The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present a 60th anniversary screening of George Stevens' classic Western Shane, starring Alan Ladd as a lone and mysterious gunslinger, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 7, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Besides Ladd, Shane, a 1953 Paramount release, also stars Jean Arthur in her last movie role, in addition to Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, and Jack Palance. (Image: Alan Ladd in Shane.)
“A gun is a tool, Marian, no better or no worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel or anything,” Alan Ladd's Shane tells Jean Arthur's homesteader wife and mother. “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”
That may sound like your usual National Rifle Association bullshit, but in the hands of Shane producer-director George Stevens and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr., who adapted Jack Schaefer's 1949 novel (with additional dialogue by Jack Sher), a gun is ultimately proven to be a much more complex “tool” than any axe or shovel could ever be – its effects immeasurably longer lasting and farther reaching, whether the man pulling the trigger is a “good” or a “bad” one.
'Shane': Deceptively traditional plot
Shane's basic storyline is quite simple and hardly original: in mid-19th-century Wyoming, the boy Joey (Brandon De Wilde), son of homesteader Van Heflin and wife Jean Arthur, worships Alan Ladd's mysterious gunslinger Shane, recently arrived in the area. Shane has no past, no destination, and no family name, but none of that prevents him from siding with the “common folk” against a greedy, ruthless cattle baron (Emile Meyer) and his henchmen (among them a bloodthirsty Jack Palance).
Now, what makes Shane special is that while Stevens and Gurthrie Jr.'s movie feels like a paean to the Old West and to Western movies in general, it actually demythologizes both American history and the film genre that turned into stars the likes of Tom Mix, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and, later on, Clint Eastwood. Read between the lines and you'll see how subversive Shane is – how unheroic its heroes are, how complex the lives and minds of its “common people,” how civilization can be just another manifestation of barbarism; and, no matter their righteousness, how hollow human victories can be.
'Shane': Six Academy Award nominations – but none for Alan Ladd or Jean Arthur
George Stevens' first color film – shot on location near Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Shane turned out to be a major blockbuster: $8 million in rentals for Paramount, or the equivalent of approximately $217 million in box office grosses today. Shane was also a major critical hit, earning six well-deserved Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Brandon De Wilde and Jack Palance), Best Screenplay, and Best Color Cinematography.
Needless to say, the big winner that year was Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity, which beat Shane in five of the six Oscar categories – including Frank Sinatra beating the infinitely more deserving De Wilde. But at least Shane took home one Oscar, for cinematographer Loyal Griggs' evocative work. Totally bypassed by the Academy were Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, and composer Victor Young's affecting music score.
Woody Allen and Warren Beatty
Though hardly an iconic classic like other 1950s Hollywood fare such as John Ford's The Searchers, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, or Zinnemann's aforementioned From Here to Eternity, I find Shane – despite several flaws, including some corny dialogue and excessive running time – superior to all of them.
And when it comes to my admiration for Shane, I'm in renowned company. Woody Allen has remarked on the film's “poetry and elegant flow,” while in George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, Warren Beatty discusses Shane's influence on Bonnie and Clyde – you won't think of axes and shovels when you hear guns go off in either movie.
Besides Alan Ladd (instead of original choices Montgomery Clift and William Holden), Jean Arthur (instead of original choice Katharine Hepburn), Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, and Emile Meyer, Shane also features Elisha Cook Jr., Ben Johnson, Ellen Corby, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer, Edith Evanson, Nancy Kulp, and a clever saloon dog.
Photos: Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Alan Ladd in 'Shane'
Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Alan Ladd Shane photos: Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.