George Stevens | 113 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U
Though not part of my “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” project, Shane is exactly the kind of film that could have been: a widely acclaimed classic that therefore comes with all that associated baggage. Like many of those films, that baggage weighs the film down to a point where, on a first viewing, it’s hard to just purely appreciate it.
The general shape of the plot is one familiar to Western fans, though that may well be because the others are based on Shane: a mysterious stranger rides into town, just looking for lodgings and/or work. Turns out the honest good-hearted town-folk are in some way being oppressed by a local gang/landowner/etc. The stranger doesn’t want to intervene, he just wants a quiet life… but eventually something galvanises him and he can’t help it. Cue climactic shoot-out.
I don’t mean to do Shane down by reducing it to these generic elements — as I say, my history of Westerns isn’t so hot, so it may well be the template from which all similar narratives are pressed. But perhaps this is why so many reviews emphasise the film’s subplots, particularly the fondness displayed towards Shane by the wife of the man he’s working for, and the hero-worship adorned on him by the man’s son. This is where the baggage comes into play, however, because while those elements get emphasised in reviews and commentary, I didn’t find them noticeably prominent in the film — calling them subplots is to increase their import.
The thing with the wife, for instance, is mainly down to a few looks, or the way a line of dialogue is played. I was once taught that if a writer doesn’t put any subtext into a scene the actors will add it themselves — perhaps that’s even what happened here. I was wondering if it was going somewhere, if we were going to learn that Shane and wifey actually knew each other, or if they were going to have A Thing now (this being a ’50s American movie, “almost have a thing but then not quite” is probably nearer the mark). But, without meaning to spoil things, it doesn’t play out like that. At all.
I didn’t dislike Shane, but I’m trying to both work out and explain why I didn’t love it. If I sound overly critical then it’s because of those expectations, for which look to sources like the Radio Times, who state that, “if you’ve never seen it, Shane is a revelation”. It wasn’t, and I kinda blame them.
Shane is on Film4 today at 4:30pm.