Reasons to Love Shane
2. The Acting
Alan Ladd enjoyed working with George Stevens. When asked why he said it was because the director gave him time. “I may not be the best actor in the world,” he said, “But I’m pretty good at pauses.” You certainly notice them. I love this film and I love Alan Ladd’s performance in it but even after watching it many times I cannot be sure whether the end product is down to brilliance or incompetence.
In Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, Philip French argues that 1950 was a turning point in the making of westerns. And I agree with him. It was when certain givens began to be questioned. Monochrome was giving way to colour but it was the change from black and white in ethical terms that marks the post 1950 western from its predecessors. Eventually this movement was given the title of Revisionist Westerns. French, an intelligent film critic who was replaced on the BBC by the chummy, bland, institutional, camera friendly Barry Norman in an regrettable act of corporate dumbing down, devised his own system for distinguishing forward looking from conservative westerns by comparing them to political figures of the day.
(Aside) Barry Goldwater was Senator for Arizona, a westerner, a Republican, a strong conservative who fought the 1964 presidential election against Lyndon Johnson. John Kennedy was the reforming president, an easterner, a Democrat, and tragic hero of the sixties.
The Goldwater western, according to French, would hide a sententious rhetoric behind a woolly sentimentality; present an unforgiving moral message disguised with broad humour and dripping with a nostalgic yearning. It’s a thesis that needed a little work. French tweaked it for the reprint of his book and abandoned it altogether in a 2004 update. I quite like it except that it is too catch-all and tends to muster the brilliant work (particularly of John Wayne and John Ford) in with the mediocre.
The Kennedy western would be “Taut and fast-diving: its rhetoric would be elegant, ironic, laced with wit; pictorially the images would be carefully composed, bringing out the harsh challenge of the landscape; its moral tone would be sharp and penetrating; its mood would be cool with an underlying note of the absurd or tragic sense of life; the past would be rendered in a moderately realistic fashion, almost without regret, just a token elergiacism.” (Barry Norman would have struggled with that paragraph but would have ending it with a very knowing wink!)
At the risk of being accused of reductio ab absurdum these can roughly be re-stated as forward looking and progressive and backward looking and accepting: a place to move on from and make better or a place to restore and rediscover core values: radical or conservative: pre Winchester ’73 and post Winchester ’73.
French continues and expands with his version of the Kennedy hero as:
- slightly diffident
- capable of change and development
- prone to a sense of anguished failure
- sees the need for community activity
- views minorities and aliens sympathetically
- doesn’t see that man is naturally or necessarily violent
- uses the past to structure his ideas of building a better world.
and here we have a description of Shane as played by Alan Ladd. Things might have been very different. Much of the pre-production was done with the idea that Montgomery Clift was going to play the part with William Holden as Joe Starrett. This would have made getting certain things across to the audience much easier. Clift would have been more convincing as the bar-room brawler and would have caused considerably more ructions in the Starrett family home. As it is Mrs Starrett can barely restrain herself with the somewhat un-pre-possessing Alan Ladd. Shane is a film without sex, mention of sex or apparent thought of sex while sexual tension thunders along under the surface. This works because Jean Arthur is magnificent and Alan Ladd is an Everyman figure or a Sir Gawain. The unspoken eternal triangle is present and that is enough. It would have been too obvious, almost a cliché, had Shane been played by a more virile actor.
Clift would have been a more traditional, square-jawed, handsome hero. He would have lacked the diffidence, the sense of anguished failure and the tortured memories from an unspoken past. And these are vital. We don’t get all of this through Alan Ladd’s acting but we get a fair bit of it through the pauses. It’s easy to make fun of Ladd’s performance but it is absolutely central to the success of the movie. I would suggest that had Montgomery Clift played the part the film would have made more at the box office and would have been easier to watch: but it would not have been the great film that it undoubtedly is. It heralded a new era with new possibilities and left everything that came before looking old fashioned. In which it was very like the election of Kennedy himself.
That wasn’t the only bit of good fortune in the casting. The role of Mrs Starrett was originally going to be played by Katherine Hepburn. Now Marion Starrett, as played by Jean Arthur, is not a weak woman but neither is she a strong feminist type. This is essential to the structure of the script. Both Marion’s strength and weakness drive forward the plot at different times. She can beat her husband in argument when necessary but she cannot beat Shane. All of this is believable and acceptable as cast. With Hepburn the balance would have swung further. There would have been no shoot-out at the end because if Katherine Hepburn had told Alan Ladd not to go into town, he wouldn’t have gone. (As a footnote to this it is possible to imagine a Katherine Hepburn character married to a struggling William Holden but too much of a stretch to see her putting up with the reliable Van Heflin for long enough to establish a homestead.)
