BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Aug 15th, 2000 •

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(Paramount) 1952
Color / 117 mins / full frame / Dolby Digital


The film is great, and the commentary track is very good. I didn’t know until I listened to George Stevens’ son – who was on the set of the film – that the original casting was Montgomery Clift, Katherine Hepburn and William Holden, and that when timing made these choices unavailable, and threw the production into doubt, Stevens literally glanced down Paramount’s list of contract players and picked the new cast on the spot.

Stevens Jr. and Ivan Moffat, Shane‘s Associate Producer who met the director while he was doing war documentary coverage for the government, keep up a pretty good patter, referring to memos, letters, the script, and memory for a relatively full background on the film both historically and incidentally. It’s easy to listen to them while watching the movie again minus the soundtrack, since it’s so exquisitely shot. The DVD does justice to the colors and sharpness, though I believe there’ll be an even better image recreated some day. And full framing is correct, as 1952 was the year before Mike Todd forced the industry to go widescreen with his East Coast blockbuster, This is Cinerama.

Both Brandon de Wilde and Jack (Walter) Palance were pulled into the production from the Broadway stage, two wonderful discoveries. There’s a detail revealed about Palance mounting his horse in that inimitably snakelike manner that will make you re-run the scene, maybe more than once.

Classical subtext is an interesting and useful device. We’re familiar with it in Shakesperian form (Forbidden Planet/The Tempest, Man of the West/King Lear) or in biblical form (The Day the Earth Stood Still/the story of Jesus), and everyone’s heard about the uses of mythology and ‘The Golden Bough’ (Star Wars, Road Warrior, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), but here we have, very clearly laid out for us, a Freudian subtext: the oedipal complex. The boy (de Wilde), desiring his mother, but too sexually immature to do anything about it, creates a fantasy hero (we first see Shane framed between a deer’s antlers as the boy imagines shooting it) to seduce her, and then, filled with guilt, he conjures up the formidable gunman in black (Palance) to wound the superhero and hence punish himself for his oedipal thoughts. For that reason, the kid has to be there for the big shootout when Shane is wounded and rides off in the end, so he runs all the way from the ranch to town (a major stretch for our willing suspension of disbelief, but essential if the subtext is to be fulfilled) and manages to get there in time to complete the Freudian arc. Now the theory is, if you use classical subtext underneath the narrative of a screenplay, it will give the story classical strength – something that’s held up so long on its own cannot help but bolster a new story. Is that why Shane has endured as one of the classic westerns, perhaps even the best, of the last century? Beats me. I’d have to give some credit to Stevens…but what do I know.

Want a weird home theater double-bill? Since we’re on the topic of subtext, start with Shane‘s classical subtext, and then follow it up with The Roan Group’s camp classic, The Outlaw, which doesn’t use any classic literary work, but rather rampant gay double entendres and directorial flourishes, to layer a fairly ludicrous story. The protagonists, Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel – the pretty street hustler) and Doc Holiday (Walter Huston – the old sugar daddy) apparently unimpressed with all the work director Howard Hughes put into properly displaying Jane Russell’s bosom, are both willing to trade her for the horse they each claim to own. The juicy subtext gets raunchier and better, and climaxes in Act three with Thomas Mitchell shrieking like a spurned queen a la The Killing of Sister George. It’s too much fun to believe, and this time, the subtext really is what saves the film, because the surface narrative is impossible. It’s also got one of the most offensive scores ever composed, which just compounds the enjoyment. Added to the fun is the superior quality of the print, and the inclusion of all the footage the censors clipped on the film’s original release.

Directed by George Stevens.
Screenplay by A.B. Gutherie, Jr.

Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson.

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