This movie may be the best Western ever made. I don't normally choose a single favorite movie in any genre, or even worse, a small number of favorites across film genres, but Shane would be in any short list of Westerns I might ever make. Like Key Largo, this film addresses the subject of courage and personally facing down injustice. However, it covers a large number of subjects: family, community, property, and more. George Stevens directed this classic based on Jack Schaefer's famous novel, with a screen adaptation by A.B. Guthrie Jr.
The movie opens showing the grandeur of the American west. A lone horseman crosses the top of a ridge of foothills and starts down the other side into a beautiful valley. In the valley a young boy stalks a large elk which drinks from a stream near a medium-sized homestead. The boy, Joey (Brandon De Wilde), has no ammunition for his small rifle. The elk escapes as the horseman crosses the stream heading towards the homestead. The boy also runs toward the homestead. Having a shorter distance to cover he reaches his father: Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), before the approaching stranger enters their yard. When Joey tells his father someone comes, his father continues chopping at a large stump in the yard. Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur), Joey's mother, sings while she does her housework in the log cabin at the center of the homestead.
When the horseman arrives, Joe offers him some water. Joey still carries his rifle and works the action, which causes the stranger to crouch into a defensive stance and move to draw his pistol. More riders now approach. Taking Joey's rifle, Joe assumes that the approaching riders: Rykers as he calls them, are known to the stranger, but the man denies it. Joe tells him to close the gate on his way out.
When the group of riders cross the stream, they ride their horses through the homesteader's small garden and pull up in front of Starrett's cabin. Rufus (Emile Meyer) and Morgan (John Dierkes) Ryker lead the riders. Morgan notes Joey's rifle now in Joe's hands and asks if Starrett expects trouble. After a few chuckles, Rufus tells Starrett that he has gotten a government contract to supply beef to an Indian reservation. He says he will now need “all of my range.” Starrett asks if Rufus would “mind getting off my place.” As Joe and Rufus argue, the lone horseman reappears behind Joe, backing him up.
Morgan Ryker asks him “Who are you stranger?” The man replies, “I'm a friend of Starrett's.” Joe again tells the Rykers to leave. They turn their horses and ride through the garden again on their way out. Marian tells Joe supper will be ready soon. Joe invites the horseman, who introduces himself as Shane (Alan Ladd), to join them for supper. During their meal Joe discusses his problems with too much to do around the place and keeping a hired man in the face of the trouble caused by the Rykers. After a dessert of home-made pie Shane compliments Marian on “an elegant dinner” and excuses himself. He leaves the cabin and begins chopping at the stump in the yard. Joe joins him with another axe. Together they defeat the stump.
The next morning dawns revealing that the elk has returned. It grazes on the garden which Marian and Joey repaired from the prior day's horse damage. Joey notices antlers through his window and grabs his small rifle to stalk the elk. However, he still lacks bullets. Sleeping in the barn, Shane notices Joey and speaks with him. Joey asks Shane to stay and tells him that his parents both wish he would. Shane stays and soon comes into the conflict between the homesteaders and the Rykers.
Set in the late 1880's, this film shows the type of conflicts that often occur when inevitable change threatens an established order. Ideas of land ownership go through a transition in this period. The era of the gunfighter also fades. The methods of resolving conflict show up the differences between the two groups of men. The State has no actual positive role in this film. Those who might think that the Rykers deserve more sympathy, perhaps they only defend their own; should consider that reservation beef contract and what it implies.
The cast of this movie has few peers. In addition to the central actors already mentioned, Jack Palance gives a breakthrough performance as a menacing gunman. Ben Johnson also plays one of Ryker's main hands. Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr., Ellen Corby and Nancy Kulp play homesteaders. The camera work displays the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. Although George Stevens made several movies that justly qualify as classics, Shane may be the greatest of his films, in addition to its status as one of the greatest Westerns.