SHANE - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1953

Director: George Stevens

Production: Paramount Pictures; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 118 minutes. Released 1953. Oscar for Best Cinematography-Color, 1953.

Producer: George Stevens; associate producer: Ivan Moffat; screenplay: A. B. Guthrie, Jr. with additional dialogue by Jack Sher, from the novel by Jack Schaefer; photography: Loyal Griggs; editors: William Hornbeck and Tom McAdoo; sound recordists: Harry Lindgran and Gene Garwin; art directors: Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler; music score: Victor Young; special effects: Gordon Jennings; costume designer: Edith Head; technical adviser: Joe DeYong.

Cast: Alan Ladd ( Shane ); Jean Arthur ( Marion Starrett ); Van Heflin ( Joe Starrett ); Brandon de Wilde ( Joey ); Jack Palance ( Wilson ); Ben Johnson ( Chris ); Edgar Buchanan ( Lewis ); Emile Meyer ( Ryker ); Elisha Cook Jr. ( Torrey ); Douglas Spencer ( Shipstead ); John Dierkes ( Morgan ); Ellen Corby ( Mrs. Torrey ); Paul McVey ( Grafton ); John Miller ( Atkey ); Edith Evanson ( Mrs. Shipstead ); Leonard Strong ( Wright ); Ray Spiker ( Johnson ); Janice Carroll ( Susan Lewis ); Martin Mason ( Howell ); Helen Brown ( Mrs. Lewis ); Nancy Kulp ( Mrs. Howell ); Howard J. Negley ( Pete ); Beverly Washburn ( Ruth Lewis ); George Lewis ( Ryker man ); Charles Quirk ( Clerk ); Jack Sterling, Henry Wills, Rex Moore, and Ewing Brown ( Ryker men ).



Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson, The Western: From Silents to Cinerama , New York, 1962.

Babcock, David, The Hero , Waltham, Massachusetts, 1968.

Everson, William K., A Pictoral History of the Western Film , New York, 1969.

Richie, Donald, George Stevens: An American Romantic , New York, 1970, 1985.

Bazin, Andre, What Is Cinema? 2 , edited by Hugh Gray, Berkeley, 1971.

Cawelti, John, The Six-Gun Mystique , Bowling Green, Ohio, 1971.

Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson, The Western: From Silents to the 70s , New York, 1973.

French, Philip, Westerns—Aspects of a Movie Genre , New York, 1973.

Phillips, Gene D., The Movie Makers: Artists in the Industry , Chicago, 1973.

Nachbar, Jack, editor, Focus on the Western , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1974.

Parish, James, and Michael Pitts, The Great Western Pictures , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1976.

Henry, Marilyn, and Ron De Sourdis, The Films of Alan Ladd , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1981.

Petri, Bruce, A Theory of American Film: The Films and Techniques of George Stevens , New York, 1987.


Stern, Nina, in Films in Review (New York), April 1953.

Luft, H. G., "George Stevens," in Films in Review (New York), April 1953.

Time (New York), 13 April 1953.

Martin, B., in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 8 August 1953.

Houston, Penelope, "Shane and George Stevens," in Sight and Sound (London), Fall 1953.

Archer, Eugene, "George Stevens and the American Dream," in Film Culture (New York), no. 11, 1957.

Stang, Joanne, "Hollywood Romantic—A Monograph of George Stevens," in Films and Filming (New York), July 1959.

Warshow, Robert, "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner," in The Immediate Experience , New York, 1962.

Roman, Robert C., "Alan Ladd," in Films in Review (New York), April 1964.


"Viewing Report of Shane, " in Screen Education (London), September-October 1964.

McVay, Douglas, "George Stevens—His Work," in Films and Filming (London), April 1965 and May 1965.

Silke, James R., in Cinema (Beverly Hills), December-January 1965,

Stanbrook, Alan, "The Return of Shane," in Films and Filming (London), May 1966.

Vermilye, Jerry, "Jean Arthur," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1966.

"Stevens Issue" of Dialogue on Film (Washington, D.C.), no. 1, 1972.

Albright Jr., Charles, in Magill's Survey of Cinema 4 , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.

Miller, G., "Shane Redux: The Shootist and the Western Dilemma," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1983.

Desser, D., "Kurosawa's Easternd 'Western'," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Fall 1983.

Dominicus, M., and S. Daney, in Skrien (Amsterdam), November-December 1985.

Zizek, S., "Looking Awry," in October (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Fall 1989.

Ronald, A., " Shane' s Pale Ghost," in New Orleans Review , no. 3, 1990.

Holtsmark, E. B., "The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema," in Bucknell Review , vol. 35, no. 1, 1991.

Reid's Film Index , no. 12, 1993.

Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), vol. 279, no. 3648, 4 December 1993.

Berthomieu, Pierre, "L'homme des vallées perdues: Le passage du cavalier," in Positif (Paris), no. 397, March 1994.

Flora, J. M., " Shane (Novel and Film) at Century's End," in Journal of American Culture , vol. 19, no. 1, 1996.

Cieutat, M., "'L'homme des vallees perdues' ou le western retrouve," in Cinemaction (Conde-sur-Noireau), vol. 86, no. 1, 1998.

