Director: George Stevens
Screenwriter: A.B. Guthrie Jr
By Roderick Heath
The word ‘iconic’ is certainly overused, but if any film deserves the appellation it would be George Stevens’ Shane, a film that became an instant reference point for a specific branch of modern cinematic storytelling. If Seven Samurai (1954) laid down the essential blueprint for genre films about a diverse team of heroes banding together to fight an enemy, Shane did the same for any movie about a solitary hero with a violent past trying and failing to find a new life, eventually forced to pull the guns out again in the name of a righteous new cause. Plenty of movies had dealt with similar themes before, of course, but Shane set out to distil the theme on a level of perfect representation, mythologising a genre and placing it in a vital dialectic with its audience, presenting the very idea of cinema heroism in a mythic cartouche, enclosed by elemental moral drama. Perhaps Shane is self-conscious almost to fault, one reason why its reputation in some quarters has declined in recent years, but it’s hard to get away from how exactly Stevens read both the audience of the 1950s and the imagination of other filmmakers. A grand sprawl of screen heroes from The Man With No Name to John Rambo to Robocop and Wolverine and beyond have Shane in their genes, even if so many of them discarded the original meaning of the character.
Stevens’ emergence as a maker of serious, thoughtful, often epic films in the 1950s stood in stark contrast to his reputation as a great comedy filmmaker in the 1930s and ‘40s. Stevens, a California native born in 1904, had dabbled in photography since he was 10 years old, and his expertise by the time he hit his late teens quickly landed him working as an assistant cameraman for the independent impresario Hal Roach. Stevens helped make comedian Stan Laurel a movie star by applying his photographic ken to make Laurel’s eyes register on film, as their light blue hue was hard to pick up on standard film at the time. This proved the key to Stevens’ career, as he subsequently shot dozens of Laurel and Hardy shorts, as well as writing gags for them. Finally breaking with Roach as he was itching make more substantial films, Stevens got his first shot at directing a feature at Universal, with The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble (1933), but it was Alice Adams (1935), starring Katharine Hepburn, which made his name. He followed it with the much-love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle Swing Time (1936) and other musical-comedies, and ventured into historical adventure film with 1939’s Gunga Din, a costly production that still proved a major hit.
Stevens ran into trouble on Penny Serenade (1941) and Woman of the Year (1942), both of which were subjected to heavy interference and reshoots, but had further success with The Talk of the Town (1942) and The More The Merrier (1943). The Talk of the Town, whilst still a comedy, offered commentary on mob rule and the meaning of justice, signalling Stevens was already turning more serious-minded at a time when he was planning to join the war effort and was becoming fervently anti-Nazi. Stevens joined the US Army Signal Corps and was sent to Europe to shoot documentary footage. Stevens’ camera was turned on important events like D-Day and the meeting of US and Soviet forces at the Elbe River, but the experience that permanently marked Stevens was participating in the liberation of Dachau, capturing vital primary evidence of the Holocaust used at the Nuremberg Trials. When he returned from the war and resumed his Hollywood career, his first movie was the comedy-drama I Remember Mama (1948), whilst resisting the reactionary movement gripping Hollywood during the Red Scare. He had a major success with an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, retitled A Place In The Sun (1951), winning him the first of two Oscars for directing, with his second coming for 1956’s Giant. Stevens’ cinematic technique evolved along with his ambitions, sharing something of William Wyler’s penchant for carefully unfolding scenes and strenuously developed dramatic rhythm.
Shane, the film Stevens made in between his two Oscar-winners, is still likely his most famous work but gained no such distinction as Westerns were still considered a bit beneath Oscars. Stevens in making Shane had similar motivations to Fred Zinneman in making the previous year’s High Noon: Zinneman had lost family in the Holocaust, and both films present potent allegories about drawing a line in the sand against evil, purposefully reconstructing the traditional Western hero into metaphors for individual, masculine quality in relation to society at large. And yet Shane articulates a subtly different ethos to High Noon. Stevens’ disgust with war and bloodshed was articulated through a film profoundly uneasy about the mythos of the gunslinger even as it seems to hone that mythos to a perfect form. Shane was based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, a former journalist and student of both American history and Greco-Roman mythology, fusing the two interests when he decided to follow in the footsteps of his favourite writer as a boy, Zane Grey. Schaefer had a long career as a Western novelist after Shane made his reputation, also providing the source material for the films Tribute to a Bad Man (1957) and Monte Walsh (1970) before becoming an impassioned conservationist, and he later sourly noted that Shane was a story about defending civilisation when he felt increasingly opposed to it. Whilst he liked the film of Shane, he didn’t like the star it chose, Alan Ladd, a notoriously short and spare actor, where Schaefer had imagined a type with an aura of incipient darkness and violence about him, citing George Raft.
