trying to explain to her in a heartfelt conversation that sounds like a last will and testament, that he is leaving everything, including Shane, to her. He says it without self pity or rancor, but with a tender satisfaction that all is somehow for the best.

“I know I’m kind of slow sometimes, Marian, but I see things.”

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?”

It’s another interesting scene with more said than unsaid, and exquisite camera angles. “Please, Shane…” she says, and seems as if to start toward him, but Brandon calls to her, and she hesitates. We will never know what she intended to do. Embrace him? Kiss him? Go with him? Instead she extends her hand for a chaste, albeit very lingering, handshake.

Alan Ladd rides to town in the darkness, with Brandon running after him.

“Your days are over,” he tells evil cattle baron Emile Meyer, another history lesson for us. Or, is it an economics lesson?

“My days? What about yours, gunfighter?”

“Difference is I know it.”

Jack Palance takes up the challenge. You can’t keep your eyes off Palance. He is not instinctual, like gunfighter Alan Ladd; he is machine-like, a craftsman.

Even the dog, clearly a Method actor, slinks away as they prepare to draw.

The dog scene is one which many devotees of this movie love to discuss, and the strange shot of Palance’s first entrance in the saloon that seems like time-lapse photography, and the curious look Brandon De Wilde wears after he calls to Shane, “Mother wants you. I know she does.”

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.

I think Father wanted me to like the movie. He kept looking to see my reaction. But he soon stopped urging my interest and lost himself totally in the film, and I’ll never forget the kick I got out of watching him. When Van Heflin and Ladd are chopping away at the stump, I knew Father saw himself there, too, a third man with an ax.

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.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Shane is one of the few novels that is perfectly complemented by its film adaptation - the movie stands alone beautifully, but there's more depth in the book if you want to go further.

Just curious - in a comment on your last post you mentioned that you don't think Shane could be published today. Why? Because of something in the story, or because you feel there isn't an audience for that kind of literature?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Elisabeth, I agree the film stands alone beautifully. I feel that "Shane" would not be published today because of the current environment in publishing. I do feel there is an audience for this kind of literature, but I think the publishing industry as it is today, where publishers have downsized, closed, consolidated, where the economic machine of publishing makes it not worthwhile to chance a book that may not have an immediate audience, where writers are required to have "platforms" as much at talent (sometimes more) -- there seems little hope for something as quiet as "Shane" to make a big splash. A book must have the probability of selling very well to be published by the larger, well-established publishing companies. Perhaps a smaller, independent publisher might take it on. But they are deluged these days as well, and can only publish what makes sense to their bottom line.

Laura said...

Jacqueline, this outstanding analysis held my attention all the way through -- what a wonderful post. I actually haven't seen SHANE yet (it's on my "to do" list for this year!) -- I'm one of those people who virtually never minds spoilers, in fact I kind of enjoy knowing things to be "looking for" before I see a film. I know I'm going to enjoy it.

As a side note, you might be interested that although of course he filmed the movie in Wyoming, George Stevens was inspired by the little Sierra town of Bridgeport, featured in OUT OF THE PAST. I quoted him (from GEORGE STEVENS INTERVIEWS) as part of the article I recently wrote for the Dark Pages. Stevens said Bridgeport was "very unlike other California towns" and said "There was the funeral on the hilltop, and there was the distance where the cattle grazed, and then there was the town at the crossing, a western town like western towns were. There were the great mountains that rose behind it. This was all arranged in one camera view... That worked its way into the picture from an idea that came to me in Bridgeport, a small town in California."

He also said something along the lines that he found it profound that a man could bury his mother at the cemetery, go home and out back to do the milking and look back up towards the hill and see where his mother was.

The town today still looks very much as Stevens described it. Thought you might enjoy that bit of SHANE trivia.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Laura. I'd love to know what you think of "Shane" when you get a chance to see it.

Thanks for the notes on George Stevens. I haven't read the Stevens interviews, and I want to very much. I still have to round up that doco on his work. Bridgeport sounds to have a lot of similarities to his location for "Shane".

Erin said...

I remember being in 7th grade when I read Shane, and I loved the book so much that I decided to use it for a report I had to do for school. I was kind of shocked when my teacher gave me a rather poor grade, as I thought I had done a pretty good job. Her main reasoning was my book choice; she assumed Shane was too short, not enough of an advanced read, and not very complex. I wish I could show her your post, to prove that there really was more to the story than she saw. Anyway, both the book and the movie are still favorites.

