Photography: Paramount Pictures
Photography: Paramount Pictures

Looking back at George Stevens' classic western on the occasion of Ladd's birthday.

If you define a classic film as one that most people automatically assume they’ve seen, even if they haven’t, because so many other movies have reprised its basic plot, then Shane — starring Alan Ladd, whose birthday we celebrate today — certainly qualifies for that label. Faithfully adapted from a popular novel by Jack Schaefer, director George Stevens’ enduringly popular western spins a tale that already seemed whiskery back in 1952, when the movie first appeared in theaters. But this particular telling of the oft-told tale has become the paradigm, partly because of Stevens’ reverential approach — which, at times, borders on the ritualistic — and largely because at least two lead players offer definitive portrayals of their familiar characters.

Ladd stars to perfection as Shane, a mysterious gunfighter who providentially appears in a Wyoming community just when the clash between homesteaders and cattle ranchers is turning uglier and bloodier. Shane finds himself impressed by the hearty industriousness of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a farmer who’s determined to work the land and protect his family. Just as important, Shane also finds himself drawn to the homesteader’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), even though both of them are too noble to ever act on their obvious attraction. (In the 1960s, when Shane was tuned into a short-lived TV series starring David Carradine, producers “solved” the problem of this taboo love by turning the wife into a widow.)

Eager to escape his never-discussed but clearly unpleasant past, Shane wants to settle down and, who knows, maybe work as a hired hand in this bucolic valley of “sodbusters.” He’s amused by the idolatry of young Joey (Brandon De Wilde), the Starretts’ precocious son, who views the semi-retired gunfighter as a super hero. But Shane doesn’t want to be a hero, rightly figuring that once he demonstrates his lethal talents, he’ll have to exile himself from Eden.

For roughly the first half of the movie, Shane refuses to be pushed into gunplay or fistfights, even when he’s confronted by a belligerent thug (Ben Johnson) employed by the Ryker brothers, the cattle kings who want the homesteaders to vacate their property. The Rykers don’t take no for an answer, or even acknowledge it as an option. So when Shane finally starts to stand up for himself, and for the homesteaders, the brothers send for a hired gun — a bigger- and badder-than-life hombre named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance in a career-defining performance) — to expedite the expulsion of the sodbusters and their savior.

Shane is the kind of myth that relies on the natural or temporarily willed innocence of its audience to achieve maximum impact. Stevens sorely tests your suspension of disbelief while introducing Wilson, a malevolent figure whose effortless ability to radiate bad vibes — dogs whimper and turn tail as he approaches — pushes the movie perilously close to self-parody. But the laughter catches in your throat when Wilson mercilessly goads a hopelessly outmatched homesteader (the perpetually put-upon Elisha Cook Jr.) into a showdown. Wilson draws first, then pauses — tauntingly, sadistically — while his opponent stands, abashed and afraid, in the middle of a muddy street. Then Wilson pulls the trigger, reveling in his own evil as he relishes the gratuitous slaughter.

After that, you know — you just know — that Shane will never find peace in this valley.

If you know anything about Ladd’s unhappy off-screen life — chronically insecure, discontent and self-critical, he died at age 50 after accidentally overdosing on alcoholic and sedatives — you can easily be distracted by the pained melancholy of his performance (to say nothing of his character’s near-suicidal actions in the final reel). Even so, that melancholy emerges as primary color in the movie’s romanticized portrait of the gunfighter as a tragic hero, forever cursed by his own prowess to remain apart from less formidable but much happier mortals.

Despite his relatively short stature, Ladd never had trouble being persuasive as a movie tough guy. In Shane, however, that toughness is effectively undercut, and thereby enhanced, by the title character’s wistful sense of longing for roads not taken, and his awareness of options no longer accessible. At the end, when Joey’s famously mournful cry to the departing hero — “Come back, Shane!” — echoes throughout the valley, the frisson is all the more affecting as you realize the boy is, quite literally, asking for the impossible.

By the way: If Woody Allen ever decides to direct a Western — OK, wipe that smile off your face! — it very likely will be heavily influenced by Shane, one of his favorite American movies. No kidding.

While discussing the 1952 classic with Rick Lyman of The New York Times in 2001, Allen sounded especially impressed by Stevens’s skillful set-up for the final showdown between Shane and Jack Wilson. “Shane doesn’t want to get back into gunfighting,” Allen noted. “He’s been trying the whole movie to put it behind him. But he knows that the only way to put an end to the violence in the valley is for him to do it. That’s what makes the film great in my eyes. He knows. He’s got to go in there and kill them.

“And sometimes in life — it’s such an ugly truth — there is no other way out of a situation but you’ve got to go in there and kill them. Very few of us are brave enough or have the talent to do it. The world is full of evil, and rationalized evil, and evil out of ignorance, and there are times when that evil reaches the level of pure evil, like Jack Palance, and there is no other solution but to go in there and kill them.”

Because, sometimes, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.