Shane

AFI Rank: #69
Year Released: 1953
Director: George Stevens
Actors: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur

Shane earned the rank of #69 on the AFI top 100 listing, coming in above The Searchers, Unforgiven, and powerful classics such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I appreciate that there are viewers out there who feel that Shane is the greatest movie in the world. We all have different topics which draw us in, and especially for people who grew up watching Shane, the movie is sure to call to their childhood and the times they lived in. I would ask your patience as I explain why to me, as a modern viewer, I cannot rank Shane higher than these other stellar classics.

As a quick story recap, Shane is a gunslinger who is attempting to turn over a new leaf. He joins up with Joe - a farmer, along with his wife Marian and son Joey. It's the classic western farmers-vs-cowboys situation in the gorgeous lands of Wyoming. Soon enough, Shane is the one who has to keep the family safe. There's also the classic love triangle which both men handle with honor.

I love westerns. I adore the Wyoming scenery. I'm a fan of honor and of complex relationships. This movie should have been one I adored from start to finish. But instead I found myself shaking my head in several spots instead.

First, I realize child actors have a very challenging task to do. Still, Joey went beyond "overly cute" and into the realm of "annoying". His super-wide-eyed gaze was far too overused and lost its power; it became almost like Macaulay Culkin's wide-mouthed look in Home Alone. A more subtle playing would have been far more powerful. Clearly they were using the boy's character as a foil against the tension in the family, but instead of maintaining that balance it went over into the "too much" category. The scene where he's racing around screaming BANG! BANG! BANG! made me think that most families back then would never have allowed such undisciplined behavior from a child.

Next, the King Arthur - Lancelot situation was presented with a heavy hand. For a fantastic portrayal of a nearly identical situation, look at The Searchers, which was filmed within three years of this one. The Searchers' tension between the wife and the "third man" (in that case her brother-in-law) was incredibly powerful. You could feel the ripples, and the restraint. Here it becomes almost silly. Marian gazes longingly after Shane and then turns to her husband and says "Don't say anything. Just hold me tight." It felt very creepy to me. Either she needed to remind herself of who she'd vowed to be loyal to, ten years ago, or she wants him quiet so she can imagine herself in Shane's arms for a moment. Neither reason sits well with me.

I do agree that I like greatly the idea that Shane is trying to change his direction in life, that it's challenging, and that he's doing the best that he can. But when Shane is in the bar, "being peaceful", he doesn't last long. Soon he's deliberately tossing whiskeys into the face of a cowboy - and then he SUCKER PUNCHES him while the guy is blinded by alcohol. That's not honorable at all! That made me less fond of Shane, a character I had really hoped would be stronger than that. Shane does make the "right" decision in the end, leaving the family to be on their own, just as Rick in Casablanca leaves the woman he loved. So I do appreciate that.

I also appreciate the sense of "changing times" presented in the film. Things are in flux. The rancher makes a good point when he says that he and his kind killed themselves to get the land "tamed" and then the farmers just waltzed in and took advantage of that safety. But as Joe points out, even the ranchers had come into a world that had been prepared by those before them. Each new generation has to show appreciation for those who had come before - and then build on that. Similarly, Shane's world is changing. He gained his skills in a rough world where gunfighting was a way of life. Now civilization was coming in and that type of activity was no longer condoned.

But still, these ideas could have been presented in a way which was handled more subtly. The speech given by the cemetery wasn't rousing or stirring - it was only the deus ex machina of the homestead fire which drew them together. Shane's farewell talk to Joe about growing up straight and caring for his parents was equally mild. People talk about having tears in their eyes at the ending, but I just didn't feel that level of emotion, especially when Joey is shouting outrageously bald comments like "And mother wants you! I know she does!" Again, surely they could have been slightly more subtle than that?

Yes, it was a fun Western to watch. Yes, the characters had promise. But again, to hold this up against classics like High Noon, The Searchers, Unforgiven, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I would have expected that story to be more subtly handled. I would want to "feel" the growing tension between the three adults, not have it shouted at me. I would have liked Joey's blissfully naive intrusions to feel like tugs, not screams. And I would have loved some more complex, drawing dialogue. One thing which unites most movies on the AFI top 100 - even movies from the 30s and 40s - is stunning dialogue. I'm just not finding that here, and it's disappointing.

So again, I appreciate that there is a group of Shane fans who adore this film for what it is, and that is fine! We all have different types of movies we enjoy; some love film noir, others love serious war films. I am simply saying, from my point of view, with my interests in powerful westerns, that this one feels too "heavy handed" to me. I would much better have appreciated a movie that handled the exact same plot and characters with complex dialogue and subtle looks and moves, rather than in-your-face bald statements.

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