It’s not that hard to see Schaefer’s point, but Ladd nonetheless becomes inseparable from the role within the opening scene. Ladd’s Shane is first glimpsed under the title card declaring his name at the very start, alone and on horseback, riding down through mountain forest and descending towards the plain below. Stevens’ mythmaking approach is evinced in his establishing evocations of the location where most of the film plays out, underneath the soaring, jagged, snow and cloud-bedecked Grand Teton Mountains, the plain a fertile, muddy region lingering under the spiritual reaches of the peaks. This setting becomes a natural amphitheatre for the drama about to unfold, as young Joey (Brandon deWilde), son of farming couple Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur), stalks a deer with an unloaded rifle. He spies Shane riding across the plain, momentarily framed by the deer’s antlers as the animal lifts its head in curiosity. That shot betrays both Stevens’ newly exacting visual method, and also a ghostly echo of his old comic felicity, except the visual joke is servicing an already-accruing air of legend around Shane. When seen up close, Shane proves armed with Ladd’s charismatic smile and wavy blonde hair, a particularly American, lightly weathered version of a knight errant out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, appearing like a guardian angel sent to the Starretts at the outset of great tribulation. Clint Eastwood, evidently a major fan of Shane, would invert this mystique for his High Plains Drifter (1973) where the lone intruder proves to be a demonic punisher, and then twist it back to a darker, harder but once more heroic take for Pale Rider (1984).
Shane’s image is further enhanced by his clothing, clad in light-brown buckskins that at once evoke the white knight but also his status as an emanation of the Western landscape, a figure from the frontier age, already brushing anachronism compared to the flannel-wearing Joe Starrett, who represents the oncoming age of settlement and stolid values. Shane’s hat is also light, although not white, lest things get too Roy Rogers. His pistol hangs from a holster on his hip linked to a black belt with silver decorations, his livery mythic but also like a stain girdling his clothes. He spins about, ready to draw in a flash when he hears Joey cocking the unloaded rifle, but also displays precise self-control, only fingering the handle of the gun. Starrett greets Shane with casual decency as he offers him a drink of water, whilst Marian watches warily from a window in their cabin. A number of men on horseback come towards the farm, and Starrett’s manner changes, taking the gun of Joey and holding it Shane and telling him to leave. Shane, bewildered, asks Starrett to lower the gun and then he’ll go: “I’d like it to be my idea.” Starrett does so and Shane rides away, only to return and listen to the confrontation between the farmer and the riders, who prove to be cattleman Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and a gang of heavies in his employ. Ryker has been intimidating Starrett and the other farmers in the area, who have claimed land under a new law, because they’re blocking his cattle’s access to water, and now that’s he’s landed a large contract to supply meat he tells Starrett he means to drive all the farmers out.
Ryker is rattled when Shane reappears and declares himself “a friend of Starrett’s,” and he and his gang ride off. Starrett, grateful for Shane’s support, sheepishly reveals the rifle wasn’t loaded, and invites Shane to dinner. During the meal Shane is again startled by an unexpected noise and reaches for his gun, which Joey has been gawking at in fascination, with startling reflexive speed: Joey retreats against the wall in alarm. Starrett declares the only way he’ll ever leave his claim is in a pine box, but also laments not having anyone to help do the work on the farm after his last hand was roughed up by Rykers’ men. Shane, to pay the family back for their hospitality, takes up the task that Starrett was labouring at when he arrived, trying to laboriously chop out an insistent tree stump near the house. Starrett comes to aid him and the two men cement their fast friendship on the job, Stevens turning hard work into an essential ritual with montage as the rhythmic axe strokes gouge through the wood. Finally, at dusk, the two men finally snap the stump free of its roots: “Sometimes nothin’ll do but your own sweat and muscle,” Starrett comments after refusing to uses horses to perform the last, most arduous task.
