Shane features an all-star cast: Alan Ladd as the title character, a gunfighter who is trying to escape his past; Van Heflin as Joe Starrett, Jean Arthur as his wife Marian Starrett, and Brandon de Wilde as Joey Starrett, a family trying to create a home on the frontier; and Jack Palance (here listed as Walter Jack Palance) as Jack Wilson, the gunfighter who is trying to drive them off their land. It's a fairly simple film: the Starett family is trying to build a farm on the prairie, much to the disgust of Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) a cattleman who claims rights to the whole valley. The lives of the Staretts and all the settlers have been made miserable as Ryker attempts to run them off. Enter the loner, Shane, who attempts to restart his life by working for Joe as a handyman. But given the environment, Shane soon finds that the only way he can help the family he has come to love is to return to his old occupation.
Interestingly, Ladd and Heflin were not the first choices for Shane and Joe. Montgomery Clift and William Holden were the first choice of director Stevens for the roles of Shane and Starrett. When they were unavailable, Stevens selected Ladd and Heflin who were under contract to Paramount. This article from TCM discusses some of the studio's attitudes towards the film.
Stevens was able to coax Jean Arthur (with whom he had worked on The More the Merrier) out of retirement for this, her final film role. Ms. Arthur is quite wonderful as Marian, a strong woman who loves her husband, but who is also attracted to the stranger in their midst. The scene in which she tries to decide what dress to wear - all but her wedding dress are work clothes - as Shane talks to Joey outside, is gently amusing and poignant.
Shane is shot in Technicolor, and while it's not a widescreen film, it has an exquisite use of color and vistas. The film emphasizes the size of the country through the use of widescreen shots. This serves to elaborate on the greed of Ryker, who desires so much land in an area that is so vast it surely could hold a few more people. Yet Ryker is given time to explain his need for the land. In fact, all of the characters are allowed an opportunity to explain their feelings about the range dispute, leaving us, the audience, to decide who is in the right.
And there are quite a few characters: Elisha Cook, Jr., as Stonewall Torrey, a former Confederate soldier with a bad temper and a deep thirst; Ben Johnson as Chris Calloway, a ranch hand for Ryker who starts the film as Shane's adversary, but who ends as his friend; Edgar Buchanan as Fred Lewis, another of the settlers who fears the effects of Ryker's wrath. We also have two familiar female faces in this group: Nancy Culp (Mrs. Howells) and Ellen Corby (Liz Torrey) have brief moments as settlers' wives.
Ultimately, though, Shane is a love story between a grown man and a little boy, and Brandon de Wilde as the hero-worshiping Joey turns in a wonderful performance. There is a real rapport between him and Ladd, and their chemistry gives the film its strength. Sadly, after a career in which he appeared in films such as The Member of the Wedding, All Fall Down, and Hud, de Wilde died in a traffic accident at the age of 30.
We leave you with a clip from Shane, in which the title character demonstrates the proper use of a revolver to young Joey. One thing to notice is the loudness of the gunfire - director Stevens purposely made the gunshots extra loud: "a gun is a tool," Shane tells us. But in a sense, it is a tool that destroys lives.