Nichols, Peter M., "Restoring What Time, and Editors, Took Away: Renovated Film Classics Find Their Way Back Onto Big Screens and Video, Often In Version Never Seen Before," in The New York Times , vol. 147, section 2, AR28, 17 May 1998.

* * *

Narrative films can be generally categorized into those that are motivated by plot and those that are motivated by character. Many American films are often cited as belonging to the former category, particularly in comparison to some of the European films. Shane is pure plot and pure American. The characters, rather than autonomous individuals, are functions of the plot and move through their respective roles with the assurance of legend. They possess no depth or dimension beyond the surface; they are always and exactly what they seem to be. And, ironically, this is their strength and the strength of the film.

The plot of Shane is a masterpiece of simplicity. The Indian Wars have been fought and won. The homesteaders have settled in to farm the land, threatening the open range of the ranchers. The law is a three-day ride from the community, and the tenuous co-existence waits for eruption into "gunsmoke." The ranchers, led by the Ryker brothers, try to intimidate the homesteaders in an effort to force them out of the valley, but the homesteaders are held together by the determination of a single man, Joe Starrett, who wants to build a life on the land for his wife Marion and young son Joey. Into this tension rides Shane, a stranger who is befriended by the Starretts. A gunfighter by profession, Shane tries to renounce his former trade and join the community of homesteaders. As the tension increases, another gunfighter is recruited to bait and kill the helpless homesteaders. When Starrett is left with no alternative but to meet the hired gunfighter, it is obvious that only Shane is a match for the final shootout. He overpowers Starrett and rides into town where he kills the gunman and the Rykers. Now that the valley is safe, Shane bids farewell to Joey and rides off into the distant mountains.

Of all American genres, the Western is arguably the most durable. The Western has tended to document not the history of the West but those cultural values that have become cherished foundations of our national identity. The Western certifies our ideals of individualism, initiative, independence, persistence and dignity. It also displays some of our less admirable traits of lawlessness, violence and racism. Possibly more than any previous American film, Shane tries to encapsulate the cultural ethos of the Western.

Rather than avoiding the clichés, platitudes and stereotypes of the genre, Shane pursues and embraces them. With the exception of a saloon girl and an Indian attack, all of the ingredients of the typical Western are present: the wide open spaces, the ranchers feuding with the farmers, the homesteading family trying to build a life, the rival gunman, the absence of law, the survival of the fastest gun, even the mandatory shoulder wound. Embodying as it does the look and feel of the Western, Shane becomes an essential rarity; it not only preserves but honors our belief in our heritage.

As myth, it is appropriate that Shane is seen through the eyes of a small boy. Joey is the first to see Shane ride into the community, more than the others he perceives the inner strength of the man, and he's the only one to bid Shane farewell as he leaves the valley. As both the child's idolization of an adult and the creative treatment of a myth, Shane is not a story of the West; it is, rather, the West as we believe it to have been.

Everything in the film favors its treatment of the myth. Alan Ladd—with his golden hair, his soft voice, his modest manner—is more the Olympian god than the rugged frontiersman or the outcast gunfighter. He rides down from the distant mountains and into lives of a settlement in need of his special talents. A stranger who doesn't belong and can never be accepted, he is a man without a past and without a future. He exists only for the moment of confrontation; and once that moment has passed, he has no place in the community. Even the way in which his movements are choreographed and photographed seem mythic—when riding into town for the final shootout, for example, the low angle tracking of the camera, the gait of his horse, the pulsing of the music with its heroic, lonely tones and the vast, panoramic landscapes all contribute to the classical dimensions of the film.

Shane is the generic loner who belongs to no one and no place. He possesses capability, integrity, restraint; yet there is a sense of despair and tragedy about him. Shane is that most characteristic of American anachronisms, the man who exists on the fringe of an advancing civilization. His background and profession place him on the periphery of law and society. The same skills as a warrior that make him essential to the survival of the community also make him suspect and even dangerous to that same community. In the tradition of William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Shane is the embodiment of the Western hero.

Shane is a reluctant mediator. There is a moral guilt about his profession that he carries with him as clearly as his buckskins. He wants to lay aside the violence of his past, but like the Greek heroes, of which he is kin, fate will not allow him to alter what is destined for him. Although he conspicuously tries to avoid the kind of confrontations he is best prepared to face, he suffers humiliation in doing so which is mistaken for cowardice. Once again he must prove himself, as if serving as the defender of those weaker will atone for his past and his profession. Consequently, a paradox emerges; he is both necessary and a threat to the survival of the community. In the Starrett family, for example, he begins to be more important to Joey than his father and more attractive to Marion than her husband. If the community is to grow and prosper, it must do so without him. Once he has served his function, he has no place and must again move on.

Shane is a tapestry laced with contrasts. The gun and the ax, the horse and the land, the buckskins and the denims, the loner and the family. In the end, the ax (peace) replaces the gun (violence), the land (stability) replaces the horse (transience), the denims (work) replace the buckskins (wilderness), the family (future) replaces the loner (past).

The unheralded mythic god leaves and the community is safe. Good has triumphed over evil, the family has been preserved, all the guns have been silenced. And yet there is a sense of loss. We have admired and appreciated Shane, but he exists for a single purpose and a single moment. When he has departed, we know we're safer and better for his presence; but we also know that we are again vulnerable.

—Stephen E. Bowles

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: