ShanecoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes (with an asterisk)
1953, 118 min., Color
Unrated (would be PG)
Warner Bros.

Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 2.0
Bonus features:  C+

Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel has been credited for helping the Western make the leap from pulp fiction aimed at youngsters to serious adult fiction. It also established the formula for countless movies and TV series, and I can’t think of a better “starter” Western to introduce youngsters to the genre.

That’s because in Shane (1953), as in the book, we see the action through the eyes of a young boy  (Brandon De Wilde), and the lad’s hero worship is nicely balanced by underlying issues that families can use for discussion. That point of view also creates a gap between Joey’s understanding of the situation and the audience’s. To Joey (Bob, in the book), whose father has taught him that guns and violence are to be avoided, Shane and his pearl-handled .45 seem heroic. The audience realizes that one reason Shane decides to stay and work as a hired hand is that he’s weary of the gunslinger’s life and wishes he could have what that family has—a point that’s driven home when it’s made clear  the farmer’s wife has her own attraction for the handsome stranger. But when he gets caught up in a simmering range war, any hopes of settling down are threatened.

I’m giving it an asterisk for family viewing because of the violence—tame by Western standards, but violent nonetheless. There are two main fistfights that establish the character of homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Hefflin) and Shane (Alan Ladd), a mysterious stranger who’s awfully jumpy and good with a gun. There’s also a close-range shooting by a hired gun (Jack Palance) and a climactic gun battle in a darkened saloon. For the most part, though, it’s a case of rising tensions between cattlemen and farmers.  

On one level, Shane plays like a fable about standing up to bullies—something with which most kids can unfortunately identify. Joe not only resists the intimidations of a local rancher intent on driving away the homesteaders, but he also tries to rally his neighbors to hold their ground against cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer).

ShanescreenTo a degree, Shane employs the good-guy/bad-guy stereotypes that characterize Westerns.  But it’s more complex than that. After an entire first act sets up the homesteaders as the good guys and the rancher and his hands the bad, we get a confrontation between Starrett and Ryker in which the cattleman basically builds a sympathetic case for his being the good guy. Ranchers were there first, taming the wilderness and suffering losses long before the 1862 Homestead Act encouraged Westward expansion. Short speeches like his aren’t intended to change anyone’s opinion, but to open minds a bit to the grey areas of morality that the film explores. In a similar vein, the whole movie sets up staying put and standing up to Ryker as a virtue and questions those who would pack up and re-settle elsewhere. Yet a time comes when Joe’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur) questions whether the land is worth fighting for if it can lead to loss of life.

Another of this film’s strengths is its realism. Everywhere you look, the romance of the West has been replaced by the reality of pioneer life—like mud in the streets, dogs accompanying farmers as they ride into town, and a gut shot that drives a man backwards rather than the typical Western grab-your-belly-and-fall-forward thespian’s death.

The American Film Institute lists Shane as the Number 3 Western of all time, and it ranks 45th on the list of 100 greatest films.  It was well received at the time of its release, too, winning Best Cinematography for Loyal Griggs and earning five additional Oscar nominations—including Best Picture. Filmed in the Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole, San Bernardino National Forest, and two movie sets, Shane is a visual delight. This Blu-ray is a substantial improvement over the DVD except for one area:  night scenes. Whoever was responsible for the transfer really dropped the ball, because the night scenes are so dark you can’t make out the detail you could on previous releases, and the movie’s powerful ending is muddied. I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Bros. corrects the problem in the near future for a Blu-ray re-release.