“SHANE” (1953) Review

“SHANE” (1953) Review

The history behind the production for the 1953 classic Western, “SHANE” is a curious one. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Westerns ever made in Hollywood. And director George Stevens’ first choices for the film’s two male leads never panned out. Yet, despite the expenses and Stevens’ initial bad luck with his casting choices, “SHANE” became one of the most famous Westerns ever made in Hollywood. 

“SHANE” was based upon Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel of the same title. Many film historians and critics believe the narrative’s basic elements were based upon a historical event, the 1892 Johnson County War. Although this was never acknowledged by Stevens, Schaefer or the film’s screenwriter, A.B. Guthrie Jr. And yet . . . the film’s setting turned out to be the same one for the famous cattlemen-homesteaders conflict, Wyoming. The plot for “SHANE” proved to be simple. An experienced gunfighter named Shane, weary of his violent past, arrives at a county in Wyoming Territory and befriends a homesteader/rancher named Joe Starrett and the latter’s family. Despite Starrett’s revelation of a conflict between homesteaders like himself and a ruthless and powerful rancher named Rufus Ryker, Shane accepts a job as Starrett’s ranch hand. Before long, Shane not only finds himself emotionally drawn to the Starretts, but also pulled into the range war that is raging.

Anyone with any knowledge about old Hollywood or American Western films will automatically tell you that “SHANE” is highly regarded and much-beloved movie. The American Film Institute (AFI) has list it as one of the top three (3) Hollywood Westerns ever made and it is ranked 45 on the list of top 100 films. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations and won an award for Best Cinematography (in color). Many people believe Alan Ladd should have received an Academy Award for his performance as the mysterious “former” gunslinger Shane and consider the role as his best performance. How do I feel?

I cannot deny that “SHANE” is a first-rate movie. Who am I kidding? It is an excellent look at violence on the American frontier. And thanks to George Stevens’ direction, it is also brutal. Unlike many previous movie directors, Stevens did not stylized the violent deaths depicted in the film. A major example of this peek into life on the frontier is a scene that featured the brutal death of Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, a small rancher portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr., who was killed by Jack Wilson, a villainous gunslinger portrayed by Jack Palance:

 

Contrary to what one might originally believe, I do not believe “SHANE” preached against violence. Yes, the screenplay written by Guthrie questioned the constant use of violence to solve problems. But the movie made it clear that sometimes, one has no choice but to fight. Does this rule apply to the situation in “SHANE”? Hmmmm . . . good question.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that I found fascinating was Shane’s attempts to put his violent past behind him in his interactions with the Starrett family. Whether Shane was working or riding beside Joe, befriending Joey and struggling to suppress his obvious sexual desire for Marian; it seemed pretty obvious that he had developed close feelings for the entire family. And it would also explained why he would hang around, despite the danger of being dragged into a range war.

I cannot deny that “SHANE” featured some first-rate performances. I also cannot deny that Alan Ladd was in top form as the soft-spoken gunslinger who tried to hang up his gun belt, while staying with Starretts. I have always believed that Ladd was an underrated actor. Many critics have regarded his role as Shane as a singular example of how excellent he was as an actor. Do not get me wrong. I also admire his performance as Shane. It was a prime example of his skills as a movie actor. But I have seen other Ladd performances that I found equally impressive. Van Heflin’s portrayal of the determined small rancher, Joe Starrett, struck me as equally impressive. I could never really regard his character as complex, but Heflin made it easy for me to see why Shane had no problems befriending Joe . . . or why other ranchers regarded him as their unofficial leader. Jean Arthur had been lured out of an early retirement by Stevens for the role of Marian Starrett. I thought she did a superb job of conveying her character’s complicated feelings for Shane. Thanks to Arthur’s performance, Marian seemed to be torn between her love for Joe, her attraction to Shane and her revulsion toward his violent past.

Brandon deWilde had received an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Starretts’ young son, Joe Jr. (Joey). Do not get me wrong. I thought deWilde gave a very good performance as the impressionable, yet energetic young Joey. But an Oscar nod? Honestly, I have seen better performances from a good number of child actors – then and now. Another Best Supporting Actor nomination was given to Jack Palance for his role as the villainous gunslinger, Jack Wilson. When I re-watched this movie for the last time, there seemed to be two faces to Palance’s performance. Most of his appearances featured the actor projecting the stone-faced villainy of his character. But there were moments when Palance managed to convey the more human side of Wilson – whether it was his boredom toward his employer’s other minions or weariness at the idea of facing another person to kill. It is strange that I had never noticed this before.

I also have to give kudos to Elisha Cook Jr. as the doomed Frank Toomey, who spent most of the movie aggressively expressing his anger at Ryker’s attempts to drive him and other small ranchers out of the valley. And yet . . . Cook’s best scene featured Toomey’s last moments, when he began to silently express regret at his quick temper and his realization that he was about to meet his death.“SHANE” also featured some first-rate performances from Emilie Meyer as the ruthless and greedy Rufus Ryker; Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s ranch hands, whose early encounter with Shane made him see the light; and the likes of Ellen Corby, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer and Edith Evanson.

Despite my admiration for “SHANE”, George Stevens’ direction and A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s screenplay . . . the movie is not a particularly favorite of mine. I like the film, but I do not love it. There are certain aspects of “SHANE” that prevents me from fully embracing it. One is Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. I realize that he had won an Academy Award for his work. And I must say that he did an excellent job in capturing the beauty of the movie’s Wyoming and California locations. But I found his use of natural lighting for the interior shots very frustrating, especially since I could barely see a damn thing in some shots. Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was its message regarding violence. I have no problem with any story declaring the use of violence in certain situations. My problem is that I did not find the local ranchers’ situation with Ryker dire enough that they had to insist upon fighting it out. Granted, if they had agreed to sell their land to Ryker and leave, it would have meant his victory. I do not know. Perhaps I did not care. Or perhaps this feeling came from my contempt toward the Frank Toomey character, who had stupidly decided to give in to his anger and aggression by facing Ryker and Wilson.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was the Joey Starrett character. I have seen my share of on-screen precocious children in movies and television. But there was something about Joey Starrett that truly got under my skin. I do not blame Brandon deWilde. He was only following Stevens’ direction. But before the movie’s last reel, I found myself wishing that someone would push dear Joey into the mud . . . face first. If there was one aspect of “SHANE” that truly annoyed me, it was bringing the U.S. Civil War into the narrative. I can only recall three characters who were established as Civil War veterans – Shane, Frank Toomey and Jack Wilson. Of the three, guess which one fought with the Union? That is correct. The evil and slimy Wilson. And to make matters worse, Guthrie’s screenplay had Shane utter these words to Wilson before shooting him – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.” In other words, “SHANE” became another example of Hollywood’s subtle, yet never-ending reverence for the Confederate cause. And considering that only three characters in this film were established as war veterans, why on earth did Schaefer, Guthrie or Stevens had to drag the damn war into this story in the first place? It was so unnecessary.

Regardless of my frustrations, I must admit that “SHANE” is a first-rate Western. Director George Stevens, screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. and the excellent cast led by Alan Ladd did an exceptional job in creating a Western that many would remember for decades. If only I had enjoyed it more than I actually did.

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“THE SHADOW RIDERS” (1982) Review

 

“THE SHADOW RIDERS” (1982) Review

When I first set out to discover how many of author Louis L’Amour novels had been adapted for the movies and television, I had assumed at least a handful had gone through this process. I was surprised to discover that many of his works had been adapted. And one of them turned out to be the 1982 television movie, “THE SHADOW RIDERS”.

I have only seen two L’Amour adaptations in my life – “THE SHADOW RIDERS” and the 1979 two-part miniseries, “THE SACKETTS”. Both productions seemed to have a great deal in common. The two productions are adaptations of L’Amour (which is obvious). Both featured three brothers as the protagonists. Both starred Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage as the leads. The two productions also feature Ben Johnson as a supporting protagonist and Gene Evans as a villain. But in the end, “THE SHADOW RIDERS” and “THE SACKETTS” have their differences. The latter aired as a two-part television movie or miniseries that mainly featured action and drama. “THE SHADOW RIDERS”, on the other hand, is a ninety-six minute television movie, with comic overtones.

L’Amour’s tale is basically about two brothers – Dal and Mac Travern – who returned home from the Civil War after fighting on different sides and discover that a company of Confederate cavalry had raided their family’s Texas ranch and the neighborhood for cattle, horses and especially people to sell in Mexico. Among those kidnapped by the raiders were other neighbors, the Traverns’ younger brother Jesse (also a Civil War veteran), their younger sisters Sissy and Heather, and Dal’s former sweetheart Kate Connery. The Confederate troopers, led by one Major Cooper Ashbury, hope to raise enough money or “merchandise” to trade for guns and ammunition from a notorious local gunrunner named “Colonel” Holiday Hammondin order to continue the fight against the Federal government.

Upon learning what happened, Dal and Mac discover that the local lawman, Miles Gillette, seem incapable of going after the raiders. And once the Traverns recruit their jailbird uncle “Black Jack” from prison to help them, Gillette becomes more obsessed with capturing the latter. With no law to help them, Dal and Mac set out to rescue their family with the help of their Uncle Jack; Jesse, who managed to escape from the raiders; and Kate, whom they managed to rescue halfway through the story.

It seemed rather odd that a story about family kidnapping would have a comic tone. I have read other reviews of the movie and some L’Amour fans seemed put off by this tone. Personally, I have no problems with it. Yes, I have read the novel and it was pretty good . . . and somewhat grim. But I thought director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter Jim Byrnes did a pretty damn good job in mixing the grim nature of the story with a strong comic element. The screenplay did not shy away from the horror of Major Ashbury’s actions or how they affected the Travern family – especially Sissy and Heather. More importantly, most of the comedy came from the family interactions between members of the Travern family – especially Dal and Mac’s reunion at a local tavern right after the war, the three brothers’ reaction to Jack Travern’s criminal past and the emotional reunion between Dal and Kate, who had become engaged to another man after hearing about Dal’s erroneous death.

“THE SHADOW RIDERS” also featured some outstanding action sequences. My favorites include Jesse’s escape from Ashbury’s raiders, the three brothers’ rescue of Kate, and the family’s main rescue of the Travern sisters and their neighbors from Holliday Hammond’s camp in Mexico. Being a veteran of many movies and television productions set in the 19th century, it seemed obvious that McLeglen was in his element with “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. The action featured in the film struck me as very exciting, without any of the excess that seemed to mar a good number of action films and television shows, these days.

I only have few complaints about “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. Despite its comic element, the main narrative focused a good deal of situations that involved family reunions between the Travern family. I certainly had no problems with most of them. But I had a problem one – namely the Travern brothers’ reunion with their Uncle Jack, who was serving time at a local jail. I found it . . . rather lackluster. A bit too laconic and understated for my tastes. I understand that this scene featured mid 19th century American men, who may have been conditioned to keep their emotions in check. Yet, other reunion scenes – whether it was between Dal and Mac, or the pair’s reunion with Jesse or their parents – seemed to feature some element of emotion. Is it because the brothers were dealing with the slightly larcenous “Black Jack” Travern? Who knows. I also had a problem with Mac’s war background. The movie made it clear that he was a Union cavalry officer, who was in Georgia at the time the war ended in April-May 1865. I just do not understand why he was in Georgia at that time. He must have entered the state with William Sherman’s forces in 1864. So . . . why did he remain in Georgia and not accompany Sherman into South Carolina?

If anyone would ask me, I believe the shining virtue of “THE SHADOW RIDERS” was the cast. They were outstanding. All of them – from the four leads to the numerous characters that appeared in this movie – were first-rate. They all seemed very comfortable in their roles, while at the same time, managed to provide a good deal of edge to their performances. In“THE SHADOW RIDERS”; Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage renew the screen chemistry they had created in“THE SACKETTS” with great ease. However, I was a little disappointed that Osterhage’s role in this film seemed slightly diminished in compare to his role in the 1979 production. Katherine Ross made an excellent addition as the classy, yet strong-willed Kate Connery, who had been Dal’s former sweetheart. This also gave Ross an excellent opportunity to share some rather funny and romantic scenes with her off-screen husband, Elliot. Hell, she even managed to work well with Selleck, Osterhage, Geoffrey Lewis and Gene Evans.

Ben Johnson was a hoot as the Traverns’ laid-back, yet larcenous uncle, “Black Jack” Travern. I could also say the same about Gene Evans, who portrayed the very charming and very cold-blooded gunrunner, Holliday Hammond. On the other hand, Geoffrey Lewis made a very intense Cooper Ashbury, the Confederate cavalry officer who is determined to continue the War Between the States with only a company of men. “THE SHADOW RIDERS” also featured first-rate performances from veterans such as Jane Greer, Harry Carey Jr., and R.G. Armstrong; along with Dominique Dunne and Natalie May.

I may have had a problem with one or two scenes with “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. And yes, I found the Civil War background for one of the major characters a bit confusing. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the movie. I enjoyed it when I first saw it as a kid, many years ago on television. And my recent viewing only confirmed that my feelings about the production has not really changed one whit. Director Andrew V. McLeglen, screenwriter Jim Byrnes and a cast led by Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck continued to make this movie a joy to watch.

“THE SACKETTS” (1979) Review

Below is my review of the 1979 miniseries called “THE SACKETTS”

“THE SACKETTS” (1979) Review

Thirty years ago, CBS aired a two-part miniseries (or television movie) based upon two novels written by the late Louis L’Amour. Directed by Robert Totten, “THE SACKETTS” starred Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage as the three Sackett brothers.

”THE SACKETTS” told the story of Tell (Elliot), Orrin (Selleck) and Tyrel (Osterhage) Sackett and their efforts to make new lives for themselves in the post-Civil War West. Screenwriter Jim Byrnes took two novels about the Sackett brothers – “The Daybreakers” (1960) and “Sackett” (1961) – and weaved them into one story. “The Daybreakers” mainly focused upon Tyrel and Orrin’s efforts to settle out West following the tragic circumstances of a family feud in East Tennessee. The two brothers eventually become involved in a between an elderly New Mexican rancher (Gilbert Roland) and a bigoted American businessman (John Vernon) in Santa Fe. At the same time, Tyrel struggles to keep the peace between a former New Orleans attorney named Tom Sunday (Glenn Ford), whom the two brothers had befriended during a cattle drive and Orrin. “Sackett”, on the other hand, focused upon the oldest Sackett brother and former Civil War veteran, Tell. Tell’s story centered around his search for gold in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and his problems with a family of outlaws who want revenge for Tell’s killing of their brother, a crooked gambler.

To Totten and Byrnes’ credit, they did an admirable job of fusing the two novels by adding two reunions between the brothers near the ends of Parts 1 and 2. They also allowed the supporting character of Cap Roundtree (Ben Johnson), a grizzled former mountain man whom Tyrel and Orrin also meet on the cattle drive; to break away from the two younger brothers and join Tell’s hunt for gold following the three brothers’ reunion at the end of Part 1. “THE SACKETTS” is also an entertaining and solid Western with two interesting tales that involve land feuds, romance, brotherly love, political change, vengeance and plenty of action.

One of the best aspects of the miniseries focused upon the developing hostility between the middle Sackett brother Orrin, and the brothers’ friend, Tom Sunday in Part 2. It was an interesting tale on how a solid friendship could easily sour over a difference of opinion regarding moral compass. After Cap had hooked up with Tell; Tyrel, Orrin and Sunday encountered the smoking remains of an emigrant family that had been killed by Ute warriors. Sunday wanted to split the money between the three of them. Orrin, upon discovering a letter written to the family by a relative, wanted to send the money back to said relative. Orrin got his way. And Tom’s resentment toward Orrin ignited. That same resentment exacerbated when he lost the election of Santa Fe’s new sheriff to the middle Sackett.

Politics also played a major role in the miniseries. The topic focused upon a feud between an aging New Mexican rancher Don Luis Alvarado (Gilbert Roland) and American businessman Jonathan Pritts (John Vernon). The feud was mainly the old Anglos vs. Mexican conflict that still dominates the Southwest to this day. The Sacketts became dragged into it, due to Orrin’s courtship of Pritts’ daughter (Marcy Hanson) and Tyrel’s romance with Don Luis’ granddaughter, Drusilla (Ana Alicia). In the end, the Sacketts and even Sunday sided with the New Mexicans. One has to applaud L’Amour for introducing this topic into the story, and for screenwriter Byrnes for maintaining it. But if I must be honest, I thought the execution of Don Luis’ feud with Pritts came off as heavy-handed and preachy.

One would think that Tell Sackett’s hunt for gold would dominate his storyline. Amazingly, it did not. Well, Tell did meet and fall in love with a woman named Ange Kerry (Wendy Rastattar), who had been stranded in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for several years. But his story mainly focused upon his problems with the brothers (Jack Elam, Slim Pickens and Gene Evans) of crooked gambler named Bigelow (James Gammon), whom he had killed early in Part 1. This reminded me of a line from the 1984 adventure-comedy, “ROMANCING THE STONE” – “But if there was one law of the West, bastards had brothers . . . who seemed to ride forever.” And both Tell and Cap eventually discovered that the Bigelows had brothers and allies everywhere. One ally turned out to be an insecure gunfighter named Kid Newton (Paul Kelso), who had an unfortunate and humiliating encounter with Tell and Cap at a local saloon. Tell’s problems with the Bigelows culminated in a tense situation in the Sangre de Cristo foothills and a violent showdown in a nearby town.

Most of the performances featured in “THE SACKETTS” struck me as pretty solid. To the cast’s credit, they managed to use mid-to-late 19th century dialogue without being sloppy or indulging in what I considered the cliché ‘Frontier’ speech pattern that seemed popular in the Westerns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, I found at least four performances that really impressed me. One of them belonged to Sam Elliot, who portrayed the oldest brother, Tell. I might as well be frank. He has always been a favorite actor of mine for a long time. With his grizzled, deep voice and demeanor, the man looked as if he had stepped out of a 19th century daguerreotype. He also did an effective job of conveying Tell Sackett’s loner personality, making it easy for viewers to accept the idea that this is a man who would wait years before contacting any members of his family.

Another performance that impressed me belonged to Jeff Osterhage as the tense, yet pragmatic youngest Sackett, Tyrel. To this day, I am amazed that Osterhage never became a big star in television or movies. He seemed to have possessed both the looks and screen presence to become one. And I was certainly impressed by his ability to portray Tyrel’s pragmatic, yet intimidating nature. Traits that led him to be the best shot in the family.

I also enjoyed Wendy Rastattar’s performance as Ange Kerry, the young woman that Tell and Cap had discovered in the mountains. Rastattar did a first-rate job in portraying a tough, yet passionate young woman, who ended up falling in love with Tell. But the best performance came from Hollywood icon, Glenn Ford as the enigmatic friend of the Sacketts, Tom Sunday. In Ford’s hands, Sunday became one of a gallery of complex characters he had portrayed during his career. For me, it was sad to watch Sunday regress from Orrin and Tyrel’s wise mentor to Orrin’s drunken and embittered foe. And Ford did an excellent job in exploring Sunday’s many nuances, including those flaws that led to his downfall.

One might noticed that I had failed to include Tom Selleck’s performance as one of the more impressive ones, considering that both Elliot and Osterhage made the list. I found nothing wrong with Selleck’s performance. Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to portray Orrin, the least interesting member of the Sackett family. Orrin was an affable, yet solid character that lacked any nuances, which could have made him as interesting as his brothers. A great deal happened to Orrin in this story. He lost his bride in a family feud, fell briefly in love with the villains’ daughter and pissed off Tom Sunday. Yet, he was not very interesting character. Which left the talented Selleck with very little to work with.

The movie’s production values struck me as very impressive. Production designer Johannes Larson, costume designers Carole Brown-James and Barton Kent James, and cinematographer Jack Whitman did an excellent job in capturing the ambiance of the Old West circa 1869-1870. Along with the director Totten, they managed to create a West during a period before it truly threatened to become settled. They managed to capture the ruggedness and beauty of the West without overcompensating themselves, like many other Westerns released after the 1960s tend to do.

Many years have passed since I have read “The Daybreakers” and “Sackett”. Which is my way of saying that I cannot tell whether the miniseries was a completely faithful adaptation of the two novels. If I must be honest, I really do not care whether it is faithful or not. The television version of the two novels – namely “THE SACKETTS” – is a first-rate and entertaining saga. I am certain that many fans of Louis L’Amour will continue to enjoy it.