“Hey, Shane! Come back, Shane!”
There’s a few ways in which you can view the 1953 film, Shane.
The more popular view is that it’s a Western about a man named Shane (Alan Ladd) who rides into town and gets a job working for the Starretts, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur). Joe is a farmer who is determined to hold onto his land, despite the efforts of cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) to force him off of it. While we don’t learn much about Shane’s background, it becomes apparent that he’s a man who can fight. That comes in handy when Ryker brings in a sinister gunfighter named Wilson (Jack Palance).
Another view is that Shane is the story of a man who just wants to settle down but, instead, finds himself continually hounded by an annoying little kid, to the extent that he finally gets involved in a gun battle just so he’ll have an excuse to leave town and get away from the little brat. Little Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) idolizes Shane from the minute that he comes riding up. When he hears that Shane refused to get into a fight at the local saloon, Joey demands to know whether it was true. He tells his mom that he loves Shane almost as much as he loves his father. When Shane does get into a brawl with all of Ryker’s men, Joey stands in the corner and eats candy. And then, when Shane tries to leave town, Joey runs behind him shouting, “Come back, Shane! Come back!”
Myself, I think of it as being the story of Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Frank is the farmer that’s been nicknamed “Stonewall,” due to his status as a former Confederate and his quick temper. Stonewall may be smaller than the other farmers but he’s usually the quickest to take offense. Still, it’s impossible not to like him, largely because he’s played by Elisha Cook, Jr. When Wilson feels the need to put the farmers in their place, he does so by picking a fight with Torrey. Standing on a porch in the rain, looking down on the smaller man, Wilson starts to insult both him and the South. When Torrey finally starts to reach for his gun, Wilson shoots him dead. While Torrey lies in the mud, Wilson smirks. It’s a shocking scene, all the more so for being shown in a long shot. (By forcing those of us in the audience to keep our distance from the shooting, the film makes us feel as powerless as the farmers.) If you didn’t already hate Wilson and Ryker, you certainly will after this scene.
Shane is a deceptively simple film, one in which many of the details are left open for interpretation. We never learn anything about Shane’s background. He’s a man who shows up, tries to make a life for himself, and then leaves. He’s a marksman and an obviously experienced brawler but, unlike Ryker’s men, he never specifically looks for violence. In fact, he often seems to avoid it. Why? The film doesn’t tell us but there are hints that Shane is haunted by his past. Shane seems to want a chance to have a life like the Starretts but, once he’s forced to again draw his gun, he knows that possibility no longer exists.
Is Shane in love with Marian Starrett? It certainly seems so but, again, the film never specifically tells us. Instead, it all depends on how one interprets the often terse dialogue and the occasional glances that Marian and Shane exchance. When Shane and Joe get into a fist fight to determine who will face Ryker and Wilson, is Shane really trying to protect Joe or is it that he knows Marian will be heart-broken if her husband is killed?
One thing’s for sure. Little Joey sure does love Shane. “Come back, Shane!” Little Joey follows Shane everywhere, with a wide-eyed look on his face. To be honest, it didn’t take too long for me to get sick of Little Joey. Whenever director George Stevens needed a reaction shot, he would cut to Joey looking dumb-founded. Brandon deWilde was 11 years when he appeared in Shane and he was nominated for an Oscar but he’s actually pretty annoying in the role. Elisha Cook, Jr. was far more impressive and deserving of a nomination.
I know that many people consider Shane to be a classic. I thought it was good, as long as the action was focused on the adults. Alan Ladd plays Shane like a man who is afraid to get too comfortable in any situation and the film works best when it compares his reticence to Wilson’s cocky confidence. Whenever Joey took center stage, I found myself wanting to cover my ears.
Shane was nominated for Best Picture but lost to From Here To Eternity.