A REVIEW OF THE FILM SHANE (1953)
Shane is a 1953 American Western directed by George Stevens and starring Alan Ladd and Brandon deWilde (118 minutes).
Steven Freeman’s superb Special Friendships is, to my thinking, far too dismissive of the 1953 Western Shane. He says the film “deserves only an honorary mention here, because the intense bond is absent.”
This is just plain wrong. Sure, the film depicts no gabby, elbow-in-the-ribs friendship between man and boy, but the bond gains unusual strength and depth by dispensing with the usual nervous need to dissipate male passion in guffaws and arm-punches.
Freeman goes on to say, “Shane’s writers could never have guessed that this sub-strand would resonate deeper in the audience mind than the coy will they?/won’t they? flirtation with Joey’s mother...”
Sub-strand? From first scene to last, ten-year-old Joey is head-over-heels in love with Shane who fully, if quietly and a little melancholically, returns his affection. All the surrounding plotlines gain their coherence and symbolic power from this central man-boy pillar.
Brandon deWilde, blonde hair and blue eyes, is a striking presence as Joey. One moment he’s a dreamy, gap-toothed baby-Marlon Brando, the next a stolid little nugget of unwashed iron-ore. To the lone drifter Shane, Joey becomes a stumbling block, a driven claim-stake that halts his drifting and places his manhood firmly on the map. Joey, dressed like a tumbleweed and moving outdoors with the determination of a ploughshare, has an unguarded innocence evident even during his cool calculating appraisals of the masculine status-contests that rage around him.
The very first frames announce the film’s intention to utilize the gun as phallic symbol, frankly and unironically. Joey is hunting a rather tame-looking stag in a shallow pond. Is he Actaeon, about to witness something he shouldn’t? As he lines up the shot with his child-sized rifle, a man on a horse appears in the distance, perfectly framed by the deer’s antlers. The magic power of phallic sightlines. Be careful what you shoot for. That Joey is in fact the virginal beauty of the Actaeon myth is confirmed a short time later when his rifle is shown to be a harmless toy. It is Shane who will pay price for stumbling upon a divine mystery, eventually chased from the nascent homesteading community by the gathering hounds of modernity.
Two minutes into the film, Shane arrives, and we get Joey’s first close-up, his blue eyes widening in a classic Hollywood love-at-first-sight moment. The following brief exchange is worth a thousand back-slapping buddy movies: quiet, tender, masculine, shy on the boy’s part, calm and sure on the man’s:
SHANE: You were watching me down the track quite a spell, weren’t you?
JOEY: (Bashfully, staring at the ground) Yes I was.
It’s more than enough. From the get-go, “special friendship” is an inadequate term. There’s barely half-a-dozen more scenes featuring these brief intimacies, but Joey’s increasing devotion, Shane’s growing affection and loyalty, the plots wider dramatic tension—they all serve to make these charged moments entries into the for-all-time canon. This film ages remarkably well.
Alan Ladd as Shane makes a superb boysexual: calm strength, affable reserve, undivided attention, melancholic, almost other-wordly, wisdom. We never learn his last name, where he came from, where he might be going, but while he’s here his dependability is rock solid, his affection for the boy synonymous with what is good and honorable.
Shane is the man Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe wanted to be—if only he could have resisted the lure of LA’s snake-pit of whores. Both men are marooned knights-errant. But in the modern city the mailed quester is a brooding cynic trying to stem a rising tide of corrupted blood, his holy grail nothing but an overwrought wise-crack for an audience of one. The one boy Marlowe tries to befriend, in "The Curtain", is a lad with "slaty, sunken eyes," who turns out to be a psychotic who tries to shoot Marlowe dead. When "The Curtain" was welded into his first novel, the boy was transformed into a depraved young woman who did porn for fun and was always biting lasciviously on her "funny thumb". She fascinates, attracts, and disgusts Marlowe. Shane's melancholy always seemed informed by his sensing the future for men and boys.
Apparently the director George Stevens’ first choice for the role was Montgomery Clift. That would not have worked. Monty Clift’s method hasn’t aged so well. What fifties’ audiences saw as brooding intensity today comes across as unnerving catatonia. Monty needed a Liz Taylor in his frame, a surging, spuming life force to animate his stiff smiles and lock-jaw shoulders. A self-involved tortured husk is not what a boy like Joey needs.
