Let’s Talk About… ‘Shane’ (1953)

Film #57 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Shane (1953) directed by George Stevens is number 45 on AFI’s top 100 list of 2007, up from 69 in the 1997 list.

When choosing two new films to review for FilmExodus’ AFI series I made sure to pick two of the most iconic westerns, a genre I am not as familiar with as I should be, at least when it comes to the old classics. Those who have read my Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid review (or have seen it) will know that it is more of a quirky New Hollywood proto buddy comedy than a straight-up western like the subject of this review. These two films are on opposite ends of the spectrum of wild west-set stories and could hardly be any more different while still serving as good companion pieces to each other.

Whereas Butch & Sundance is silly, whimsical and features a pair of fast-talking and flawed antiheroes, Shane is an old-fashioned tale with a laconic and squared-jawed hero for a wide-eyed boy and its influence can be seen and felt in the work of many directors from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg.

While Shane might be the hero, the film’s main protagonist and audience surrogate however is young Joey (Brandon deWilde), and the film begins with him spotting Shane approaching his father’s ranch from a distance. The relationship between Shane and Joey the is heart of the film and was the element that was looking forward to the most, however I found the development of the relationship to be quite rushed as Joey was already quite taken by Shane from the moment he first saw him and expressed his adoration of the mysterious gunslinger after merely one day. This left me wishing their bond had grown slowly and more naturally.

Despite this all the scenes with Shane and Joey were quite sweet and Brandon deWilde perfectly emits a sense of wonder and awe and Joey’s innocent perspective, coupled with his admiration for Shane forms the heart of the film.

That is probably the reason why the main plot of Cattlemen harassing homesteaders (based on the historical Johnson County War) feels secondary and a mere plot device to motivate Shane and allow him to be the hero and I found myself struggling to connect with this part, despite a solid performance by a young Jack Palance as a top henchman.

One thing that Butch and Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Shane have in common is an iconic and bittersweet ending, though their execution and tone couldn’t be more different. Mirroring the opening scene when Joey sees Shane approaching, the final goodbye between the two isn’t hampered by the rushed development of their relationship and Joey pleading Shane to come back is one of the most heartbreaking moments in film and its influence and status is much deserved.

I must admit that I found myself struggling to fully connect with the film, though not through any fault of the film; sometimes you watch the right film at the wrong time and with the wrong mindset, so I hope to give it another shot. This however didn’t diminish my appreciation of the Shane-Joey relationship seen from Joey’s point of view. Having grown up admiring classic heroism represented by the likes of Luke Skywalker, Superman or Robin Hood I found myself relating to Joey and saw him as a symbol of how the great deeds of past generations can inspire younger ones to create something of their own. You won’t have to look far to see this: Spielberg’s obsession with adult-child (or father-son) relationships can clearly be traced to this film.

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