Shane sleeps out the night in the stable, and the next day agrees to take a wagon out to fetch some wire for Starrett from Grafton’s, a combination of store and saloon and the centre of commerce in the area: Shane makes a point of going to town without wearing his gun. Shane passes through two more rituals that knit him into the life of the homesteaders: he buys some working ordinary clothes from Grafton’s, and gets a quick lesson in the travails of the farmers when he’s bullied by one of Rykers’ men, Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), who mocks Shane for ordering soda pop –actually for Joey – and tosses a glass of liquor over him. Shane stoically takes the treatment, and his apparent placidity is reported by Frank ‘Stonewall’ Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr) with disdain when he joins a meeting of several farmers in Starrett’s cabin: Shane’s apparent cowardice reflects badly on them all, and Shane bows out of the meeting. The farmers argue about how to respond to Ryker’s coercion, with Starrett plainly their natural leader, able to articulate his passion for his land and only matched in his steadfastness by Torrey, who, as a former Confederate still shot through with fighting spirit, is a figure of some fun amongst the farmers. The farmers eventually elect to next go to town together for safety and mutual assurance.
Stevens’ visual language constantly depicts Shane as a fringe figure in this scene, glimpsed sitting on the floor as if not allowed to sit at the grown-ups table, and after retreating outside appearing at the window of a room with Joey and Marian in it, lit from within, rendered a shadowy and slightly eerie figure, even as Marian suggests she understands his motives for avoiding a fight and offers the implicit belonging of the house interior. “Don’t get to liking Shane too much,” Marian tells Joey, knowing well Joey is already fixating on Shane as the embodiment of everything his young boy’s brain needs and desires, an image of omnicompetent heroism, much more than his tough but mudbound and terminally responsible father. Meanwhile Marian is both wary of Shane but also plainly intrigued by him, entirely understandably; after all, he looks like a movie star. Stevens might get just a little too insistent as he shows Marian literally serving up apple pie as the original and archetypal American matriarch, a status emphasised early in the film as she looks out from within the Starrett cabin at the approaching Shane whilst young and old Joe Starrett are ranged without, even as the choice of casting Arthur sees her old sense of chirpy humour and sly sexiness glinting through the silt of domestic nurturing and mundanity.
Most genre storytelling depends on a degree of good faith in assuming a discrepancy between what such storytelling portrays and real life, utilising heightened metaphors that occur all the time in fiction but which if actually happened in the world we live would seem bizarre and perverse. This was true as far back as when The Odyssey presented its hyperbolic survey of battling monsters and slaying ruffians as a reflection of more banal but no less agonising travails in keeping house and home, as it is now when young moviegoers find parental figures in movie heroes. It’s true of romantic melodrama, which finds ways of heightening the very familiar travails of love, and is particularly true of genres like the Western and other action films, which enact on a mythic level very ordinary human problems and processes: few of us have ever marched down a street at high noon for a gunfight, but most of us have gathered together the guts for some moment in life that damn well felt like it. I remember as a boy watching James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) with a friend in the movie theatre – Cameron’s film being another inescapably indebted to Shane. During the climactic scene of the Terminator destroying itself, my friend wept hot tears. At the time I was bewildered, but later I realised that the Terminator, having evolved into a perfectly selfless and protective father figure, was a dream figure in such contrast to my friend’s own petty, abusive father.
On the other hand, only fools and psychopaths try to live their lives like a gunslinger in the contemporary world, and there’s an age when kids are growing up when parents are especially watchful of what lessons children learn from what they see and hear and read, to make sure they understand this essential disparity. Shane draws much of its power from dramatizing this problem of art and life rather than merely agreeing to convention, by presenting Shane as the intrusion of the movies into life. On the one hand Shane ever more heavily towards the mythic in its visual and plot cues, with Shane as seen and remembered by Joey a figure out an almost Jungian unconsciousness, emblazoned with virtuous traits and superhuman talents, the mystically refined version of his father: a version seen more from his father or mother’s viewpoints might have quite a different cast. At the same time Stevens applies realistic interrogation of the meaning of violence and the nature of those who, regardless of their reasons, wield violence. Shane is explicitly conceived a hero but also a terrifying person, made clear early in the film with his repeated reaching for his gun, even the mere manifestation of such quick and anxious impulses a violation of the usual pace of things on the Starrett farm. As Shane tells Ryker in the climactic scene, he knows his day is ending, but unlike the feudal lord-playing Ryker, he knows it. This wasn’t entirely original territory for the Western. John Ford for instance had with My Darling Clementine (1946) mused with the force of parable on the tide of settlement and civilisation urging along the swashbuckling heroes and villains of the frontier. Henry King’s artful The Gunfighter (1949) portrayed a famous fast draw whose life has been ruined by his prowess, reaching the end of the line almost maliciously grateful to pass his infamy off onto a deserving inheritor.