That first brief encounter between man and boy contains another vital element: the mother, Marian Starrett. As Freeman correctly points out, she was partly given a decoy role, allowing the more nervous viewers to steady their narratives. But, whether consciously or not, she went on to play a more significant role. She represented Joey’s emotional state, externalized, writ large, drifting back and forth across the set like an advertising dirigible.
This is made explicit as Shane and Joey meet for the first time. The scene is intercut with shots of Marian in the house, hovering and drifting, back and forth, past the window. And she’s singing a song, which becomes the sound track as Shane stops to fix Joey with his warm look of pleasantly surprised interest. “I was seeing Nellie home…I was seeing…” Marian warbles as Joey’s eyes open wide, seeing…and we cut to Marian suddenly looking out at them—worriedly? Suspiciously? Speculatively? It’s not clear then and her Greek Chorus emoting throughout the film generally stays true to a boy’s inchoate emotional development.
At a moment of great joy for Joey, his hero having just proved himself in battle, he drags his mother into the privacy of his bedroom where he excitedly declares his love for Shane. It was a nice directorial touch, allowing the boy some privacy here. Marian emerges shortly after with a great perturbation of spirits. She can only go to her husband and ask to be held. Even for such a competent, sturdily built matron, taking on a boy’s passion at such a time is no childish trifle.
But the most essential throughline of the film is the gun as phallic symbol. Thorkil Vanggaard in PHALLOS: A Symbol and its History in the Male World writes:
For the boy, the phallus represents the grown man's greatness, strength, independence, courage, wisdom, knowledge, mastery of other men and possession of desirable women, potency—and everything else a boy may look up to in men and desire for himself.
We start with some light-hearted whimsy, the boy’s little rifle—“bang! bang!”—unable to knock the fluff off a stag’s antler. But when Joey approaches Shane from behind, innocently cocking his toy, the quiet man reacts with sudden violent instinct, spinning and ready to shoot.
In drifts the ever-reliable, ever-worrying good ship Marian. She admonishes Joey for pointing his gun at Shane. The boy protests he did no such thing, he just wanted to show Shane his rifle. Marian frowns.
As they sit down to a meal, Joey disappears beneath the table, drawn to Shane’s side-slung six-shooter, its polished potency seeming almost to hypnotize him. And again, some trivial noise provokes a sudden violent cock-and-load from Shane, sending the stunned boy flat against the wall. Lightning has struck for the second time. It takes Joey’s father a couple of attempts to break the boy’s spell and send him on his way. “For the boy,” says Vanggaard, “the symbolic meaning of the phallus is closely allied to physical drives, and this is the reason why he is so fascinated by the mature male genital.”
But next morning, Joey’s hunger for apprenticeship still seems fruitless. Wandering outside in his nightshirt, with just his gun for company, he mutters, “Wish they’d give me some bullets for this thing.”
Another serious chunk of action has to pass, in which Shane proves his mettle, before the gun issue finally comes to a head. Joey wanders into Shane’s quarters in a serious mood:
JOEY: Shane…you want me to tell you something?
SHANE: If you want to.
JOEY: [pointing] I saw your gun in there one day…I took a look at it.
JOEY: Are you mad?
SHANE: No, I guess not. If I were you, Joey, I’d leave it alone.
JOEY: I wrapped it up careful in the blanket again… Could I see it again? You promised you’d show me how to shoot. Please.
SHANE: Alright, Joey, come on.
As they leave the shed, Joey, bubbling over, gives a spur-of-the-moment, very accurate imitation of Shane’s previous instinctual cock-and-load eruptions. Shane greets it with an appreciative laugh. Transmission. With the help of an idol.
The following sex-instruction scene is brief and, again, Ladd knocks it out of the park. His expert adjustments of Joey’s holster, his sure guidance of the boy’s grip and preparatory presentation, are studies in the true alpha-male’s fearless tenderness. It is said of poetry that obscurity must be earnt. It’s equally true of gentleness between men and boys, a poetry the best of the bards knew by heart.
