Author: Edward Countryman and Evonne von Heussen-Countryman
The cover of this BFI Film Classics book has on it the cover the film poster for Shane that reads: “There never was a man like Shane. There never was a picture like Shane.” Cinema posters from the golden era often have silly self deluded marketing statements like this. But for Shane it is probably true. This is one of those westerns that has never lost its popularity (for those who like westerns at any rate). It was made mid-point in the era of great westerns; that is, as the authors also observed it stood mid-point between Stagecoach (1939) which brought the western out of B picture status or serial filler into the golden age of Hollywood and the westerns of the seventies which all but ended with Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Critics were beginning to take the western seriously by the 1950s as they were becoming more psychological tone. Shane was one of those films.
The psychological element in Shane is explored in the Countrymans book. But this addition to the BFI series primarily focuses on the director George Stevens and makes it very clear that this was George Stevens’ film in every way. Westerns before the 1950s were just about baddies and good guys, farmers and frontier folk and of course Indians. But by the 1950s they became more about the individual and the internalization of the individual. The story of Shane, based off one of the many pulp western novels that appeared in the 20th Century is about a gunfighter who arrives at a family homestead and offers to help out. He becomes close to the family and realizes this is the change he wants in his life. However, he also soon realizes that the homesteaders are threatened from being driven off their land by the Rykers, cattle owners who spend most of the time drinking in the bar cum general store in a small Wyoming town. When they refuse to move Ryker brings in a gunfighter called Wilson who will blast them away. A showdown between Shane and Wilson is inevitable. Shane is a comment on violence; this is where films like this and others in the 1950s stand out but this story is seen through the eyes of a young boy impressed by the gunfighter and his side arms, yet still naïve about violence. Yet only two people are actually gunned down in the film but its comments on violence are strong. As the authors noted previous to this western had people shooting at Indians and several of them would fall off the horses at the same time but this film is much more thought provoking.
Although the book goes into George Stevens in great detail it only mentions in passing the director’s recent experiences inEuropeat the end of Second World War and what he experienced there. Stevens saw first hand the horrors of war, violence and the collapse of society as he travelled with the US Army from D-Day toBerlin; he was with the 49th Division when they liberated Dachau Concentration Camp and saw first hand the horrors of that camp. These experiences must have had a marked and profound affect on the director and for me that permeated into the film particularly with the tension and the set-ups created by Stevens. One of the most significant is when the settler Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) faces downWilson(played with particular relish and malevolence by Jack Palance) with the experienced gunfighter inevitably winning. The town is muddy and realistic and Torrey seems stuck in the mud. When he is shot and killed by Wilson Stevens pulls him back with a wire to show the real effect of being hit with a slug from a Colt .45. Stevens also amplified the sounds of gunshots by recording a shotgun shooting into a barrel; this is also done to equal effect when the boy Joey is impressed by Shane’s fast drawing and shooting practice.
Throughout the book there is little mention made of the films lead, Alan Ladd other than that the diminutive actor didn’t seem to understand the message Stevens was trying to make and frankly comes across as somewhat of a bimbo. Van Heflin as Joe, the homesteader is portrayed as a reliable heavy and only veteran Jean Arthur (in her final film) as Joe’s wife is given much mention. The authors devote a chapter to Arthur’s performance and her character’s relationship with Shane and the underlying sexual tension which bubbles beneath the surface throughout; this would be down both to the director’s skill and Arthur as an actress.
It is right that so much focus should be given to George Stevens and his consummate skill in creating this classic western and its place in the canon of westerns – Stevens cannot, however, as the authors point out be considered in any way a director of westerns (as he only made this one, Annie Oakley in 1935 and the modern western Giant in 1956). The chapters on how the film came to the screen, the production itself, a little historical setting as to when the film and the book were placed historically, as well as the chapters looking at the use of violence and Jean Arthur’s character are all interesting and make for an interesting study and addition to a genre that has not had that many books written about it and deserves more study. Bravo to Edward Countryman and Evonne von Heussen-Countryman for writing this book.