Shane nonetheless took this a step further in considering its relationship with the viewer watching it, particularly kids who went off to the movies to cheer on heroes like the Lone Ranger. Joey, from the moment he sees Shane, knows he’s the embodiment of all the things he urgently wants as a boy – a source of excitement, a yardstick of ultimate ability, a fearless protector. Joey delivers a barrage of questions at his father as Starrett chops woods, like kids all through history, pondering whether his father can shoot better than Shane or whip him in a fight, in a manner pretty much the same as wondering if Superman can outrun The Flash. These questions prove eventually pertinent to the drama of Shane, which also presents its title character as an historical prototype for a different, nascent kind of hero, belonging to a genre branching off from the Western and often today seen as having supplanted it: the superhero, as Shane is depicted as consciously removing his uniform and adopting a kind of secret identity, suppressing his true, world-shaking abilities for the sake fitting in with others, much like Superman, and much like Superman, as per Quentin Tarantino’s dictum, for Shane the alter ego is the false self, the peaceable farmhand, an impression of normality that can’t be sustained. Shane’s choice of remaining pacifist when Calloway bullies him and Torrey accuses him of cowardice is comparable to moments in films like Superman II (1980) and Black Panther (2017) where the superhero is robbed of their powers and must face the roundelay of humiliation and coercion that ordinary life.
The massed farmers’ trip to town provides a fulcrum of both story and behaviour, as this time, whilst newfound friends shop, Shane again visits the saloon. Calloway again starts bullying him, but this time Shane buys two whiskey, tosses them in his face, and punches him so hard Calloway goes crashing through into the neighbouring store. Joey watches all the action whilst munching on striped candy with wide-eyed fascination. When Ryker and all his men gang up on Shane, he’s able to fight them off only so long, and finally they have him at bay with Ryker punching him. This finally drives Starrett to grab a pickaxe handle and wade into the action, walloping Ryker and his brother Morgan (John Dierkes), and the brawl becomes more even. Again, any number of Westerns had sported a saloon fight before Shane, but Stevens’ specific choices distinguish it, presenting the explosion of violence as more a statement of character than a mere jot of colourful action. Shane’s choice of weapons, fists, confirms he’s a tough man even without his pistols, his choice of going it alone that he has guts, but his choice of mixing up this time is also calculated, a show of solidarity, showing the farmers that the Rykers can be stood up to. A pissed-off Starrett is proven an effective force in his own right, and the cementing of Starrett and Shane’s friendship is signalled in one of the great fleeting moments in cinema, as they fight back to back and swap grins as they realise they’re winning and, more importantly, they each have a genuine friend.
The staging is worth noting too: most other such fights in movie saloons take place in large expanses of space, but Stevens emphasises the cramped, crude, unfanciful state of Grafton’s by often filming the action from behind stanchions and railings. Shane turns the lack of space to his advantage in preventing the Ryker heavies from using their numbers too readily. All with Joey and Marian looking on with awe and delight. Finally Grafton (Paul McVey) himself demands the fight stop and tells Shane and Ryker to back out of the saloon, assuring them that they’re won. The brawl confirms to Joey that Shane is every inch the hero he hoped, and leaves Marian rattled on some profound level as she begs her husband to hold her as they all settle down for the night. The fight also proves not an effective pushback against Ryker but a goad that makes the cattleman up the ante. He hires a gunman, Jack Wilson, who enters the film at a slow canter on a horse: that choice was apparently the result of the actor playing Wilson not being very good on a horse. The actor, Jack Palance, had made his name as Marlon Brando’s understudy in the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and was billed here as Walter Jack Palance. His lack of confidence on a horse nonetheless played to his advantage, immediately giving the impression that Wilson doesn’t need to move fast for anyone.