Yvette said...

A great western film, heck, a great film, period. I think Alan Ladd's greatest role. (Tthough I liked him well enough in THE BLUE DAHLIA.) I saw this in the theater once upon a time. I loved westerns, but of course, this more than.

Brandon De Wilde. Such a talented actor. Such a tragedy and so unfair to have lost him so young.

I remember SHANE having a slightly different ending, so obviously I must see it again at some point. What is the film this story reminds me of? (Never read the book.) A movie, I think, with William Holden, Loretta Young and maybe Burt Lancaster. Also a western but set in earlier times.

It also, in its emotions, reminds me a little bit of THE RAINMAKER with Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn.

Then there was another film with a similar scenario where the lone cowboy rides up to a cabin where a woman and her son live...Joan Hackett, I think was the woman. WILL PENNY, that was the film.

Anyway, great analysis, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Erin, thanks for joining the discussion. Your teacher's obtuse reaction must have been maddening. I'm glad the book and film have remained untarnished for you. I'm glad this post validates your original choice of a book report. You made my day.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. I think the Loretta Young movie is "Rachel and the Stranger" (1948).

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Jacqueline, I especially enjoyed your reflections on watching SHANE with your father. It remains one of my favorite Westerns. But I must ask what you think about the closing shot in the film. There are those viewers who maintain that Shane is dead. I never considered that when I watched the film as a youth. But having seen SHANE again over the last few years, I can how that opinion came to be.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

That's certainly another one of the mysteries of this film. It never occurred to me that he was riding off to die, mainly because in his last scene with Joey, he is not physically distressed. No wincing, no labored speech. I always felt his bowed head and slight slumping in the saddle as he rides out of the shot indicates his profound saddness and lonliness. But, like you, I can see where some viewers can take that image and assume that he is fatally wounded. We take it as an allegory for the dying out of the gunslingers.

Gordon Pasha said...

Jacqueline: I am late to the post, but you have done such a thorough and enthralling breakdown that I wanted at least to compliment you before later posts move this one further into your queue. I have little to add, nothing of consequence. I remember reading the book long ago and thinking how close the film was to the book, given what often happens. And I believe it was in the Stevens documentary that someone stated that an Alan Ladd film had never done so well at the box office -- to which another responded that it was not a Ladd film, but a Stevens film. But we will let the auteurists sort that out -- each was an integral part of the whole. And finally, old film truths continue to surface: “the better the villain, the better the film.” As to some of your commenters mentioning Shane riding off to die, I never thought of it. But why not let the viewer decide. Excellent work. Best. Gerald. (Very brief moment, but “Goodbye Old Paint” lingers.)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so very much, Gerald. It is sometimes more difficult writing about well-known films, the really iconic ones. So much has been said about some of them, you wonder what is there left to say?

I am on the trail of that Stevens documentary. I intend to have it in my covetous grasp very shortly.

I agree the last shot about him riding off is best left to the individual viewer. You can't stamp a definitive meaning on some images.

"Goodbye Old Paint" and "Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party" are still being absentmindedly warbled in dirge-like fashion by one certain blogger when making supper or her mind is otherwise wandering. Which it does frequently.

Thanks again.

Miss Fierce said...

"It is a movie of small moments made as large as the mountains outside"

Perfectly exquisite description. . .outstanding analysis. You hit every nail on the head here.

I've never read the book, but after reading this, I feel duty bound to do it, and fast!

Interesting commentary about Jean's age. She was always playing younger in films, and always getting away with it. It's strange to think about how self-critical she was of her appearance, because I don't know anyone who has ever watched her and not been thoroughly charmed.

Sadly, you are also spot on about the state of publishing today. There's no room for quietness, and it makes me ache to think about all that's lacking in our modern day literature. It's as if we're waging war, as a culture, on the subtlety of life, and that's a real shame because no one's reality can be solely comprised of large, plot-heavy, moments.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Miss Fierce. I love your remark here:

"There's no room for quietness, and it makes me ache to think about all that's lacking in our modern day literature. It's as if we're waging war, as a culture, on the subtlety of life, and that's a real shame because no one's reality can be solely comprised of large, plot-heavy, moments."

Very, very well put.

