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Shane rides into a conflict between cattleman Ryker and a bunch of settlers, like Joe Starrett and his family, whose land Ryker wants. When Shane beats up Ryker's man Chris, Ryker tries to buy him. Then Shane and Joe take on the whole Ryker crew. Ryker sends to Cheyenne for truly evil gunslinger Wilson. Shane must clear out all the guns from the valley. Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Whether or not Shane is, in fact, a great film is open to at least some discussion. But it is certainly among the most cinematic. One could set a documentary on garbage-collection in the Grand Tetons and elevate its stature by that fact alone. Put a film of real substance in such a setting and the table is definitely set. Shane is beautiful to watch, at times like a moving oil painting. In fact, the film's setting sometimes overpowers its characters, diffusing them into the vast scenery. It's easy to picture just planting signs in the ground that say `Town', `Homestead', `Cemetery' and foregoing set-design altogether.
Shane never completely worked for me until I was able to stop seeing it purely as a western. Alan Ladd's title character is almost a total non-sequitur, more like a State Farm agent from 1950's Des Moines horsebacking through the Snake River valley of Wyoming, perhaps as part of a dude ranch outing. He's just all wrong. But there it is. Must the improbable Ladd, in his improbable fringed buckskins, be human at all? In the later Clint Eastwood films, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, both of which reference Shane wholeheartedly (all three films draw on the same fundamental myth) Clint Eastwood's characters, though certainly interesting and implicitly mysterious, remain rather superficially so (as though both wear signs that say `Supernatural'). Shane is truly mysterious, and perhaps even more unreal, because he is so completely incongruous. Just look past the costume. When Shane was made, The Twilight Zone had not yet appeared. But Rod Serling did not invent The Strange. He simply had the genius to recognize and tap into what was already percolating up into the general consciousness. As a possibly supernatural guardian of a vast landscape, Ladd's near-flatline characterization begins to make real sense.
As was the case with the Eastwood characters, the disharmony required to call the supernatural guardian into human form has manifested and he has appeared. Shane comes from `nowhere' and eventually returns to that no-place, where even the innocent Brandon DeWilde may not follow. He resembles no one and exhibits few human traits aside from the most superficial. No one, neither sodbuster nor cowpuncher, knows quite what to make of him. He seems friendly but this may be just the side-effect of a complete absence of the reactionism displayed by many of the film's other characters, an entirely different orientation from the merely friendly. Shane is part of no relationship with man or woman and never will be, even though Jean Arthur's homestead wife, an orchid of womanhood transplanted into the high plains, chastely throws herself at him. Shane clearly returns her love, but from a place as remote and still as the summit of Everest on a calm morning. There are wisps of implication that Shane may have a past but they vanish quickly; subatomic resonances of Shane's transient human form. Shane is there. But in many ways he is not. Of course, director George Stevens probably did not ascribe to any paranormal vision when making the film. But things often happen even when they are not intended, certainly in art.
The film proceeds somewhat formulaically until its chief villains, the cattle-ranching Ryker brothers call up a dark force to oppose Shane's angel of light. The Rykers pioneered the vast valley for open range, against nature and its indigenous inhabitants and are ready to kill to keep their range from being homesteaded. They summon the gunfighter, Jack Wilson, played definitively by the young Jack Palance. Palance's Wilson is a killer of such distilled lethality that just looking at him might kill you. Whenever Wilson is on screen, time seems to slow down as it is refracted by his menacing gravity (Almost all subsequent tv/movie gunslingers are his bitches). Wilson is, allegedly, from Cheyenne but that assertion is never confirmed by hard evidence. He simply appears. The first meeting of Shane and Wilson, at the homestead of alpha-sodbuster Joe Starrett ( Van Heflin), is riveting. The Rykers are making the rounds, issuing their final warning to the farmers, accompanied for maximum effect by the recently-arrived Wilson. Not a word is exchanged as the two entities unblinkingly size each other up. Dialog continues in the background but you barely hear it as Wilson, who has dismounted for a drink of water, places a foot in a stirrup then almost levitates back into the saddle, grinning like death, having never taken his eyes off Shane from the first moment, finally backing his horse out of Starrett's yard in order to keep Shane in focus. A later sequence where Wilson meticulously executes Elisha Cook Jr.'s homesteader, a punched-out Civil War veteran with exponentially more pride than sense, must rank as one of the most powerful ever filmed, western or otherwise. Rolling thunder clouds open for a moment and bathe the homesteader in bright light as he almost turns back on the way to his doom, then they close and roll on as he rejects his last chance.
Shane, the film, owes much to its beautifully-rendered bad guys, who confront a rather bland, uni-dimensional good, giving it texture and motivation. Without them, the film might have remained just a western movie. Shane, the character, enters as something of a poster-boy cowboy hero. But, bathed in Jack Wilson's black light, he glows beyond that status. The Taoists assert that emptiness lies at the heart of all things; the wheel turns because the center of the hub is empty. Shane turns, to no little degree, because its hub is almost equally empty, the film moving in stately rotation around Ladd's near-blank, avenging angel. If Shane is a great film it is, possibly, as much by accident as design. It was meant to be a big, studio western in the style of that period. However, unforeseen chemical reactions occurred and the result transcended certain stylistic bindings, including its swelling, 'Big Sky' score, to become more than the sum of its parts.
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