Thursday, March 10, 2016

Film Review
Shane -- The Film (1953)
 
Directed by Geroge Stevens
Screenplay by A. B. Guthrie Jr.
Story Based on the Novel by Jack Schaefer
Major Cast Members:
            Alan Ladd                   Shane
            Van Heflin                  Joe Starrett
            Jean Arthur                 Marian Starrett
            Brandon De Wilde      Joey Starrett
            Jack Palance               Jack Wilson
            Ben Johnson               Chris Calloway
            Emile Meyer               Rufus Ryker
            Elisha Cook, Jr.          Stonewall Torrey
            Douglas Spencer         Axel “Swede’ Shipstead
 
Like the novel, the 1953 film “Shane” is very entertaining.  Like the novel, its appeal derives from the struggle of hard-working, moral, essentially powerless people (homesteaders in a Wyoming valley in the late 1880s) pitted against greed and lawless power (autocratic cattle rancher).  As so often in life greed and power seem destined to prevail.  One man, a stranger, heroically intercedes. The film is also a story about a young boy’s love for the hero/role model stranger.  It is about a faithful wife’s affection for the hero.  It is a story about a man attempting to square with his conscience his violent past.  Finally, it is about a powerful man accustomed to getting what he wants, being thwarted, striving to compromise, being thwarted again, and needing ultimately to decide whether murder is acceptable to achieve his objective.
 
I preferred the film version of “Shane” to the novel, with some reservations.
 
One reason is the photography.  Imagine gently rolling terrain crowded with tumbleweeds. Several wooden town buildings jut out of it, the weak beginning of a frontier town.  Always in the background huge, snow-covered mountain peaks loam.  A shallow river winds through the desolate landscape.  Homesteader houses and barns and corrals are crude structures portraying tentative hopefulness.  The sky is wide and open.  Many of the scenes are at night.  Lantern light illuminates somewhat the center of homesteader cabins where characters agonize about how to counter the cattle baron’s intimidating tactics.  The hired gunfighter Jack Wilson’s white, long-sleeved shirt sharply contrasts with his black vest as he drinks coffee inside the town saloon while waiting for the lead homesteader, Joe Starrett, to appear and be baited into a gunfight.
 
A second reason for my preference is that by being visual all of the characters – especially the minor ones – seem more human.  One criticism I had of the novel is that the minor characters were not developed.  Little more than names, they occasionally visited the Starrett homestead and scarcely talked.  The characters in the film are more fleshed out. The homesteader “Stonewall Torrey, who is shot by Jack Wilson, is given a background.  He is a proud but insecure Southerner from Alabama whose boldness is bravado.  About to go into the saloon alone, he tells “Swede” Shipstead, “Nobody’s gong to buffalo me!”  In the novel the character (named Ernie Wright) is described mostly in one paragraph that ends with these two sentences: “He was always singing and telling tale stories.  But he would be off hunting when he should be working and he had a quick temper that would trap him into doing fool things without taking thought.”
 
A third reason for my preference is that the film contains several outstanding scenes that either do not appear in the novel or are improvements on what the author narrated.  This exchange between Rufus Ryker (the cattle baron) and Joe Starrett encapsulates well each man’s passionate, conflicting viewpoint.
 
Joe: You’ve made things pretty hard for us, Ryker.  And us in the right all the time.
 
Ryker: Right?!  You’re in the right?!  (pause)  Look, Starrett.  When I come to this country, you weren’t much older than your boy there.  We had rough times, me and other men that are mostly dead now.  I got a bad shoulder yet from a Cheyenne arrowhead.  We made this country.  Found it and we made it.  Work, blood, and empty bellies.  Cattle we brought in were hazed off, by Indians and rustlers.  Don’t bother you much any more because we handled them.  Made a safe range out of this.  Some of us died doing it.  We made it.  Then people move in and never hear the raw side through the old days.  Fence off my range.  Fence me off from water.  Some of them like you plow ditches.  Take out irrigation water.  So the creek runs dry sometimes.  I’ve got to move my stock because of it now.  So you say we have no right to the range.  The men that did the work,  that ran the risks have no rights?!  I take you for a fair man, Starrett.
 
Joe: I’m not belittling what you and the others did.  The same time you didn’t find this country.  It was trappers here and Indian traders long before you showed up.  They tamed this country more than you did. 
 
Ryker: They weren’t ranchers.
 
Joe: You talk about rights.  You think you’ve got the right to say that nobody else has got any.  That ain’t the way the government looks at it. 
 
Ryker: I didn’t come to argue.
    
Another effectively filmed scene is “Stonewall” Torrey’s burial.  The homesteaders gather at the town’s rude cemetery atop of small, roundish hill.  We see several wooden  tombstones tilting at various angles.  A pray is delivered over Torrey’s wooden coffin.  The Lord’s Prayer is recited in its entirety by the homesteaders.  Torrey’s mongrel dog whines.  The coffin is lowered by ropes into the grave.  One of the homesteaders plays “Dixie” respectfully on his harmonica.   When the coffin top is at ground level while the coffin is being lowered, the dog reaches out and touches the coffin top with a paw.  We hear the whiney of horses tethered.  Two small children, taking no meaning of the burial ceremony, focus on the animals.   A small boy approaches one of the horses.  A little girl tells him, “He’s going t’ bite you!”  The harmonica homesteader plays “Taps.”
 