Palance’s Wilson moves through the rest of the film like some man-sized and bipedal lizard, swathed in black-on-white clothes, dark eyes flicking about as he halts at the doors of Grafton’s and looks within, his lips seemingly perpetually locked in a faint smirk. Stevens, in an unusual touch for the time, breaks up the single shot of Wilson’s entrance into the saloon with a dissolve, resuming study of his almost insolently patient stride as he moves up close to the camera: Wilson bends cinematic as well as human time around him by sheer force of intimidation, his presence ghostly as Shane’s inevitable nemesis and representative of evil. As if sensing the changed mood of the valley, Shane meanwhile gives in to Joey’s cajoling and starts giving him a lesson in the basics of gunslinging technique and shooting, noting ruefully that most gunfighters have their own little tricks and modifications of the basic rules of thumb, whilst Shane himself comments that if you’re good you only need one gun. Finally, he gives a display of his ability, Joey’s eyes almost bulging out of their sockets as he beholds Shane’s amazing speed and precision, the blasts of his pistol a cannonade shaking the mountains, his Olympian promise finally confirmed.
Marian, watching on unnoticed for much of the lesson, regards the scene with a palpable mixture of admiration and delight in Shane playing the mentor and also deep unease at the dark magic he’s teaching her son. She calls an end to it when he does finally shoot, and confesses to Shane she thinks the valley would be better off without a single gun in it. “A gun is a tool, no better and no worse than any other tool,” Shane comments, “A gun is as good or bad as the man using it.” Which today sounds way too much like standard-issue gun-nut apologia, but in terms of Shane’s character and the entrance of Wilson, an essential, Manichaean opposition, is immediately illustrated, whilst Marian’s point is also, more subtly borne out: good and bad men may square off at any time and place, but when said good and bad men do it with guns, one or both will end up dead. At Grafton’s the storekeeper argues with Ryker, who notes that up until now he’s avoided gunfighting in accordance with the new laws, but Wilson’s presence confirms that’s now at an end. Ryker’s actual desire, which Wilson is all too happy to make tactical reality, is to perform a few acts of targeted terrorism and assassination to scare the homesteaders off. Wilson finds an ideal target in Torrey, who angrily berates Ryker when he stops for a drink at Grafton’s and declares he won’t be driven off.
Wilson first arrives early on the Fourth of July, his charged first meeting with his new employers and the tense Grafton contrasting the knockabout rowdiness of the men celebrating outside with horse racing and bareback riding. The homesteaders meanwhile gather at one farmhouse for more genteel celebration, and the day proves to also be the anniversary of the Starretts’ marriage. Starrett happily lets Shane dance with Marian, but becomes downcast in watching their well-matched movements: Shane is a self-projection figure for Starrett as much as he’s a hero figure for Joey and a romantic fantasy for Marian, inhabiting the version of himself he wants to be with Marian. The confluence of Independence Day and the Starretts’ marriage identifies them as the essential Americans, but Wilson himself is also therefore as quintessentially American. Torrey brings the farmers news of the newcomer, and Shane confirms that he’s heard of Wilson and his prowess as a gunman. The shadow of menace pervades the celebration even as nothing happens yet. Wilson waits until Torrey next comes to town with his friend and fellow farmer Swede (Douglas Spencer), this time wearing a gun to show his lack of fear. Wilson baits him into drawing: Torrey reaches for his gun but is astounded to see Wilson whip his out far faster, catching him with barrel half-raised. Wilson grins in delight and shoots Torrey dead.
Shane’s style contains multitudes. The build-up to Torrey’s killing, emphasizing the squelchy, muddy ground around the roughhewn structures, with a thunderstorm rumbling on the horizon, lays down the basis for 1970s “mud and blood” Westerns, the aesthetic mooted here powerfully informing the likes of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980): the Altman film would make the debt more obvious in quoting Torrey’s killing when Keith Carradine’s young cowpoke is similarly murdered. Sam Peckinpah credited this scene as also setting the scene for more realistic and bloody violence in the genre, as Stevens broke the old Production Code rule about a gun and its victim not being in the same shot, and in the cold, unremitting nature of the scene, with Torrey collapsing in the muck, immediately dead. Wilson draws Torrey into conversation from the wooden sidewalk whilst Torrey remains with feet in the mud, so mesmerised despite his big talk that he even walks backwards as Wilson struts along, before insulting the memory of ‘Stonewall’ Torrey’s namesake, finally making the anointed victim jerk out his gun. Cook had long cornered the market for playing overcompensating men, and Torrey fits him to a tee, the actor suggesting the simmering fear and alienation of the former Rebel (Shane being made a time when such movies often depicted Confederates as figures of ornery pathos as historical losers, a notion we ironically have no time for today) who puts up with being razzed by his fellow farmers in part because of big front. He is at once both an essential representation of the ordinary farmers, with more tenacity than sense, a big-talking and pugnacious fool who gets himself killed stupidly, and also just a normal man who finds himself the target of a pure sadist because some other man wants to make money and restore his realm.
