A traveling gunslinger enlists as a ranch hand on the Wyoming frontier. He helps a family protect its land from a villainous cattle baron.
OSCAR winner for Best Cinematography
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Dubbed as the most classic of all classical Westerns, director George Stevens gives a fresh take on the conventional good guy/bad guy tale in 95’s Shane. Bosley Crowther, from The New York Times in 1953, writes that this familiar western “is the simple story of the bold and stubborn urge of a group of modest homesteaders to hold onto their land and their homes against the threats and harassments of a cattle baron who implements his purpose with paid thugs.” Despite its classic storyline, critics from varying newspapers praise Shane for its beautiful cinematography by Loyal Griggs, for Stevens’ fresh perspective on the tale, and for the excellent acting, thus making the $,00,000 budget worth the cost.
On April , 1953, Shane was shown on Paramount’s experimental widescreen at the Radio City Music Hall. Normally, the wider screen would make for a grander effect on the audience, but both critics Crowther from The New York Times and William Brogdon from Variety agreed that the special projection didn’t enhance the film. Brogdon said, “Shane would be a ‘big’ picture on any size screen” because the beautiful scenery of Jackson Hole, Wyoming dominated the film and made it seem larger than life. Loyal Griggs won the Academy Award for best cinematography in Shane, which was applauded by the critics. Brogdon said, “Sunlight, the shadow of rain storms and the eerie lights of night play a realistic part in making the picture a visual treat.” TIME Magazine agreed that it “bulges with authentic sights and sounds” that depict the pleasures and hardships of frontier life. The Technicolor camera Griggs used beautifully captured the essence of the “towering peaks of the Grand Tetons ” that, according to Crowther, made the film “a rich and dramatic mobile painting of the American frontier scene.” The landscape scenes are not only eye-catching, but they symbolize the courageous qualities of the hero, the destructive nature of the villains, and captured the spirit of the West. Will Wright, in Sixguns and Society, notes that Shane identifies with the wilderness visually because he is the only character filmed alone against the mountains to reinforce his strength and goodness.
TIME Magazine noted that “George Stevens was known as a perfectionist who started out working as a cameraman, specializing in comedies.” Not until 99 did he move onto dramas and westerns of feature-length. Brogdon, from Variety, commended Stevens’ “tremendous integrity” on the way he gave Shane “class and mass appeal” as a true western instead of the “conventional giddyap.” He said that the film may seem slow because Stevens “never rushes the picture or a scene,” but the violent scenes are still satisfying to mass audiences. In between the violent fistfights and gun-draws, Stevens packs the everyday-life scenes with warmth and emotion from the endearing burial on the hilltop to the July th celebration dances. TIME Magazine compliments how Stevens took “the conventional screenplay and filmed it in entirely unconventional style.” Shane is different than most westerns in that it has “distinctive, richly detailed picture-making that is scarcely ever lavished on the most high-toned movie drama, let alone a western,” says TIME. “The Technicolor camera and sound track has given the flat, old story a real third dimension of believability.” The Grand Tetons of Wyoming frame the plot in which Stevens captures “a tremendous comprehension of the bitterness and passion of the feuds that existed between the new homesteaders and the cattlemen on the open range,” says Crowther from The New York Times. “It contains a disturbing revelation of the savagery that prevailed in the hearts of the old gun-fighters.” He raves of the freshness Stevens added to the conventional storyline by adding the viewpoint of Joey as an “innocent and fascinated observer.”
The only dissenting critique I found of Shane was by Manny Farber from The Nation who said the western was “ridiculously arty and slow as its precise director attempted to give ballad-like stature to the ordinary ingredients of a cowboy story.” Farber could not see into Stevens’ revised viewpoint ofthe classic tale and how his camera techniques enhanced the opposition between the hero and the villain. He half-heartedly compliments the cinematography as he says it “provided an endless number of visual treats through the color photography of Loyal Grigg who dramatized moody stuff.”
All of the critics gave overwhelmingly positive responses to the casting of Shane, except for Farber. They agreed that Alan Ladd gave his character, Shane, depth and dimension. TIME Magazine says Ladd is “the personification of strong silent western heroes. He is larger than life, more heroic than legend.” Brogdon says the “casting is exceptionally good and the male stars have never been better,” especially Van Heflin as Joe Starret who “commands attention with a sensitive performance, as real and earnest as the pioneer spirit he plays.” Starret’s personality is different from the rest of the farmers in that he shows nerve and bravery, but Heflin had to combine his humble integrity with his feeble conscious. Crowther says that the main difference between Stevens’ Shane and the other run-of-the-mill westerns is “the concept and presence of the little boy…that permits a refreshing viewpoint on material that’s not exactly new.” Brandon De Wilde played Joey whose “enthusiasms and naÔve reactions are the solvent of all the drama.” Crowther highly tributes De Wilde as the character who “clinches Shane as a most unusual film.” On the other hand, Farber criticized De Wilde as an over-aged child actor and said Jean Arthur, as Mrs. Starret, gave a nasal delivery that added to the “gimmicky stuff going on in every frame.”
In 95, Shane was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and took the prize for Best Cinematography. One can understand the popularity of western films in the 950s because they reinforced the rural American values and the theme of good versus evil in the struggle between capitalism and communism of that time period. Now we are in 008 with modern technology and new struggles to face, yet the western, No Country For Old Men won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This resurgence of popularity in the western tells us that it’s nostalgic qualities of the American frontier and mythic origins help our citizens escape in times of economic frailty.