Also, as regards Jean Arthur's self-consciousness in real life, when I first became aware of her films, probably 30 years ago, I had no idea of any of that. She left me, as you say, thoroughly charmed. Re-watching her films I knew from back when with the new realization of just how anxious she was, it gives a new edge to a critical analysis of her work. I thought she was just a natural talent then. Now I marvel at the intensity of her screen presence as more than just talent, but as some kind of emotional need to really lose herself in that character.

Thanks so much again, Miss Fierce, for joining the discussion.

Unknown said...

I loved your personal notes. As I read I almost had an out of body experience as if it was actually I writing the recollections in an alternate universe for I lived what you experienced as well.
I continue, now, at age 57 to carry on my father's legacy and love for sharing the great movie classics. I too enter the movie and interact with the flickers of light on film.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you for stopping by, Brian, and sharing your thoughts about SHANE and what it's like for us classic movie fans to "carry on." I suppose the best movies always draw us into them somehow. Thanks again.

H. Park said...

Hello. Taking a contrary view on the end of the film. Personally, I have always thought that Shane dies in the end, and the final seconds of the film seem to bear this out if one watches closely.

I see that I am coming very late to this discussion, but I first wanted to say how very much I enjoyed reading your analysis.

Now, on to my observations on the films ending sequences.

George Stevens, was a detail-oriented film maker and if one watches the last few moments of the film very carefully, I don’t think there would be the controversy of “did he or didn’t he die” that has gone on for some 65 years.

The film doesn’t actually end with young Joey calling the famous “Shane! Come back.” This is *almost* the end, but the film does go on a tiny bit longer.

Pay attention to this final few seconds of the film.

We see Shane riding into a cemetery – not the one where the murdered homesteader is buried – he did not ride towards this cemetery (which was a ways in front of the town) when he rode out of town. He rode away from the back of the town, in the opposite direction from the cemetery, towards the mountains.

So this is cemetery as allegory: Everyone dies, when it is their time. It is Shane’s time.

Again, in the final frames of the film, we see Shane riding towards the camera, into this cemetery, a bit slumped in the saddle – he is not looking forward, he is leaning in the saddle so that we can only see the top of his hat, looking down towards the ground.

Just as an aside: as a long-time rider of horses, this is not (as has been suggested elsewhere) a typical posture in riding a horse uphill. This is the posture of a rider about to fall off.

At just about the moment he rides by the camera we hear, very faintly on the soundtrack (it is very soft, difficult to hear, but is included even in the English subtitles) Joey’s voice, very softly: “Bye, Shane”.

The rider is now miles away from Joey and the town, Shane could not possibly hear him. This soft “Bye Shane” symbolizes that Shane has died.

The very last frames of the film (only a few seconds remain) then show Shane, past the pov (point of view) of the camera now, riding towards a very bright light that illuminates a whole section of the sky, where there should be no light (the setting is dark night). No moon is visible.

Allegory again: Shane’s bright spirit is ascending into the sky [heaven – this was 1953, after all].

Then, at the very last of the film, we see Shane and his horse *descend*, until both are lost from view. Shane’s mortal body has been returned to the earth.

Fade to black.

Again, it is no accident that Mr. Stevens, an extremely careful filmmaker, included this final bit of footage in the film. Mr. Stevens spent nearly two years in editing and post-production on “Shane”. Anything included in the final cut of the film was not accidental, it was intentional.

If the intention was to have Shane just “ride out of town” the film could have easily ended at Joey’s “Shane! Come back!”.

But it does not end here, but continues to a true denoument.

These last few seconds of the film are extremely moving, at least they are for me.

What puzzles me is that no one seems to see this, and most reviewers seem to think the film ends with Joey calling “Shane! Come back!” Even clips around the web that purport to show the end of the film – clips on YouTube, for example – don’t include this final bit.

So. Yes. If you watch the film all the way to the end, it is obvious that Shane dies. The conclusion is inescapable.

Also very melancholy, and extremely sad.

And just about perfect.

H. Park said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Some notes on Shane:

Shane was actually filmed during July of 1951 into October of 1951. It is very interesting to note that, with the exception of the boy, Brandon de Wilde, the youngest of the actors playing the four pivotal roles were Alan Ladd and Jack Palance, who played the gunfighters, whose "days were over." Ladd turned 38 in September of 1951, and Palance was 32. Heflin was 42 and Arthur turned 51 in October.

