The New Old Movie Review: ‘Shane’ (1953)

Shane should prove to be a perfect choice for your next family movie night.

Alan Ladd (l) and Brandon De Wilde star in the 1953 classic ‘Shane.’
Alan Ladd (l) and Brandon De Wilde star in the 1953 classic ‘Shane.’ (photo:

Hollywood is not lacking movies about courage; it is, however, desperately lacking films about fortitude. The wise man knows the difference: while courage may or may not involve love, St. Augustine clarifies that fortitude is “love bearing all things readily for the sake of the object beloved.”

Augustine’s teacher, St. Ambrose, provides us with an even clearer picture:

Fortitude is not lacking in courage, for alone she defends the honor of the virtues and guards their behests. She it is that wages an inexorable war on all vice, undeterred by toil, brave in face of dangers, steeled against pleasures, unyielding to lusts, avoiding covetousness as a deformity that weakens virtue.

In 1953, George Stevens produced a movie that illustrated this sort of Augustinian fortitude, and no one has done it better. It was titled Shane.

The movie is set in America’s Old West period in the gorgeous mountains of Wyoming. (Shane won the 1954 Academy Award for Best Cinematography.) The title character, played by Alan Ladd, is a gunfighter who is searching. Searching for something or someone or somewhere, perhaps, but he knows not what — at least, not right away. In the opening scene, Shane comes upon a small family ranch where he meets Joe Starrett — husband to Marian, and father to “Little Joe.” 

Joe quickly mistakes Shane for a member of the local Ryker cattle-ranch gang, who seek to drive the Starretts off their land. But when Shane stands up to the Rykers, announcing he is “a friend of Starretts,” Joe realizes his rash judgment and asks Shane to stay for dinner. A friendship is born. At Joe’s invitation, Shane stays with the family to help work the land. Shane hangs up his holster and trades in his gunfighter outfit for that of a ranch-hand. 

Maybe, just maybe, this quiet life is what Shane has been searching for. 

But idyllic as it feels, we quickly discover that the Ryker brothers mean business: they regard all the land in the region as their own. At the local saloon, Shane is insulted and threatened by the Ryker gang, but he refuses to fight back, lest it result in hurting the Starrett family. The next time Shane goes into the bar, however, a fight does break out, so Joe runs in to help Shane, resulting in one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Though their faces are bloodied and they are badly outnumbered, Shane and Joe stand back-to-back fighting off attackers. At one point, they turn back to look at each other and smile, as if to say, We’re doing all right! We’re holding our own!

As the story progresses, we see what Shane has been achingly missing: wife, children, home. Shane comes to love the Starrett family, and they love him in return. Shane quickly becomes almost a second father to little Joe, who confides to his mother one night that he loves Shane “almost as much as I love Pa.” 

Marian and Shane begin to feel a mutual attraction, but it is an attraction born of virtue. And Shane will not entertain covetous thoughts that would deform either’s virtue. Nor would Shane tolerate such insinuation from others. At the saloon one day, Ryker ponders out loud why a man as talented as Shane would choose to work at a tiny family farm. Ryker’s next comment illustrates that motivations of virtue are foreign concepts to insistently vicious and sinful men. He looks at Shane and makes an accusatory observation: “Pretty wife, Starrett’s got.”  

Shane defiantly responds in defense of Marian’s virtue: “Why, you dirty, slinkin’ old man!” 

Shane proves to be Joe’s best and most loyal friend, but Joe begins to doubt himself, questioning whether Shane would be a better husband to Marian and better father to Little Joe. In Joe’s eyes, Shane is smarter, more handsome, and a better defender of the family than Joe could ever be. Shane tries to overcome this, even feigning fear and pain in the presence of Little Joe.  

It should not give too much away to say that there is a showdown between Shane and the Rykers. But before Shane faces Ryker and his hired guns, Shane must get past someone else. Without revealing who that someone is, the scene that follows provides an unforgettable tribute to the power of friendship, and why friendship often requires fortitude. Shane’s actions illustrate his belief that the Starrett family is worth risking his life for, even though it can never be his own family. 

If memory serves, Shane is the first movie my dad and I ever watched together. At the time, I had no way of knowing how appropriate that was, but I think my father did. He must have hoped I would see the critical message of fortitude and family in the film, even as a little boy. 

My father passed away in January, and it was only in a recent viewing that I’ve come to understand that my father was a real-life Shane. My dad, who had faced his fair share of gun-wielding bad guys in Vietnam, repeatedly risked his life for the sake of innocent families in Southeast Asia. For various reasons, I find myself humming the theme from Shane so often today when I think of my dad. 

The film operates on a variety of levels, and it succeeds on every one. It is an aspirational movie that may positively influence you for the rest of your life. Best of all, your children may learn a deep sense of the true virtue of fortitude, without even knowing they are doing so. Shane should prove to be a perfect choice for your next family movie night.