Shane is a 1953 American Technicolor Western film from Paramount, noted for its landscape cinematography, editing, performances, and contributions to the genre. The picture was produced and directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by A. B. Guthrie Jr., based on the 1949 novel of the same name by Jack Schaefer. Its Oscar-winning cinematography was by Loyal Griggs. Shane stars Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur (in the last feature, and only color, film of her career) and Van Heflin, and features Brandon deWilde, Jack Palance, Emile Meyer, Elisha Cook Jr., and Ben Johnson.
Shane (Alan Ladd), a skilled, laconic gunfighter with a mysterious past, rides into an isolated valley in the sparsely settled state of Wyoming, some time after the Civil War. At dinner with local rancher Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife Marian (Jean Arthur), he learns that a war of intimidation is being waged on the valley’s settlers. Though they have claimed their land legally under the Homestead Acts, a ruthless cattle baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), has hired rogues and henchmen to harass them and drive them out of the valley. Starrett offers him a job, and he accepts.
At the town’s general store, Shane and other homesteaders are loading up supplies. he enters the saloon adjacent to the store, where Ryker’s men are drinking, and orders a soda pop for the Starretts’ son, Joey (Brandon deWilde). Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), one of Ryker’s men, throws a shot of whiskey on his shirt. “Smell like a man!” he taunts. Shane doesn’t rise to the bait, and leaves to the taunts of Ryker’s men. On the next trip to town, he returns the empty soda bottle to the saloon, where Calloway again taunts him. Shane orders two shots of whiskey, pours one on Calloway’s shirt and throws the other in his face, then knocks him to the ground. A brawl ensues; Shane prevails, with Starrett’s help. Ryker declares that the next time they meet, “the air will be filled with gun smoke.”
Joey is drawn to Shane, and to his gun. He shows him how to wear a holster and demonstrates his shooting skills, but Marian interrupts the lesson. Guns, she says, are not going to be a part of her son’s life. Shane counters that a gun is a tool, no better nor worse than a hoe or axe, and as good or bad as the man using it. Marian retorts that the valley would be better off without any guns—including Shane’s.
Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), an unscrupulous gunfighter working for Ryker, deliberately provokes Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.), a hot-tempered ex-Confederate homesteader. “Them rebs are all Southern trash,” Wilson says. “You’re a low-down, lyin’ Yankee,” responds Torrey. “Prove it,” Wilson replies—and when the inexperienced farmer goes for his gun, shoots him dead. At Torrey’s funeral, there is talk among the settlers of giving in to Ryker and moving on; but after battling a fire set by Ryker’s men, they find new determination and resolve to continue the fight.
Ryker invites Starrett to a meeting at the saloon to negotiate a settlement—and then orders Wilson to kill him when he arrives. Calloway, unable to tolerate Ryker’s treachery any longer, warns Shane of the double-cross. Starrett says no matter, he will shoot it out with Wilson, and asks him to look after Marian and Joey if he dies. Shane, aware that Starrett is no match for Wilson in a gunfight, says he must go instead. Starrett is adamant, and Shane is forced to knock him unconscious. A distraught Marian asks him why he is doing this. For her, he replies, and her husband and son, and all the other decent people who want a chance to live in peace in the valley.
As Shane rides to town, Joey follows him on foot. At the saloon, he tells Ryker he cannot prevail, because times have changed; cattle barons and gunfighters are both relics of the Old West. Then he turns to Wilson: “I hear you’re a low-down Yankee liar,” he says. “Prove it,” replies Wilson, and draws. Shane beats him to the draw, then shoots Ryker too, as he draws a hidden gun. Before Ryker’s brother Morgan, concealed in a balcony overhead, can shoot Shane in the back, Joey shouts a warning, and Shane kills Morgan as well.
Shane tells Joey to go home and tell his mother that the settlers have won, that there are no more guns in the valley. As Joey reaches out, blood drips onto his hands; Shane’s left arm hangs limply at his side as he mounts his horse. In an iconic closing scene, he rides out of town, slumped forward in his saddle, ignoring Joey’s desperate cries of “Shane! Come back!”