THERE AREN'T ANYMORE GUNS IN THE VALLEY
Incidentally, I really hated it the first time I saw it, about 12 years ago. I don't remember where, but I'd read an article talking about Unforgiven being a modern update (or post-modern, it probably said) of Shane. I loved Unforgiven (and still do; it's up in GoodFellas or Apocalypse Now territory for me), so I jumped at the chance to see it's distant predecessor.
And I didn't make it past the 45 minute mark. It wasn't just that it was too dated, because I've always liked good, old movies. I can roll with the old-fashioned acting styles, or the swelling music. That wasn't the problem. The problem was Brandon DeWilde, the kid who played Joey, Van Heflin's & Jean Arthur's boy. As a sneeringly cynical, mid-90's Tarantino fanboy there was just no way I could've handled a sensitive & honest treatment of the "crush" Joey developed on the swaggering, gun-slinging Shane. And I didn't.
(In honesty, the fact that Alan Ladd's wavy blonde locks & fringed suede jacket made Shane look like he belonged in a Village People tribute act more than a gunfighter in 19th century Wyoming didn't help either. The 50's, baby!)
But now, as an older guy, I love this film more and more every time I see it. The way that Shane and Heflin's Joe handle the boy's affections is real: Shane is torn between wanting to present Joey with a true picture of who he really is, versus the sterilized image he realizes that Joey should see; the way that Heflin works hard to cover up his jealousy, knowing that his son finds Shane's gunman far more compelling than his own pig-farmer; their competing desires to be both tough, and civilized in the young boy's eyes.
And the subtle emotions between Jean Arthur, Alan Ladd, and Van Heflin are spectacular. Nothing is explicitly revealed in the dialogue, but their feelings, their temptations, their sense of guilt & loyalty are clear. These are characters feeling the pull of love, of competition & the hunger for excitement. But also with a deep sense of honor, of doing what's right. Director George Stevens did a helluva job there. Every time I see it, I find the interplay between the three of them a little more moving. There's a deep sadness just beneath the surface, but they keep it hidden, for pride . . . and for Joey.
I have to admit that the fist-fights & gunfights seem either tame or cartoonish after 55 years of Leone, Peckinpaugh, Kirosawa & Eastwood reinterpreting the western. But the foreplay, if you will, the sharp camera angles, the jagged rhythms of the score, the use of seemingly secondary action like storms, spooked horses, or stampeding cattle is masterful. The tension is palpable throughout the final 20 minutes of the movie.
And, I'd be a fool not to mention one other thing: Jack Palance as hired gun, Jack Wilson. With his famous grin & his slow, deliberate walk, he's a picture of laconic evil. Simply put, he's just a lot "scarier" than most of the bad guys in older Westerns. Palance's Wilson has more in common with Lee van Cleef's Angle Eyes than with the standard 40's/50's gunman.
That's all. Not looking to go into excruciating detail about the ins-and-outs of the movie. Just wanted to spend a few minutes rambling about my feelings after watching again last night. One thing I know, I'll watch again next time it comes on.