Saturday 18 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Shane" (1953)

Arriving care of "Gentleman" George Stevens, Shane is a softly spoken Western that serves as a counterpoint to its 50s stablemates High Noon and The Searchers in the ongoing debate over how (and by whom) America should be run. Where those other films celebrated heroic loners, becoming paeans to individualism, the focus here is on community and teamwork: an early scene finds the itinerant cowboy Shane (Alan Ladd) aiding homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) in uprooting a tree trunk, establishing the film's underlying interest in roots of one kind or another. Ladd's gunfighter, intuiting the age of the gun is drawing to a close, puts down his weapon to be co-opted into Starrett's family - domestic goddess Jean Arthur, adoring son Brandon de Wilde - and help defend their land from ruthless capitalists with an especially vicious sense of entitlement; you could put the film on in a protest camp, and it'd still rally the spirits of anybody chained to an elm or blocking the bypass.

Shane's masculinity is challenged at every turn: he's mocked for dressing casually, walking into a bar to order soft drinks, hanging out with women and children, and generally preferring to mend fences over making war. Stevens pulls off a casting coup in pitting Ladd, with his blonde hair and soft, readable features, against the none-more-masculine Jack Palance as the hired heavy defined chiefly by his weapon and spurs, and shot either side-on or with his back to the camera - the very image of a closed-off, unyielding male. The film favours group activity - bar brawls that extol the virtues of fighting back-to-back; country dances; proper send-offs on Cemetery Hill, overseen by a group who stand together for something - and Stevens treats the growing affection between Ladd and de Wilde without sentiment, concerned as this strand is with the example we set for our youngest. In championing camaraderie over self-interest - the same camaraderie, between the sexes and between the generations, that we find in those democratic pre-WW2 studio entertainments upon which directors like Stevens cut their teeth - Shane comes in closer to Hawks than Ford, and in the absence of an official remake, perhaps even closer to what Kevin Costner was going for in his underrated Open Range: the finale gains in poignancy for giving the man riding off into the sunset options to leave behind.

Shane is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

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