From its opening day, George Stevens’s adaptation of Shane was hailed as an iconic, mythologizing Western. The film’s myth-making aspect would both form the core of its appeal for its admirers and betray its chief weakness to its critics.

Summary of Event

Jack Schaefer had never been farther west than Ohio when he wrote his first and most successful Western, Shane
Shane (Schaefer) (1949). Originally published as “Rider from Nowhere,” a three-part serial in Argosy magazine in 1946, the novel was published by Houghton Mifflin in September, 1949, and its screen rights Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Shane were purchased three months later by Paramount Pictures Paramount Pictures . Director George Stevens accepted the film project to help fulfill his contractual obligations to Paramount, with whose executives he had frequently disagreed. Although critics have pointed out that Shane (1953) was Stevens’s first Western—before World War II, he had been known mainly as a director of musicals and comedies—Stevens was familiar with Western locales and their milieu from his work as a cameraman on a series of silent Westerns for the Hal Roach studios, often featuring Rex the Wonder Horse Rex the Wonder Horse . Although initially Stevens and his team envisioned Shane as a taut and lean action picture, it soon acquired more complex themes and overtones from both Stevens’s wartime experience and America’s postwar period. Shane (Stevens)
Westerns (cinema)
Hollywood studio system;Westerns
[kw]Shane Premiers (Apr. 23, 1953)
Shane (Stevens)
Westerns (cinema)
Hollywood studio system;Westerns
[g]North America;Apr. 23, 1953: Shane Premiers[04140]
[g]United States;Apr. 23, 1953: Shane Premiers[04140]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Apr. 23, 1953: Shane Premiers[04140]
Schaefer, Jack
Stevens, George
Ladd, Alan
De Wilde, Brandon
Heflin, Van
Arthur, Jean
Guthrie, A. B., Jr.
Griggs, Loyal

Stevens hired college professor and Western author A. B. Guthrie, Jr., to write the script, but Stevens himself had much to do with it (as his annotated novel and script show). Joe De Yong De Yong, Joe , a Western expert, also helped revise the screenplay throughout its filming. Originally, Montgomery Clift and William Holden were envisaged playing the roles of Shane and Joe Starrett; when they proved unavailable, Stevens chose Alan Ladd and Van Heflin from a list of Paramount contract actors. Filming began on July 25, 1951, on locations thirty minutes from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and ended on October 19, 1951, in Paramount’s Hollywood studios.

As was customary, Stevens shot much more film than he eventually used—more than 363,000 feet of film were exposed for a completed movie comprising 10,600 feet of film. Stevens also was characteristically glacial in the pace of his editing: The first preview screening took place on July 17, 1952, and the finished film premiered almost ten months later, on April 23, 1953, in New York City. The film had its Los Angeles premiere on June 4. Shane was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture; it won one, for Loyal Griggs’s cinematography Academy Awards;Best Cinematography .

The plot of Shane, both as novel and as film, is simply told. A wandering gunfighter helps a small community, in particular the Starrett family, in their struggles against an open-range rancher, and after a climactic gunfight, he leaves as mysteriously as he came. The film follows the book fairly closely, with a few major changes. The Starrett son’s name is changed from Bob to Joey, the cattle baron’s name from Fletcher to Ryker. The time is changed from 1889 in the novel to an undetermined earlier time in the film, 1889 being crucial as the year of the Johnson County range war in Wyoming, a year of crisis for open-range ranchers after seasons of crippling drought and winter. It was also the year just before the publication of Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1890). The Starrett cabin is consequently much more primitive and rough-hewn in the film than in the book.

Shane’s costume is changed from the iconic black of the gunfighter in the novel to buckskins in the film, so he is more immediately perceived as a good character by the audience, in a medium and genre to which visual iconography is central. The celebration of the Fourth of July, as the anniversary of both the founding of America and the Starretts’ tenth wedding anniversary, is also added to the film—one cannot help thinking that Stevens picked up on John Ford’s Ford, John use of dances in his Westerns to symbolize a nascent community’s coming together, as in Ford’s My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine (Ford) (1946). One important theme from the book directly imported into the film’s visual scheme is the omnipresence of the mountains, at which Shane gazes at least six times in the novel. Stevens and cinematographer Cinema;cinematography Loyal Griggs used seventy-five millimeter and one hundred millimeter telephoto lenses in filming outdoor scenes, so the Grand Tetons loom in the background of nearly every shot. Some critics pointed out, however, that Paramount’s matting of the film on its release so that it appeared to be a widescreen picture destroyed the film’s visual composition.

