The Film: 5/5
One beautiful day, a man by the name of Shane (Alan Ladd) rides into the lives of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur), and son Joey (Brandon deWilde). Starrett is part of a group of ranchers who have settled in Wyoming and work the land they own to provide for their families, which puts them directly in the sights of the powerful cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his gang of smirking hired thugs (which includes future member of Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, Ben Johnson). Ryker is hardly one to shy away from strong arm tactics to run Starrett and the others off their legally-procured land so his livestock can roam freely without charge or consequence (his modern day equivalent would doubtlessly be Cliven Bundy). When he grows tired of the ranchers’ resistance to his bullying, he calls in the cold-blooded gunfighter Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to help escalate the simmering conflict into all-out war. Reluctant to involve himself in the plight of this makeshift community’s working folk, Shane soon realizes that he can no longer hide from his dark past and decides to battle Ryker and Wilson on their own violent terms.
George Stevens’ Shane is one of the all-time greatest westerns made in this country or any others. It established one of the more reliable templates for the genre’s progression into modern times and has been unofficially remade a time or two – maybe more, I’m not quite sure – often in unrecognizable form. After all, what is The Road Warrior if not Shane set in the post-apocalyptic age?
Yet Shane is not remembered more than six decades after it was made and released merely because of its cultural impact; the film was made with an eye for magnificent visuals and remarkably precise and uncluttered storytelling, and it features some of the strongest, most iconic performances ever seen in a western. It also broke from the cartoonish Roy Rogers romps and the stark, trenchant realism of Howard Hawks’ epic masterpiece Red River to help introduce a mythological aspect to the western – the mysterious loner who wanders into a town straight out of a haunted past and takes a stand against an enabled, moneyed evil that seeks to crush the defenseless and impoverished, in the process demonstrating why they are not to be underestimated. Shane is hardly a pulp comic book treatment of the Old West, and most of the characters, though built upon archetypal foundations, are allowed to be seen as flawed human beings capable of empathy, fear, and bravery where it counts.
Alan Ladd, bearing a striking resemblance to a youthful Peter O’Toole, gives the most iconic performance of his career in the title role. Despite his reluctance to register any emotion that might threaten his steely demeanor, Ladd’s eyes carry with them a lifetime of pain, longing, and regret. His Shane is one of the coolest badass melon farmers on the Hollywood frontier, but Ladd’s portrayal of the character is anything but one-note. Stevens and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. (The Kentuckian), using Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel of the same title as a source, give us enough relevant material regarding Shane’s past to help us understand where he comes from and his current state of mind regarding the use of violence without drowning us in exposition. Body language and limited but effective dialogue ably provides the audience with all of the backstory they require. Jack Sher (Paris Blues) contributed to some of that dialogue.
Set against the backdrop of some spectacular Technicolor vistas shot in both Wyoming and California by the great Loyal Griggs (who would go on to serve as cinematographer on White Christmas and The Ten Commandments, two more of Paramount’s most lavish productions of the 1950’s) and scored to the thunderously romantic and tense soundtrack composed by Victor Young (Johnny Guitar, another classic western with powerfully potent psychological underpinnings), the character conflicts in Shane drive the narrative rather than allow the plot to dictate how the people at its center behave from one scene to the next. We know that from the moment Stevens introduces us to Starrett’s fellow rancher Stonewall Torrey, played by one of cinema’s greatest character actors Elisha Cook Jr. (The Killing), things aren’t going to end well for the poor slob. Torrey appears to be just as bold and gutsy as Starrett, but it becomes quickly apparent that his bravery is nothing more than a front to cover an overpowering fear that his eyes couldn’t possibly conceal.
Cook’s performance is just one of the many standouts among a Murderer’s Row of a supporting cast that also includes winning turns from Edgar Buchanan (Petticoat Junction), Emile Meyer (Paths of Glory), Ellen Corby (The Waltons), Douglas Spencer (The Thing from Another World), John Dierkes (The Alamo), and Paul McVey (Drums Along the Mohawk). Johnson is excellent as the Ryker goon who has undergoes an actual moral conflict. Previously best known for her leading lady parts in several Frank Capra classics, Jean Arthur impresses to this day as Starrett’s iron-willed wife who possibly develops feelings for Shane that don’t go entirely unsaid. Brandon deWilde did mighty well in one of the cinema’s best performances by a child actor by convincing us of his growing admiration for the mysterious Shane and the genuine concern he has for the life of this unlikely father figure.
Enough doesn’t get said or written about the underrated Van Heflin giving one of the two best performances of his career (the other being another working class hero in a classic western, the original 3:10 to Yuma) as the headstrong Starrett, a man who doesn’t resort to violence to show his true strength but isn’t afraid to employ brute force when the occasion calls for it. Heflin excels at internalizing his character’s conflicting emotions, constantly torn between doing what is right for his family and fellow ranchers and risking his life to take a stand against Ryker. The bond that forms between Starrett and Shane is one of the film’s most interesting relationships. In a lesser feature, Starrett would become instantly jealous of the charismatic gunfighter, but here he demonstrates maturity and intelligence by embracing Shane as a friend and showing his willingness to put the life of this man he barely knows, as well as his other loved ones, ahead of his own. Ladd may get to own the screen in the film’s outstandingly staged action sequences, but it’s Heflin who walks away the true hero of Shane.
