Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Riding Into Destiny


Fellow blogger Rachel at Hamlette's Soliloquy came up with this idea of siblings in film.  My first thought was "Hey! I have a sister. That's a sibling! What about doing one of her favorite films?".  But she pointed out that the theme of the event is actually "siblings in film". OK. So fortunately my sister's favorite film is Shane which features a pair of brothers, so I still get to fulfill my goal while staying true to the theme.

I haven't seen Shane in probably about 50 years. My vague recollection is watching it with family during a Thanksgiving holiday on TV.  I haven't seen it since then. But my memories of it are fairly accurate (for the most part anyway).  

To be honest, I thought Jack Palance (who was credited as "Walter Jack Palance") had more of a presence in the film than he actually does.  As the gunfighter hired by the bad guys to come to town to help out in the goal of driving off the homesteaders, Palance doesn't actually appear in the movie until almost an hour into the film.  And his screen time only amounts to about 20 or so minutes in the film, so maybe I should go back and re-watch some of the other movies I only vaguely remember from my childhood.

As far as the casting is concerned: Did you know that Alan Ladd was not the first choice to play the title role?  The first choice was going to be Montgomery Clift, but he proved to be unavailable.  And Jack Schaefer, the author of the original source novel is on record as saying that he didn't like Ladd in the role, calling him a "runt".  Schaefer has said he envisioned someone more like George Raft.  As portrayed on the screen by Ladd, I could see Clift in the role, but I think he would have been an entirely different character as portrayed by Raft. Perhaps he is more in keeping with the vision Schaefer had in the novel.

As far as Van Heflin in the father role, William Holden was one of the first hopes to play Joe Starrett, but like Clift, he was unavailable so Heflin got the role.  Jean Arthur rounded out the primary cast.  It was her final role on the big screen as she retired from film afterwards, although she came back for a couple of TV roles years later.

Some interesting tidbits: One, Ladd did not like guns, and was not very proficient with them.  According to what I read it took over 100 takes to get the scene right when Shane shoes little Joey how to use a gun.  Maybe it should have been the other way around... It is also evident supposedly of his deficiency when he has the gun battle at the end of the film.  Not that I noticed, but apparently he shot quite a bit off the mark when gunning down the bad guys then. Also, Palance had to be filmed several times to get a decent take when he was either mounting, dismounting or riding a horse because he and horses were not on good terms with each other. 

The story of Shane is pretty much a trope these days.  The lone gunman who rides in to town trying to escape a past and falls in with a beleaguered group in their battle against a superior force.  Not only is it a trope in the western genre, it can be seen in various other genres.  Of course, it's most prevalent in the western genre.  Pale Rider comes to mind. For that matter, several of Clint Eastwood's westerns fit the bill.  But also could be added Yojimbo, the Akira Kurosawa tribute to the trope featuring samurais instead of western cowboys.

Shane was well received when it came out.  Witness the numerous Academy Award nominations it got; Best Picture, Best Director (George Stevens), Best Supporting Actor (both Jack Palance and Brandon DeWilde), and Best Screenplay, all of which it lost to various people involved in a competing film, From Here to Eternity. The only one it won was for Best cinematography: Color, which it fortunately did not have to compete with From Here to Eternity, since that one was filmed in black and white (which by the way it won for that category.)

Shane is one of the films on  American Film Institute's best westerns list, only beat out by The Searchers and High Noon in that category. It is also in the top 50 of an overall list of all films.

Shane (1953):

OK, so the sibling aspect of this movie doesn't really become evident until later in the movie. Heads up.

Young Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) is out stalking a deer on his family farm. He is still too young, by his father's own words, to have ammunition, so he is only pretending to hunt the deer.  While out there he observes a lone rider coming in to the farm.

The lone rider (a typical western trope) turns out to be a man who calls himself Shane (Alan Ladd), (and another typical western trope, he is only known by one name, so "Shane" could conceivably be his first name, but he is frequently addresses as Mr. Shane).

Shane is only stopping off to ask permission to ride through the Starrett farm, but Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is pressured by his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur) that the polite thing to do would be to ask the man to stay for dinner, since it's almost supper time.

After dinner, Shane is invited to spend the night.  In the morning, feeling like he must help to pay for the two meals, he starts attacking a tree stump that Starrett had been working on when he rode in.  Together they manage to make short work of it. (And why it only took a short while when Starrett had said he's been at it off and on ever since he moved on the homestead, I can't say.  Maybe it was almost done by that time already... Only one of a couple of plot details I took issue with in an otherwise great movie.)

Although it never really comes out in the movie it turns out that Shane has had a rather jaded past,  Apparently he was a gunslinger in his former life.  It's not clear whether he is on the run from his own past or if there may be some past trying to follow him. (Maybe it is more clear in the original source novel.  I never read it.)

The problem Starrett and his fellow homesteaders have is with a local cattle baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his brother Morgan (John Dierkes).  (And there are the siblings..)  As another typical trope, the greedy Ryker brothers want all the land in the area, not just a portion of it.  And they have been waging a guerilla war of sorts with Starrett and the homesteaders.

Shane stays on as a ranch hand to help out Starrett.  But there may be some ulterior motive,  Perhaps Shane is doing it to make amends for his own jaded past.  He definitely is not averse to helping fight the battle of the two factions, for the side of good (or at least what we are prone to be led to believe is the side of good.)