The shock of death ripples through the locality, and most of the “sodbusters” as Morgan derisively calls them, want to leave after Swede brings his body around to each farm in testimony and warning. Still, when the farmers gather to bury Torrey in a solemn ceremony on the cemetery hill above the town, Starrett makes a plea for sticking things out, and when one of the homesteaders’ just-vacated house is set on fire by Ryker’s men, they rush reflexively to save the house, and all agree to help rebuild it. Stevens’ attentive visual exposition sees him briefly noting Calloway’s face as he and the other Ryker men watch from the town below, Calloway’s dark and troubled expression suggesting he’s sickened by the murder and also has been positively influenced by Shane’s rectitude. Cinematographer Loyal Griggs’ remarkable work here captured him an Oscar. Stevens’ carefully ritualistic filming of the funeral and careful use of the landscape to imbue it with spiritual import suggests, like his slow-burn violent scenes, Stevens had learnt something from Ford, although Ford might have been clucking his tongue a little with the funeral scene in The Searchers (1956), where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is itching to shatter the composition and get back on the hunt: Ethan himself in Ford’s film has Shane-like characteristics but also as a character pointedly despoils them.
This points perhaps to the way Stevens’ exacting artistry throughout Shane can be seen as both a great strength and a liability. He laboured hard to create a beautiful and thematically intelligible work, but the glossy Technicolor idealisation of both the location shooting and the studio work, and of the actors’ faces, fights to a certain extent with his grittier impulses, apparent in Stevens’ carefully wrought historical detail and realism of setting and costuming, save the Manichaean clothing of Shane and Wilson, and the more textured and foreboding imagery Griggs captures, particularly in Torrey’s death and at the very end. If Shane has sunk in some modern critical estimation compared to the seething human drama and neurotic antiheroes of Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller, or the terse, tough contemplations of Budd Boetticher, as well as Ford and Howard Hawks in the annals of 1950s Westerns, and their general avoidance of the kind of simple good-vs-evil battle Stevens depicts, it’s for this. Shane enters the lives of the Starretts in a manner not all that different from the antiheroine of Luis Bunuel’s Susana (1951), provoking them all to displays of unruly need and accidentally assaulting the underpinnings of the kind of settled, conventional prosperity the Starretts, despite their relatively rough current circumstances, are plainly destined to spawn progeny into. The concluding passages of the plot indeed hinge entirely on Shane heading out to battle specifically to protect the family and keep them intact. The exchange between Shane and Calloway in their first saloon encounter – “You speaking to me?” “I don’t see nobody else standing there.” – would be lifted and freely quoted by Robert De Niro for Taxi Driver (1976), in partial homage and partial despoiling of the macho ritual.
On the other hand, Shane is far from flat in obeying its myth-making and allegorical urges. Ryker, visiting Starrett to try one last time to urge him to leave and making conciliatory gestures to buy his farm and run his cattle, expresses his viewpoint with surprising passion and authority, rendering him more than just a plot device. His frustration at having once been master of all he surveyed after taking all the risks of establishing the region and being pinched and cut down to size by Johnny-come-latelys, his memories of dead companions and old, niggling wounds, all emerge with intriguing depth, even it doesn’t alter Ryker’s implacable purpose and willing to unleash Wilson, and Ryker continues to mouth self-justifications to the end. Whilst Ryker’s argument goes nowhere, Shane and Wilson lay eyes on each-other for the first time, each man sizing the other up and knowing exactly where this situation is going to end. Stevens’ attentiveness to detail often still carries hints of the old humourist, as in that gag with the antlers at the outset, and later touches, like noting a young girl at the July 4 dance hoisting her skirt up over her head in delight, or Morgan, shot by Shane, mimicking the posture of stuffed and mounted owl with splayed wings just below his vantage in Grafton’s store.