I did feel that the novel version of the story was better in at least two respects.
 
Most importantly, the novel presented more explicitly Marian Starrett 's and Shane's repressed feelings of love for each other.  The author also revealed Joe Starrett’s realization of its existence and his self-sacrificing acceptance of it.  In the film, when Marian seems upset about something involving Shane or she does something unusual because of Shane’s presence -- like setting out her best plates and extra forks for Shane’s first meal with them -- Joe invariably asks, “What’s the matter, Marian?” to which she responds, “Nothing.” 
 
Here is a scene in the novel that indicates this relationship that does not appear in the film.
 
“You thought it would just be a case of not letting him scare you away and of helping us through a hard time.  You didn’t know it would come to what it has.  And now you’re worried about what you might do if there’s any more fighting.”
 
“You’re a discerning woman, Marian.”
 
“You’ve been worrying about something else too.”
 
“You’re a mighty discerning woman, Marian.”
 
“And you’ve been thinking that maybe you’ll be moving on.”
 
“And how did you know that?”
 
“Because it’s what you ought to do.  For your own sake.  But I’m asking you not to.”  Mother was intense and serious, as lovely there with the light striking through her hair as I had ever seen her.  “Don’t go, Shane.  Joe needs you.  More than ever now.  More than he would ever say.”
 
“And you?”  Shane’s lips barely moved and I was not sure of the words.
 
Mother hesitated.  Then her head went up.  “Yes, it’s only fair to say it.  I need you too.”
 
“So-o-o,” he said softly, the words lingering on his lips.  He considered her gravely.  “Do you know what you’re asking, Marian?”
 
“I know.  And I know that you’re the man to stand up to it.  In some ways it would be easier for me, too, if you rode out of this valley and never came back.”
 
In the film, when Marian speaks to Shane – who has knocked Joe out with the barrel of his pistol --  before he leaves to confront Ryker and Jack Wilson, we see and hear this exchange.
 
Shane: He’ll be all right.  No one can blame him for not keeping that date.
 
Marian:  Shane.  Wait.  You were through with gun fighting. 
 
Shane: I changed my mind.
 
Marian (low voice): Are you doing this just for me?
 
Shane: For you, Marian.  Joe.  Little Joe.
 
Marian: And will I ever see you again?
 
Shane: Never’s a long time, Marian.  Tell him … tell him I was sorry.
 
Marian: No need to tell that.  (pause)  Please … (pause) … please … (takes a hold of his arm) … take care of yourself.
 
Here is the parting scene in the novel.
 
She was rising, earnest and intent.  “But there is something else I must know.  We have battered down words that might have been spoken between us and that was as it should be.  But I have a right to know now.  I am part of this, too.  And what I do depends on what you tell me now.  Are you doing this just for me?”
 
Shane hesitated for a long, long moment.  “No, Marian.”  His gaze seemed to widen and encompass us all, mother and the still figure of father and me huddled on a chair by the window, and somehow the room and the house and the whole place.  Then he was looking only at mother and she was all that he could see.
 
“No, Marian.  Could I separate you in my mind and afterwards be a man?”
 
There were also several scenes that were presented more credibly by the author than by the film.  Here are three quick examples.
 
A fist fight erupts in the saloon between Shane and one of Ryker’s men.  The fight leads to a brawl between Shane and five or six of Ryker’s men.  The homesteaders and their wives and children have come to town to shop in the mercantile store, which is connected to the saloon.  The male homesteaders are watching the fight, afraid to join in.  There is plenty of noise.  Joe Starrett, however, is oblivious to the fight until his son tells him about it.  Joe then joins the fight.  In the novel Joe is elsewhere having a conference with his son’s teacher when the fight begins and, therefore, is not able to hear the commotion.
 
During the brawl, before Joe joins it, Shane is held from behind by two men while Ryker strikes him repeatedly in the face.  Then Joe enters the fray and thirty seconds later both Shane and Joe are pummeling Ryker and his men, Shane seemingly not affected by the previous blows.
 
Finally, “Stonewall” Torrey’s burial scene ends with the homesteaders seeing dense smoke rising from Fred Lewis’s house and barn.  The act galvanizes the homesteaders, most of whom were ready to leave the valley, to work together to rebuild Wright’s buildings.  We have the following, which does not happen in the novel.
 
(They see Fred Lewis’s house and barn on fire)
 
(Uplifting background music throughout the following exchange)
 
Joe: Now if we just stick together we can put that place right back up.  Can’t we, Johnson.
 
Johnson: That’s right.
 
(Others agree)
 
Lewis: You’d do that for us?
 
Joe: Not just for you.  For all of us here in this valley.
 
(Triumphant music soars as homesteaders rush to their wagons to go to the burning buildings)
 
I preferred the film to the novel.  Both versions had strengths and flaws.  Both versions entertained.