The instructional scene culminates with Joey nearly blowing a fuse as Shane finally demonstrates his full phallic prowess. He fires at a target nominated by the boy, making the very stones of the earth jump and sing.
And then follows the most singularly strange moment of the film. Our trusty advertorial airship, Marian, glides into view…wearing a wedding dress! We are not at this stage privy to the reason why; it is surreal and can only be interpreted with dream logic. Once again Marian outwardly glows with the inner truth of her son’s emotional state. Union between man and boy has been acknowledged and sanctified by tradition.
Sadly, it’s at this moment that politics, mean and modern, start menacingly to intrude. As Joey is sent off across the yard, twirling up the dust in a willy-willy of his bang-bang-bang’s, Marian declares guns are past their use-by:
SHANE: A gun is as good or bad as the man using it.
MARIAN: We’d all be better off if there wasn’t a single gun left in this valley…including yours.
Marian neglects to mention the need to create a gun-hording State to bring about such a nirvana. But it is constantly raised. Joe, the boy’s father, comments on the need for the homesteaders to build churches, schools, penitentiaries. The gritty, admirable homesteaders are building a family-values future, defining themselves by a rejection of the wild, free-ranging ranchers and gunslingers. Who could argue? Shane doesn’t, hence his melancholy, caught between two worlds, unable to shed his code-of-honor for a safe seat at the governor’s table. Holding aloof, he’ll save Marian’s happy-valley dream with his gun, and pay the price for it.
Arch enemy to the homesteaders is Rufus Ryker, an aging cattle rancher clinging to the old ways. Midway through the film he makes an impassioned speech in defense of his people. Theirs is a hard-won culture driven by tough men doing what it took. The luxury of spurning their macho, free-wheeling ways only comes after their success in taming the land.
As emotion threatens to get the better of him, Ryker leaps from his horse and physically grabs young Joey to make a direct appeal: “How do you feel about it, son? Wouldn’t you like to go partners with me?”
Joe senior, eye dutifully on the future, replies for the boy: “Joey ain’t quite of age, Ryker.”
Joey, a boy much given to speaking his mind, remains mute throughout, eventually retreating to the emotional safety of his mother’s embrace. The time for men to approach boys in earnest is passing.
Ryker is well aware the jig is up. His last ditch effort to stave off progress is to hire Jack Wilson, the film's black-hat gunfighter, Shane’s antithesis. The rear-guard rancher movement is turning psychotic, lashing out viciously like a dying king of the jungle. Jack Palance gives a wickedly serpentine performance as Wilson, a fitting target for Shane to prove his nerve and skill.
Jack Schaefer, the author of the novel Shane upon which the film is based, said that he enjoyed the film version, “all except for that runt.” Meaning Alan Ladd. It’s a harsh call, but not without insight. Ladd’s performance impresses more with each viewing. There’s a sense in which the slim, unprepossessing five-foot-six Shane needs to reincarnate his own masculinity on a moment-to-moment basis. Nothing comes easily to Shane, yet he achieves his desired tough-guy persona with such finished ease and sincerity it precludes any notion of fakery. This is one of the qualities that so intoxicates Joey, at an age when male role models start to take on life-and-death importance.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments of doubt. Shane’s first trip into town saw him confronted by a Ryker gang-member, Chris Calloway. Ridiculed, a drink thrown over him, Shane says nothing, does nothing, and leaves when told to git. Word quickly spreads among the homesteaders that he’s a coward. Joey, overhearing the scuttlebutt, begs his mother to tell him it isn’t true. Marian can only moodily flare up with a frill-neck-lizard-like display of her boy’s deep perturbation.
Was there cowardice involved in Shane’s retreat? Joe senior insists Shane was following orders by avoiding trouble—but not entirely convincingly. It remains unclear and while we the audience never lose faith in Shane’s character, Ladd’s perfectly pitched performance leaves room for disquiet, a lingering hint of possible “runtness”.
But Shane soon finds himself facing a rematch with the barroom bullies. This time he doesn’t back down. This time his fighting skill and courage produces knock-out performance. This time the man has his boy for an audience. Male violence always seeks an audience. Dominance needs to be seen to be believed, hence its manifold symbolism. The ancient Greek institutionalization of boy as inspiration created matchless male groups--martially, intellectually, artistically. Civilization without meaningful man-boy relations risks hierarchical brittleness and sterility.