Stevens’s worldview had been forever darkened by his experience as a colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War II, photographing both the aftermaths of battles and the Nazi horrors of the Dachau concentration camp. Stevens later said that Shane was his war movie and that Shane stood for those young Americans who had been called on to fight and use violence in that war. (One critic has claimed that Ryker could stand for “Reicher,” a Nazi minion of the Third Reich.)

Stevens also deliberately sought to deglamorize the use of violence and to emphasize the catastrophic effects that gunshots have on the human body. Almost all sound effects involving guns in the film were amplified, from Shane’s whirling pistol-draw at the beginning, to the cannon-like booms of gunfire as Shane displays target practice to Joey, to Wilson’s gunning-down of Torrey. That scene was also enhanced by Stevens’s use of a technique he learned while directing Laurel and Hardy comedies: Elisha Cook, Cook, Elisha, Jr. Jr., who played Torrey, was equipped with a harness attached to a wire so that his body was yanked violently backward and flung into the mud of the street like a rag doll by the force of the bullet that hit him. The Hays Production Code Office Hays Code
Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 wanted this scene toned down, but Stevens held firm, and it appeared in the finished film unaltered.

The film, with its thrust for realism Realism;cinema evident even in the dirty, sweat-stained costumes of both male and female characters, has been classed as one in a series of post-World War II deglamorizing Westerns, such as Ford’s My Darling Clementine and Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948). However, a counter-impulse to heroicize the Western protagonist was also at work in these films, none more so than Shane. Like the novel, the film is presented through the eyes of young Joey Starrett, who sees Shane as a legendary figure, someone whose code and competence are to be emulated. Shane’s pistol-twirling after he kills Wilson and Ryker is the most obvious and famous example of this legendary sheen. Thus, although Shane deliberately takes a moment for a melancholy look at the bodies of those he has slain and therefore can plausibly tell Joey that truly “there’s no going back” from a killing, the overall effect of the fight is to make Shane into a mythic figure. He becomes a Titan who slays the gods of the old dispensation (the film Ryker and his brother sport patriarchal beards and hair, and his euphemized curse is “By Jupiter!”), a knight errant who fights for right against might and is apotheosized into the Olympian heights of the mountains at the end of the film.


Shane’s popularity owed a great deal to its intentional mythologizing, as well as to its emphasis on the individual’s struggle against society, a Western theme that became especially important in the 1950’s. Audiences could see themselves in the Starrett family unit, because many of them were also starting out with houses for the first time in their lives. Critics such as Pauline Kael disparaged Shane’s deliberate legend-building, but filmmakers as different as Woody Allen and Sam Peckinpah Peckinpah, Sam have been fans of the movie, Peckinpah citing Torrey’s killing as opening the way for the realist depiction of violence in the genre. Perhaps no Western filmmaker has been more influenced by Shane, however, than Clint Eastwood Eastwood, Clint : His Pale Rider
Pale Rider (Eastwood) (1985) was a modern reworking of the earlier movie, and the final scene in Unforgiven
Unforgiven (Eastwood) (1992) was a deliberate deconstruction of Shane’s climax, as Eastwood’s protagonist deliberately broke the chivalric code that Shane embodied.

The Western is a genre that characteristically celebrates such contradictions as individual versus society and wilderness versus civilization. Shane embraced these dichotomies. While Shane reassures Marian in the film that a gun is only a tool, she answers that she wants no guns in the valley. Shane takes his gun away with him when he leaves, but it remains emblazoned in Joey’s memory. The deer antlers in which Shane is framed at the beginning recur throughout the film as a symbol of the wilderness that the Rykers and eventually the Starretts will destroy: The antlers adorn the gate to the Starrett farm, and sets of them loom over the saloon bar in which Ryker conducts his business.

The omnipresent mountains in Shane became a constant trope in the genre, from the conventional Western novels of Louis L’Amour to Ang Lee’s genre-breaking Brokeback Mountain (2005), part of which, significantly enough, was filmed in the Tetons. A critic of Shane has asked whether the Western hero stands for the landscape, or stands in contrast to it. In Shane, he does both, reflecting America’s uneasy sense of its own violent history and the dream of its idealistic destiny. Shane (Stevens)
Westerns (cinema)
Hollywood studio system;Westerns

Further Reading

  • Countryman, Edward, and Evonne von Heussen-Countryman. Shane. London: The British Film Institute, 1999. One of the BFI Film Classics series, this is a generally even-handed and fair analysis of the film’s preparation, filming, and importance.
  • Moss, Marilyn Ann. Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Long-overdue biography of a major American director that effectively combines analysis of his work with a recounting of his life story.
  • Schaefer, Jack. Shane: The Critical Edition. Edited by James C. Work. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. Contains the unexpurgated 1949 edition of the novel, as well as significant essays on Schaefer, the novel, and the film.

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