All of the support acting in Shane is of an exceptional quality. This can be missed. It’s the classic case of the better the quality of the acting, the less you see it. Van Heflin is superb for all bar one little moment (when he gets the intonation wrong in declaring his delight at the Fourth of July). This slip may jar slightly in the moment but it only serves to emphasise just how strong the rest of his performance is. Jean Arthur is totally believable in the historic sense and even more believable in a mythic sense. She is the representative of endurance, strength, moral courage, fear and vulnerability in the Starrett household. There is no doubting why she is wearing trousers and work clothes in the opening scenes just as there is no doubting why her attire becomes more and more feminine as the film progresses. She allows her husband to think he’s the strength behind the plough while quietly making sure that he believes that it is he who is making all the right decisions. She’s strong, a good caring mother who finds time in her busy day to read to her child, to hold progressive and refined views on violence and guns, who sees the need to stay strong in the face of intimidation and yet who falls very deeply for the visitor. An attraction that is obviously physical as well as wistful. And all of this is carried with conviction (and mostly in the pauses) by Jean Arthur. She’s caring, compassionate, tends to the wounds, supports and offers sage advice, backs up her men and looks darned sexy into the bargain. Not bad for an actress in her fifties in her only western role and in her last major film.
The bad guys are universally magnificent. Led by Emil Meyer and John Dierkes as Rufus and Morgan Ryker, patriarch and right hand man of the cattle ranchers and backed up by Ben Johnson as the tough cowboy who hears the voice of conscience and Jack Palance who wouldn’t know the voice of conscience from an attack of gout.
There are duel plots in Shane. First, the cattle ranchers against the homesteaders, outwardly portrayed as bad versus good but far more subtly nuanced to add both depth to the film and to record a more true telling of history. Second, we do have the straight fight between good angel and bad angel, between black hat and white hat, Gawain and the Green Knight, as portrayed by the two man who come into the valley from outside and who shoot it out at the climax of the movie. There is only one truly evil character in the film and that is Wilson (Jack Palance). All the rest can be seen as being flawed good people. Marion Starrett is in some ways a madonna figure (The Starretts are actually named Marion and Joe – or Mary and Joseph – and they have a male child) but even she is severely tempted: her mother of God is a very human one.
Ben Johnson was a real cowboy before being lured into the acting game. As Chris Calloway he brings menace and authenticity. All too often you get cowboys talking with a practiced voice or an overtly actorly voice. The way Calloway sneeringly asks Shane what flavour soda pop he wants is a masterclass in how to talk like a westerner and how to be a genuine bully. “What’s it to be sodbuster? Orange, strawberry or Lie-Lack?” He’d strong, coarse and unhappy. Palance, on the other hand, is poised, dangerous, calculating in every thing he does and the few words that he speaks. He’s panther-like in his movements and in his attack. The shooting of Torrey outside the saloon is one of the cruelest and most psychopathic in western history. He beats the farmer to the draw and waits for the fear to run through his victim before killing him in cold blood. Incidentally this is the first western death where the victim doesn’t fall forward but is yanked backwards by a wire in a moment of shocking violence. Director George Stevens had served in battlefields of world war two, on the Normandy beaches, in the battle of the bulge and he knew the devastation that one bullet could cause. It was perhaps this moment more than any other that alerted Sam Packinpah to the power of Shane (and maybe led to Ben Johnson becoming one of The Wild Bunch 7 years later). The poignancy of the killing owes a great deal to the clever portrayal of Torrey by Elisha Cook Jr in one of the few roles where he wasn’t largely type-cast. I’m not sure if his Alabama accent is authentic but it is effective.
All of this is to overlook the astonishing part played by Brandon De Wilde as little Joey. Much of the power of the film comes from the fact that we see it through the eyes of a child. De Wilde is gentle at times, at times precocious, at times questioning, at times a victim of obsessive hero worship. All the time he is believable and key scenes are animated by the mere fact that he is an observer. One of my favourite scenes sees him with two little friends on a barn roof enjoying the 4th of July fireworks with childish glee and companionship. (A rare moment when he can simply be a little boy.) An awful lot of the success of the film rests on his young shoulders and he is equal to the task.