During the fight scene, Stevens’ camera work renders the boy-behind-the-door more participant than observer, the cross-cuts drawing him into the action. We’re also treated to some quite lairy phallic symbolism as, eyes glued to his Homeric hero, Joey rather noisily and distractingly chomps down on a candy stick the size and lurid coloring of a small barber’s pole. “A Dorian nobleman through his phallus transferred to a boy the essence of his best qualities as a man” (Vanggaard, Phallos).
The next two fights form this love story’s tear-jerker finale. First, Shane fights his boy’s father for the right to participate in the final showdown with Wilson. It’s a close-run thing. The boy watches rapt. Marian cries and wants to run away. At the climax, Shane produces his gun and clocks Joe senior a decisive knock-out blow. Joey, aghast, cries out to Shane, “I hate you!” For the boy, intoxicated by his recent entry into idyllic male gunplay, this brute expression of phallic power is too much.
Moments later Joey realizes his mistake, helped by Marian quietly trucking in some emotional depth to refloat her boy. As Shane rides off to meet his destiny, Marian’s relief and gratitude washes through. Her husband has been let out of his deadly obligation without his honor being tarnished. Shane’s unworthy use of a gun in a fist-fight is similarly exonerated by his motivation: he has set himself to save his boy’s family; he’s even prepared to dent his own reputation, risk his boy’s love, in order to do good. On the surface, it’s almost unimpeachable. But a more basic truth also adheres: Shane, a ruthless killer, did what it took to retain his alpha-male status. Something he needs both for himself and his boy. Manifold and Machiavellian, indeed, runs the course of true male dominance.
“Shane! I’m sorry!” Joey cries, tearing off after the disappearing man on a horse. Tellingly, the boy’s protective mother offers no protest at her son’s reckless running after serious danger. An important moment of separation that paves the way for the superb, devastating climax.
In the much anticipated climactic gunfight, Shane dispatches the bad guys with aplomb, and has his life saved by Joey’s alerting him to a hidden gunman. It is Joey’s first direct physical involvement in the male public arena. He doesn’t miss a beat; the earlier wedding ceremony has been consummated. And now, any doubts stemming from Shane’s mysterious past are gone. He’s the real deal. Even if fast-approaching the status of a ghost.
So to the final scene, the moment of parting, the hero to ride off into a sunset long since sunk. Casablanca would never have cracked the all-time tier without its climactic parting scene. It goes double for Shane. The cinematography here gives Joey the full melodramatic diva treatment, the close-up of the boy’s tear-glossed face, now owning the full depth of his passion, shimmering, naked, brimming. Wisely, they smudged the boy’s face with a little dirt, otherwise his spotlit beauty might have toppled over into Lana Turner pathos. But no, not with Shane right there, gentle and sure, explaining…well, not much, but enough. Bottom line is, he has to go.
“But why, Shane?”
Shane’s explanation was, like all this man’s actions, indicative of good character—but not revealing. It was not the killings that made his staying impossible, but what they achieved, what was laid to rest along with the rancher corpses.
Spurred by his love of Joey, Shane followed an honorable path through to its inevitable conclusion. Only by becoming worthy of the boy’s love was Shane able to win through and create a world safe for Joey’s entire homesteader community. At no stage does anyone exhibit the slightest interest in Shane’s history. We don’t even know his full name. And it’s too late now. That gap is a foundation stone in our new community. We know nothing of Shane’s past and never will. At best we can occasionally catch a melancholy, long, withdrawing echo. Shane is a boy-love echo from a forgotten past. An echo taken up by Joey, with heart-piercing boy-choir intensity—“Shane, come back!”—and bruited to the vast blank land, the unlistening stars, and quietly symbolic dream-factory immortality.
Reviewed by Sam Hall for this website, 21 January 2022.
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
A stupendous review. This is what the world needs to know about this superb movie.
* * * * *
Authur V., 18 April 2022
Saw this great film many times, but never saw it this way, thank you for this clear view of this amazing film, so many years after.