Torrey’s death and the burned homestead finally drive Starrett to what he feels is an inevitable confrontation with Ryker, which is exactly what the rancher now wants and expects, knowing Starrett must die to finally dislodge the other farmers. Calloway, overhearing this, goes to the Starrett farm and tells Shane Starrett is being set up for death: the two men shake hands, and Calloway flees. Marian’s pleas to her husband that the farm isn’t worth anyone’s life inevitably collides with the basic proposition that, well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Starrett however finds the door blocked by Shane, wearing his buckskins, hat, and guns once more. Shane coolly states his intention to stop Starrett, and the two men start brawling: initially Stevens keeps the viewpoint inside the cabin with Marian and Joey as they spring from window to window, catching glimpses of the two men amidst whorls of dust and swinging limbs, before they dash out and watch the furious tussle as it literally stirs the farm to chaos with animals frightened and struggling to escape whilst Marian screams unnoticed. The scene mirrors the episode with the tree stump, and the stump itself lies as a silent witness to the fight, with Starrett pinioning Shane against it. Starrett does indeed as Joey once asked prove every bit Shane’s physical equal, forcing Shane to knock his friend out with the butt of his gun. This shocks and briefly earns Joey’s anger, but that’s already forgotten by the time Shane runs out, having taken leave of Marian in a vignette charged with undercurrents even as it plays out with perfect formality.
The music score by the usually great Victor Young often sounds a little overbearing during Shane, particularly in the awkwardly florid patches after the saloon fight scene, whereas the absence of music from the scene of Torrey’s death is part of what makes it so strong: the familiar codes of adornment for Hollywood cinema hadn’t quite caught up with what Stevens was doing with his visual rhythms. But Young certainly gets it together as Shane rides down to the town and his scoring goes for grand, percussive effect as Shane makes his fateful ride and Ryker and his men silently and sullenly prepare for their planned assassination: the thudding music is matched to the trot of Shane’s horse, moving at a steady, remorseless pace down through the hills, the jagged mountains above now dark sentinels. Stevens cuts to fast-moving tracking shots of Joey and his dog chasing after him in an urgent effort to catch up, to gain the testament of Shane. Stevens’ shots close in on three trees just outside the town until they become the archway greeting Shane’s appearance at the place of battle. Joey’s pursuit takes him through the graveyard, Stevens dissolving slowly to Shane on the last leg of his journey to suggest death hanging over him.
Shane finds Starrett sitting calmly at a table at one extreme of the saloon and with Wilson quietly drinking coffee at the other, and Morgan is hiding above with a rifle. The most interesting aspect of this as far as climactic gunfights go is the determinedly modest scale of it, retreating once again within the cramped confines of Grafton’s, which only amplifies the intensity of Shane’s level glare at the boding, grinning Wilson, finally declaring his unswerving intent as he straightens from his posture leaning against the bar to one matching Wilson’s, giving him the taunt Torrey would have – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar,” that signals game on, much to Wilson’s immense pleasure. Wilson draws first, but Shane of course is faster, his gun out and blasting Wilson away in the blink of an eye with a thunderous cannonade. Shane then pivots and shoots Ryker as he tries to pull his gun but only succeeds in shooting the lampshade over his head. Shane surveys the dead, and, in a gesture that cementing his aura (and an eternal reference point for filmmakers), spins his pistol on his finger and slots it back in the holster, his gunslinging no mere violent labour but the work of an artist, placing his signature on the finished masterpiece.
But Shane fails to notice Morgan, and Joey’s warning shout doesn’t stop Shane being hit by Morgan’s bullet before Shane plugs him. Wounded but seemingly alright, Shane takes his leave of Joey, explaining as gently as he can why he can’t return to the farm and pick up as if he didn’t just kill three men, and also passes on fateful advice to Joey to take care of his parents, anticipating the fateful moment when Joey becomes the carer. Cue one of the most famous scenes in cinema as Joey continues to cry for Shane to come back as he rides off, his path taking up through the cemetery and under the mountains and soaring clouds. A scene rightly exalted and endlessly mimicked for the beauty and conscision of Stevens’ images and sounds, and the eerie, almost primal longing expressed through them, the boy crying out for his hero even as he passes over the horizon into legend, someone to be remembered as the incarnation of an ideal. The old argument about whether or not Shane dies misses the very point of what Shane achieves with his last gesture. So long as he can stay upright in his saddle and keep moving on until he exits Joey’s sight, and that of the movie audience, he can’t ever die.