Top 100 Movie Review: #69 – Shane (1953)

Kids Can Ruin Movies.

A typical Western made unbelievably bad by a child. 

Alan Ladd as Shane.

American Film Institutes Ranking: #69/100
Awards: Six Academy Award nominations with one win for Best Cinematography.
My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

Renaissance artists conceptualized how to create the illusion of depth on a 2D surface, and drew some of the most well-known works of human history. They aren’t without their faults though; they had no idea how to draw children. The contorted, homunculus interpretations are of nightmares.

Enter Joey Starett, the child of “Shane.” It is a prototypical Western that goes for a few twists, the main one being infusing the typical motifs with the perspective of a pre-adolescent. Like the Renaissance artists, however, the director doesn’t quite know what to do with him, having his presence turn into a nightmare.

Staring into the eyes of the beast (played by Brandon deWilde).

[story/spoiler.] Shane (Alan Ladd) is riding aimlessly through the country side and comes upon a rancher and his family, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian Starett (Jean Authur). He learns they are trying to be bullied off the land they rightfully own by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer). Shane decides to stay with the family and help them out with chores around the farm. Joey (Brandon DeWilde), the son of Joe and Marian, takes a liken to Shane even though he is warned by his mother to not get attached.

During a trip to town, Rufus Ryker and his men try and get under Shane’s skin by embarrassing him, which he stoically handles. On another trip, however, Shane gets in a brawl with the entire gang and wins with the help of Joe. Rufus hires a gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), and successfully makes the ranchers kowtow to the baron.

This sets up for a showdown between the gunslinger and Shane. Shane successfully wins a shootout with the Ryker gang, killing everyone. Joey witnesses this, which makes him think even more highly of Shane. Shane realizes it’s time to move onto the next destination. He leaves Joey behind as he yells “Shane, comeback!” into the empty plains.

The doofus expressions of Joey fill every frame.

[analysis.] There are some good moments in “Shane.” Shane and Marian fall in love during his time at the ranch, and Joe realizes this. An almost heartfelt moment is when he confesses that he’s realized it, and concedes that he could never match Shane in his prowess and attraction. Shane then prevents Joe from running off to fight the gunslinger knowing that 1) Joe would just die in vain and 2) that he was no good for Marian — he is a drifter and never commits. I give props for trying to bring some kind of intrigue.

The bad moments: Joey. His purpose is to give a naive perspective on the mythical Cowboy hero. He falls in love with the idea of Shane, not realizing that Shane the person is extremely violent and unreliable. His mother warns him of both of these things, but Joey’s childish mind can’t grapple with the complexity, just the face value.

What I just wrote is 100x better than what happens in the movie.

“Shane” doesn’t contain a child character; it contains a projection of certain traits that are commonly associated with children. They turn the dial all the way up on naive, innocence, and aloofness making him hysterically demonstrate these characteristics. An image burned in my mind is him looking on as Shane fights with eyes and mouth opened, unable to comprehend that someone like Shane exits.

Joey is too disconnected from reality — EVEN FOR A CHILD. 

This burns through any sympathy for his predicament of believing in a false myth. His pleading about Shane, either to his mom or at the end of the movie, are annoyingly high-pitched, child-talk histrionics.


[conclusion.] Westerns are repeated motifs and archetypes. Within that framework, you are free to play around with the chess pieces, creating new wrinkles. “Shane” tried to do this to create some tension for an otherwise ho-hum story with the addition of the child’s perspective, but just like the Renaissance artist not knowing how to represent one, “Shane” doesn’t know either. Instead they create a monstrosity, a whining doofus who is so aloof it’s unbelievable — even for a child.

Other People’s Takes:

  • The Entertainment Blur: It has every aspect of a classic Western that you can ask for.”
  • Bored and Dangerous: “The classics are great, but Shane started a revolution that needed to happen if the Western was going to remain a viable genre.”
  • Press to Eject: “Shane is a great classic western marred only by a boy who annoyingly says “Shane” way too many times.”

One comment

  1. I get you on this one. Despite what rubbed you (me too if I let it), I love this film. Maybe some nostalgia in that. But there are so many great film-making elements for me that it overrides that thing you pointed out. I wrote one of my first takes on this film (plus two more) and left out the “kid”. There is a darkness and violent side and some under played performances that take me in. I really do dig your honesty on these films.


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