Even in a film as soaked in moral and psychological complexity as Shane, it needs a truly evil villain. Ryker is a miserable old bastard, but at the end of the day he’s just consumed by greed and power and little else. He’s even willing to confess to having a begrudging respect for Starrett even though the rancher is nothing but a colossal pain in the ass. It’s the loathsome Jack Wilson, played by the late Jack Palance in one of the performances that made his career, that provides Shane with its unimaginable dark side. He does magnificently malevolent wonders with a modicum of dialogue and a surplus of screen presence (not to mention a smile that would give Satan the heebie-jeebies) and creates a truly nasty piece of work that you just can’t wait to see brought to his knees. It’s one of many memorable performances in a classic film that has more of them than you might find in twenty films combined made today.
As part of their “Masters of Cinema” series, Eureka has presented Shane in a pillar-boxed, 1080p high-definition transfer that has been framed in director Stevens’ intended 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which was the ratio that Shane had been filmed in because it was still the Academy standard at the time. It appears that Eureka has utilized the same HD master created by Paramount and Warner Bros., sourced from an extensive restoration of the original negative about two decades ago, for the 2013 Region A Blu-ray release. That would make sense as that transfer was absolutely gorgeous to behold and nigh impossible upon which to improve. The lush and vibrant Technicolor cinematography has never looked better on home video. Picture detail is crisp and improved and what digital clean-up was employed was likely restricted to balancing out the grain and removing instances of print damage that would distract from the beautiful scenery and production design.
The second Blu-ray disc is exclusive to this limited edition set (only 2000 copies available) and carries with it two alternate framing options, both upscaled in 1080p and presented in the 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio: the first is the initial theatrical exhibition ratio, while the second is a slightly different framing supervised by George Stevens Jr. for this release. I’ve studied the differences in the framing and though there is a slight loss of information on the top and bottom halves of the picture, it’s nothing significant, and each of the alternate options brings with it more open and spacious visuals. I prefer the 1.37:1 option because the overall quality is stronger and reflects the true intentions of the filmmakers, but your opinion might be of a differing sort so thankfully you have other choices.
Eureka offers two English audio tracks for all three versions: the first is a 1.0 mono option, while the second is a 2.0 stereo track similar to the one on the Region A Blu-ray. While the 1.0 channel accurately recreates the film’s original soundtrack, the stereo remix packs a heartier punch in its clear and upfront presentation of the dialogue, sound effects, and orchestral score. If you happen to be a purist or you’re watching this Blu-ray on a standard television set-up, you might find the 1.0 option to suit your needs just fine. I’ll stick with the 2.0. English SDH subtitles have also been included for all three framings.
The first disc features an audio commentary with George Stevens Jr., who served as an uncredited production assistant to his father during filming, and associate producer Ivan Moffat that appeared on both Paramount’s Region 1 DVD released in 2000 and the Warner Bros. Blu-ray from two years ago. It’s a highly informative and wistful track, with both participants having much to share about the origins of the film, the physical production, working with a cast overflowing with talent, and lots more.
To give their release added value for fans of the film, Eureka has also included a new interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard (22 minutes) that is rich in respect for Shane and the love and craft that went into its making, as well as the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Shane (54 minutes) that brings back Ladd and Heflin but replaces Arthur with Ruth Hussey (The Philadelphia Story). Closing out the disc is an original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) that pretty much gives away the entire movie. I’d advise avoiding it if you’ve never watched Shane before. There are no additional supplements on the second disc.
Sweetening the pot even more is a 36-page booklet included by Eureka that features a 1953 article about Shane and George Stevens’ body of work up until that time written by Penelope Houston, an unpublished interview with Stevens from 1969 conducted by the Brazilian film critic Eduardo Escorel, a 1951 inter-office memo from Moffat to Stevens regarding the film’s prologue, and an essay from 2015 written by Adam Nayman (author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls) that details Shane’s history with shifting aspect ratios.
Last week, I watched the recent horror-tinged western Bone Tomahawk on its new Blu-ray. It wasn’t two days later before I checked out Shane for the first time in several years. On the following Thursday, some friends and I checked out Quentin Tarantino’s latest bloody oater The Hateful Eight. Between those two Kurt Russell-starring westerns, I gave Eureka’s new Blu-ray release of Shane a viewing. This trio of experiences couldn’t be more night-and-day. Shane isn’t one of the greatest westerns ever made for nothing. It has exquisite direction, a richly nuanced screenplay that is far meatier and thought-provoking than the genre was accustomed to encountering, and an unbeatable assemblage of first-rate acting talent anchored by Alan Ladd’s iconic performance in the title role. Shane is one of George Stevens’ enduring masterworks and a film that will continue to have great influence on modern mythic storytelling for generations to come. Eureka’s two-disc limited edition Blu-ray is clearly the winner with marvelous transfers for three distinct framings of the main feature and a few interesting supplements exclusive to this release. One of the best home video release of the year. Absolutely, unequivocally recommended.