Also want to note that I feel extremely fortunate to have seen this movie on the big screen when it first came out. I was 14 and this film is my favorite movie of all time because of itself, and also because of the influence it had on my life. I was born and raised in New Jersey, but after seeing this film, I wanted to "go West." In 1965 I did, and I have lived in California ever since. I felt that I was "coming home" as I drove across the country that first time. I love the West and have traveled and camped extensively over most of the western states.

I've seen this movie at least 30 times and it never occurred to me that Shane died in the end. I always watch to the end and always assumed that he was slumped over because he was wounded. It was only after reading comments online from other viewers that I became aware of that possibility. Now I can see it as possible. However, the book leaves the end ambiguous and so does the movie, I think, deliberately so. Every viewer, and reader, can form his or her own conclusion. Either way, the ending is very sad. I don't know which would be sadder.

Thank you for your analysis, Ms. Lynch It was excellent.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you for the kind words and for sharing what appears to be everybody's love of this very special movie. I can see how it would have made a young person eager, like you, to "go West."

José said...

Dear Jacqueline,
I accessed your blog and I was impressed. And it's also in line with what I think. I refer to the film SHANE. I saw that your records on the internet start in 2011. I hope the blog is still prepared to receive some comments.
I'm Brazilian, 72 years old(1949). I apologize for the maybe unclear English. See I was 4 years old when Shane debuted on screen. And I only saw it in 1959, so I was 10 years old. The first time I saw it, I couldn't read the Portuguese subtitles clearly and I didn't understand the movie very well, but I liked it a lot. It stayed in my memory like no other. Over the next few years I watched it over and over again, on TV and in movies. I believe I've seen it nearly 100 times. It's my favorite movie.
Perhaps the biggest identification I had with him was putting me like little Joey. If Stevens made the film, as they say, from the boy's point of view, I understood right away, and I observed every detail as if he were really Joey. Everything about it went right, of course Stevens studied it a lot for a long time, and the result was magnificent!!! To better situate you, I said that I live in Brazil and I was born on a farm, from which I left when I was 9 years old to a city. This, for sure, is my biggest identification with little Joey, played by Brandon deWilde with great competence.
I'm not going to elaborate on the details of the film because you've covered everything that could be covered, very effectively. I just give my compliments to the gorgeous cast: Alan Ladd excelled himself, guided by Stevens. It gave Shane enormous credibility. Van Heflin lived the brave, honest, friendly and wise Starrett to perfection. Jean Arthur, even though he was already 50, acted like he was 30, perfect! Brandon deWilde was impressive with his naturalness. I followed his steps for a long time, and in 1972 I suffered greatly from his sudden death in an accident. Emile Meyer should have been nominated for an Oscar, a giant, perfect. Jack Palance was very competent. Ben Johnson, as always, dignified the role of Calloway. The rest, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer, Ellen Corby, John Dierkes, Leonard Strong, Elisha Cook Jr, Edith Evanson, Paul McVey, and others, looked like an orchestra on a gala. A great movie, exceptional.
Here's a curiosity about Brandon deWilde. Since the 1970s and 1971, I've come to admire Emmylou Harris and the Gram Parsons, I've also identified a lot with both. I have a lot of discs and CDs for both of them and I still listen to them constantly. It so happens that I read a few years ago that they were friends with Brandon (!) and after his death they made a song for him (I have it). I was puzzled. I thought: my God, it's such a coincidence. I identified first with Brandon, then with his great friends...
Anyway, I was very happy to read your analysis. It's perfect, beautiful. As for Shane's ending, I prefer to believe he survived. The book says that he would have been seen in another state under the name Shanon, leaving the final conclusion dubious and Stevens followed suit. I read here on your blog the comments of another reader, stating that he died and explaining details of his conclusion. I disagree.
When I see in pictures or movies the majestic mountains of Wyoming - Grand Tetons - I think: Shane is there!!! I prefer it that way, I'll always take with me perhaps the purest memory of my childhood: the first time I watched Shane, unforgettable !!! I have a website here in Brazil, where I comment on COMICS associated with movies and TV series. I have two different stories on Shane in it, both in the same vein as his considerations. If you can access my website - - I would be grateful. I leave here a big and effusive hug even though I don't know her, but I know her thoughts and that's worth a lot. See you later ... Thanks ...

Afonso – Brazil, 2022, January, 10

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog, Jose. I'm pleased that this post is still interesting readers, and very pleased that the movie SHANE will always attract new fans, and continue to inspire old fans like yourself.

José said...

Thank you, Jacqueline.
I will accompany you from today. Your blog is very good !

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