Ralph McLean's Cult Movie: Shane more than just a classic Western

Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur – this was her last role before she retired early from acting
Ralph McLean

BACK in 1953 Shane must have seemed like a mighty piece of escapist cinema. A lush, gunslinging adventure set against the wild sweeping plains of frontier-era America, it represented everything that was good about the Western, a cinema-packing genre that was still in its prime at the time.

A landmark offering from George Stevens (who directed Giant), it starred Alan Ladd as the title character, a taciturn 'loner' who rolls into town and swiftly becomes embroiled in a bloody conflict between a gang of Wyoming homesteaders and a ruthless cattle baron who’s trying to wrestle their land away from them.

When it hit cinema screens it must have seemed like the high water mark for Westerns in all their simplistic glory. Watching it today in the new double blu-ray disc set from Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series, it still packs a considerable punch but it’s now possible to see it as much more than just a fine example of the classic Hollywood Western adventure.

With its vast, sprawling vistas (the power of which are admittedly reduced a little by the equal number of stagey Hollywood sets) and rousing orchestral score, this is a brave and bold epic that would exert an influence on everything that would follow in its path.

You can see it in the oddly aloof leading man – Ladd’s out of place hero of few words predates Eastwood’s more iconic 'man with no name' by a good decade – feel it in the way Stevens seems to subvert the audience's expectations – Shane is dressed like a dandy and downs soda pop rather than being decked out in dusty waistcoats and guzzling whiskey – and sense it in the slow-burning story that never jumps into unnecessary bloodshed when telling its traditional tale.

This is an inspirational film that has clearly tickled the cultural fancy of everyone from Sergio Leone to Quentin Tarantino down the decades.

Shane is the solitary man whose lonesome travels take him past the farmland of Joe Starrett and his family. Starrett welcomes the moody stranger into his home and gives him employment as a casual labourer. A romance sparks off with Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) and before too long Shane’s old gunslinging ways are called into action to protect the community when that bad old cattle baron comes calling.

Those expecting the kind of hard-living Western experience we know today may find this pioneering world a little underwhelming. Everything builds gradually and there’s a sense of real emotional repression at play in Ladd’s performance as the withdrawn hero.

Aside from Ladd there are memorable turns for the likes of Jack Palance as the black-hatted bad guy Wilson. Add to that the glorious backdrops which won the film an Oscar for Cinematography and it’s easy to see why the American Film Institute listed it as the third greatest Western of all time.

This lovingly curated Masters Of Cinema Edition from Eureka packs any amount of extras including three – yes three! – remastered versions of the film and more commentaries and insight than you could shake a saddlebag at.

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