Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Shane’: A Lonesome Stranger Rides Into Settlers’ Lives

July 12, 2020 Updated: July 12, 2020

Not Rated | 1h 58min| Drama, Western | 23 April 1953 (USA)

Remember the simple, understated heroes of the Old West? The down-to-earth, courageous, and gutsy characters of a time now forgotten, drifting into the past like old tumbleweeds blowing across windswept plains?

There has been a drastic reduction in the number of productions of Westerns since their heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. So sometimes, it’s nice to revisit that time in cinematic history and study its heroic archetypes (that many of today’s superheroes are based on). One classic of these Old West pictures is “Shane,” released back in 1953.

boy watching a man ride toward mountains
Young Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde) watches Shane (Alan Ladd) ride off toward the mountains, in “Shane.” (Paramount Pictures)

Enter the Man With the Past

Helmed by visionary director George Stevens (“A Place in the Sun,” “Giant”), the film begins with sweeping long shots of a snowcapped mountain range. As things settle in, we are introduced to a homesteading family going about the usual business of tending to their land.

The patriarch of the settlers, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) works outside while his loving wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), keeps herself occupied with busywork in their small, cozy home. Their only child, son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), alternates between playing with the various forms of livestock on their modest acreage and practicing his aim with his father’s rifle.

settlers and gunman
(L–R) Brandon De Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin as homesteaders and Alan Ladd as a drifter, in “Shane.” (Paramount Pictures)

One day, a mysterious stranger comes across their settlement on horseback. He wears worn buckskin and has a six-shooter strapped to his side. The man introduces himself as Shane (Alan Ladd) and exchanges pleasantries with the Starretts. Where Shane comes from or where he was headed isn’t ever made clear, but it’s hinted at that he has a somewhat checkered past.

But soon after Shane’s appearance, trouble arrives in the form of the Ryker clan, who are local cattle ranchers. Since the Starretts have settled on land that used to belong to the Rykers (appointed to the Starretts by the government), Joe has been at odds with them.

Joe mistakenly assumes that Shane is part of the Ryker posse and sees him off just as the Rykers enter the property’s front gate. The Rykers then engage in some veiled threats directed toward Joe and his family. Just when it seems that violence is about to break out between the two parties, Shane appears out of nowhere and backs Joe up, causing the Ryker party to disengage and ride off across the dusty prairie from whence they came.

Joe then apologizes to Shane for distrusting him and asks him to stay awhile. Shane accepts. He also agrees to Joe’s offer of employment—Joe figures he needs an extra hand to tend to the burgeoning family farm. Shane seems to want to leave his gunfighter ways behind him and settle down, so it seems like a good pairing.

Other homesteaders who neighbor the Starretts’ land are gradually introduced, including tall and lanky Axel “Swede” Shipstead (Douglas Spencer) and the small-but-tough Irishman Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.). The other men and their families are constantly antagonized by the Ryker clan and their minions, who want to run the homesteaders off what they still consider to be theirs. The Rykers were the original inhabitants of the area, who tamed the wildlands.

The Rykers regularly hang out in the nearby town, which serves as the only local place for the homesteaders to purchase supplies. Of course, the two factions eventually run into each other in town, which culminates in a barroom brawl between Shane and Joe on one side, and the Ryker clan and their men on the other. Amazingly, Shane and Joe manage to best the entire gang and then back their way out of town.

This causes the leaders of the Rykers—Rufus (Emile Meyer) and his brother, Morgan (John Dierkes)—to send for an out-of-town gunslinger named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to deal with the stubborn homesteaders. One of the first orders of business for Wilson is to brazenly gun down Torrey.

Things boil over from there in the film’s third act, with the emergent leaders of the homesteaders—Shane and Joe—on a collision course with the Rykers and their minions, including the fast-drawing Wilson.

Throughout the film, little Joey becomes infatuated with Shane and considers him a hero for protecting his family. And a smoldering, just-beneath-the-surface chemistry begins to blossom between Marian and Shane, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Joe.

Open Prairies and Tough Settlers

Ladd is a short actor as the mysterious drifter, but his presence stands tall, even when next to the lanky, 6-foot-3-inch Palance. He plays Shane as a rugged, quiet-yet-imposing gunfighter in a role that would later be emulated by other actors across multiple film genres. Likewise, Arthur and Heflin are believable as homesteaders who steadfastly refuse to give up their small parcel of land on the wild frontier—the fringes of civilization.

an Heflin, Alan Ladd On 'Shane' Set
Van Heflin (L) and Alan Ladd on the set of “Shane.” (Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

The film’s cinematography is beautifully rendered, with ample long shots of the bluish-purple Rocky Mountains in the background, and trickling rivers that snake through rolling prairies and foothills. “Shane” was mainly filmed on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The final scene (spoiler alert) shows Shane, wounded (to what degree is uncertain) following the final gunfight. He realizes that he is what he is; his destiny lies elsewhere. As Shane rides off into the night, Joey calls after him to “come back,” over and over. The whole ending scene can be seen as a metaphor for a dying breed of cinema that may never return—the classic American Western.

Director: George Stevens
Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin
Rated: Not Rated
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins
Release Date: April 23 1953
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To see more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane