In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Shane (1953), #45 on the list.
The plot of Shane is pretty boilerplate: a mysterious outsider passing through a town must help liberate the townsfolk from the forces of oppression. Shane manages to avoid feeling generic though, because not only does it predate many films that borrow from its plot (and even genre-defining masterworks like A Fistful of Dollars and Seven Samurai), but it consistently subverts the tropes that would later become staples of the genre. Our titular hero isn’t a gruff battle-worn embodiment of masculine energy, he’s a clean-cut, sophisticated-looking pretty boy with prim clothes and flowing blonde hair. Early on, when he’s publicly humiliated at the saloon, he doesn’t immediately attack the man who insults him, as he would in any other Western. Violence is always a last resort, and in this case, when he does finally decide to fight—it’s worth noting the first set piece occurs over 30 minutes into the film—he isn’t remarkably strong, eventually becoming overpowered and requiring help from the man he’s supposed to be protecting. This long, scrappy brawl sequence is also a perfect example of how the filmmaking differs from conventional Westerns: the violence is completely deglamorized, with punches often missing their mark and the absence of a triumphant score highlighting the brutal noises of fists connecting.
A lot of the film is really about avoiding conflict, and the few altercations we see are appropriately harsh and realistic, which adds gravity to the stakes and brings depth to the human drama at the film’s core, which is really about masculinity. Though his outward appearance doesn’t fit the prototypical definition of a macho man, Shane’s arrival at this family’s farm creates a rift when the young son begins to envision Shane as the ideal father figure. Shane represents justice and bravery, whereas he sees his father as vulnerable and powerless. Rather than explore Shane’s shrouded past, the film focuses on his emotional and psychological impact on the family. This subtext adds so much dimension to a film that’s often unfairly written off as a conventional Western, even though it’s a damn good one even just on that level.
Does It Belong on the List?
Even if I’d personally have Unforgiven higher, it’s one of the best Westerns of all time, so of course it stays.