The battle between the two gets more and more hostile, and, yes, the bad guys do tend to stretch a point in the lawless frontier to force the homesteaders to give u and move on.  But Starrett does his best to convince his neighbors that they have the right, and even the obligation to stay.

Eventually, since Shane seems to be someone with whom the Rykers might have a problem, they hire their own tough guy, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).  And it's not even remotely concealed from either the audience or the homesteaders themselves what his background is.  He is a notorious gunslinger and even Shane recognizes his name, if not his face,

One of the homesteaders, "Stonewall" Torrey (so called because he is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War) is gunned down in the street (Elisha Cook, Jr, played him. He will be familiar a face even if you don't know his name.  He had prominent roles in dozens of films in his life.  Just click on that link and see how many of them YOU'VE seen...).

Things get even more hairy over the course of the film. Some of the Rykers' cohorts burn down one of the homesteader's farms and many of them are just about to give up.  In fact, if it weren't for the adamant Starrett trying to keep them from conceding the battle most of them would have left by now.  But Starrett is apparently a good talker.

The final confrontation comes when the Ryker brothers, knowing that the glue that's holding them together is Starrett, creates a ruse that will get Starrett into town where he will be ambushed.  And Shane tries to stop him, saying he can't win.  But it takes Shane knocking out Starrett and riding into town in his stead to keep Marian from becoming a widow and little Joey from losing a father.

Joey sees what Shane does to his father and tells Shane he hates him, but has a change of heart and follows him to town.  Of course, you know how it's all going to end, don't you?  If you don't, what have you been doing all your life while NOT watching movies? Or being indoctrinated with classic film culture?

I'll give you a hint:

"Shane! Shane! Come back!"

(The quote made the list of American Film Institute's 100 Years 100 Movie Quotes, so even if you've never even seen one frame of the film, it's highly likely you've heard the quote.)

The film has a bit of history behind it, if you are interested.  The battles being fought between the homesteaders and the cattle ranchers is based on the real events behind the Johnson County War fought in the early 1890's in Wyoming.  Among other films that dealt with this topic was Heaven's Gate (which has it's own reputation in Hollywood).  And if you like the theme (although it covers a different kind of conflict) you ought to check out Pale Rider, one of my favorite Clint Eastwood films. (And I'm surprised that up to now that hasn't been featured on The Midnite Drive-In... maybe soon.)

Well, folks time to saddle up and ride on.  And to that little boy in the back part of the lot yelling "Quiggy! Quiggy!  Come back!"  I'll be back... (Oh wait, that's a different movie altogether...



  1. I've got to admit... I haven't watched the movie, but I did read the book, and I was surprised to see Shane featured for sibling week. "But wasn't he an only kid???" But you did find some siblings in the film :)

    1. Well, I kind of pushed the envelope just to do one for my sister, After 8 years I thought she deserved a real nod, Thanks for reading.

  2. Shane is not a favorite movie of mine or anything, but there are parts of it (both Van Heflin's and Jean Arthur's performances, for instance) I really love, and one of those elements is actually the brothers you mention! I don't know why, but I enjoy seeing what's usually a trope among the heroes (two brothers who are fond of each other working through conflict together to a common goal) flipped to the other side.
    This was a really interesting post; I learned a lot I didn't know about the background of Shane!

    1. It doesn't edge it's way into MY favorites, but my sister likes it. Thanks for reading.

  3. I FINALLY have time to finish reading people's entries for this event!!!

    That's so interesting that you mainly remember Jack Palance from this film, from when you saw it decades ago. He certainly is memorable! That reminds me of how I really only remembered one scene from Hour of the Gun from when I saw it as a teen -- just one scene with bad guys skulking around a train. Aren't memories funny?

    It's so odd that Schaefer wanted someone like George Raft because in the book, Shane is described as being slender and deceptively slight, not big-shouldered and meaty like I think of Raft. Huh.

    There's one shot of Jack Palance getting onto his horse that is really a reversal of the shot from earlier in the film where he was dismounting. He definitely did not like horses.

    Pale Rider is basically a remake of Shane. Louis L'Amour's The Quick and the Dead kind of is too. They're both sort of alternate looks at the same basic set-up.

    In the book, it's clear that Shane and Joe spend hours and hours and hours working away at the stump. But Joe had definitely done a LOT of work on it already. It had a tap root that one man couldn't really get at -- it took Joe to shift the stump and hold it while Shane chopped out the tap root. The movie makes it take a lot less time, of course. Can't spend twenty minutes chopping up a tree.

    I've read the book at least four times -- we don't know who Shane was before he arrived. It's never revealed. Simply that he clearly was raised in a genteel world, had difficulties behind him that he did not speak of, and was better with a gun than anybody had ever seen in those parts.

    Anyway, yeah, this movie really is as good as the accolades it's received want us to believe.

    1. Never read the book. To be honest, I like Western movies, but I have probably only read about 6 or 8 western novels. (and of those about 80% of them were probably Louis L'Amour). Thought about reading the book before posting this, but never got around to it. Thanks for reading.

  4. Great, well-researched article on a classic. I learned so much! Poor Brandon deWilde, another talented child star gone wrong. You are right about Palance, what a huge impression he makes in this and every other role. Underrated actor!

    1. This and sudden Fear were his first forays I think. Impressively he was nominated for Oscars both times so you could see he had potential. Thanks for reading.


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