A survey of the top ten Westerns by the American Film Institute (AFI) revealed that George Stevens’s Shane, completed in 1952 and released in 1953 was the third best, behind The Searchers and High Noon at positions one and two. For fans of the genre the other high scorers were Unforgiven (4), Red River (5), The Wild Bunch (6), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (7), McCabe and Mrs Miller (8), Stagecoach (9) and Cat Ballou (10).
For Shane popular male star Alan Ladd played the laconic and kindly gunslinger with a mysteriously violent past, a soft spot for kids, a keen sense of injustice and a talent for stylish and accurate shooting and lively fist-fighting. The action takes place in beautifully photogenic Wyoming where the homesteaders he stays to help are being chased off their land by violent cattle barons and a seriously psychopathic hired hit-man called Wilson, played convincingly by Jack Palance. Those in great support include Van Heflin as the homesteader who gives Shane a job, Jean Arthur as the homesteader’s wife, who definitely likes Shane but not his gun and Brandon de Wilde who plays the homesteader’s son Joey, who grows to idolise Shane and who gives the film, which became a template for many to follow, some human focus.
Ladd sadly died in 1964, aged just 50, after taking an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol for his insomnia. Two years previously he had been found uncurious in a pool of blood and with a bullet wound near his heart, which could have been a suicide attempt. Despite this he went on to play, in 1963, the washed-up Tinseltown cowboy, Nevada Smith, opposite George Peppard playing the ruthless Jonas Cord in the trashily entertaining soap about the early days of Hollywood, The Carpetbaggers. Based on the Harold Robbins novel and released in 1964 it was one of the most popular films of the year and one that Ladd died before he could see.
Film trivia fans will want to know that Ladd was wary of guns and is seen to blink as he blasts two of the baddies in the final shoot-out. Jack Palance was equally wary of horses and a scene where he mounts one is actually filmed footage of him dismounting, played back in reverse. Ladd’s son David played a tiny and uncredited non-speaking part of a little boy in Shane, before going on with his own career as an actor (playing opposite his Dad in the 1958 The Proud Rebel, playing parts in 1960’s TV westerns Wagon Train and Gunsmoke and playing the drug pusher Sonny in The Wild Geese in 1978) and later a producer.
And Ladd’s final moving scene in Shane when, injured, he says goodbye to Joey before riding off into the sunset was undermined on the set by De Wilde who tried to make Ladd corpse as he was saying his tear-jerking lines to him by sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes. This was an ad-lib performance that reportedly caused Ladd to call to the boy’s father “Make that kid stop or I’ll beat him over the head with a brick” De Wilde then stopped.
Shane has been released in a Blu-ray edition, which further enhances the stunning landscape shots, by Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema series, and includes audio commentaries and a 24 page book.