A quiet stranger rides onto the land of Joe Starrett and his family. After initially trying to rush him off (believing him to be trouble), the stranger backs him up with a local rancher tries to strong-arm the Starretts off their land. Only giving the name Shane, the stranger starts to work for Joe in exchange for a place to sleep.
Shane finds that the Starretts and several other families are struggling to hold onto their land. Local cattleman Ryker wants all the land for himself and with his employs muscle, is constantly pushing against them. Shane finds himself dealing with Stryker’s men, and after a fist fight, things escalate.
Alan Ladd’s performance is a classic of the western genre. Shane is polite, but tough. He is secretive, but still bonds with the Starrett family. At one point, young Joey Starrett claims to love Shane almost as much as his own father.
Jack Palance, who would become famous for his villainous roles in the years to come, is almost like Shane’s dark mirror. He does not talk a lot, he is highly skilled with a gun, making him an ominous threat.
Ryker, on the other hand is kind of an interesting bad guy. He works hard to seem like the good guy in all the proceedings. He offers Joe good money for his land and a job. He also is impressed by Shane’s fighting skills and offers him a job. But when he cannot have his way, he resorts to threats, violence and murder.
While the film seems to be a good versus evil tale, there is an undercurrent of cynicism. Shane is trying to flee from his past as a gunslinger…and we are left with a moral of “You cannot change.” Shane tries to live a life outside of violence, but it follows him around.
Probably my only real problem with Shane is one that, truthfully, I have with all films of this era. I feel like the music of films from the fifties is often not that distinctive. And the music of Shane feels heavily generic…and at times even works against the mood of a given scene.
But, still, Shane has shaped one of the western genre’s most popular and iconic archetypal stories. The mysterious stranger who helps the down trodden citizens oppressed by a powerful villain (usually a business man or corrupt lawman). It has earned it’s place as a true classic.