The Western as metaphor has been a staple of American — and, indeed, international — filmmaking, from the very beginnings of the cinema to the great "spaghetti" westerns of Italian director Sergio Leone (and, recently, directors like Kevin Costner and the great Clint Eastwood). We know all of the staples, from the villain with the black hat and dual pistols to the heroic cowboy figure and the rugged families who tended the land.
In George Stevens' 1953 film Shane, the Western genre is used to introduce an almost Christ-like mythos in the title character. It's a captivating film that still holds emotional power more than fifty years after its release.
We meet Shane (Alan Ladd) in the opening titles: a lone figure on horseback, up on top of a hill, carefully making his way down into the valley. He is dressed in a simple buckskin outfit. Loyal Griggs' wonderful cinematography gives us a real feeling of time and place, an unspoiled wilderness of nature. Does Shane seem to have a bit of a glow about him, almost like a halo? I think he does.
Shane's journey through the valley brings him to a simple homesteading family, the Starretts: Joe Starrett (Van Helfin); his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur); and young son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde). At this point in the film we do not know anything about Shane; nor does the Starrett family. The family and Shane connect and Shane decides to stay and help Joe with tending to the land.
Young Joey is immediately fascinated by Shane, and as Shane's relationship with the family grows, we also realize that Shane and Marian are attracted to each other. Shane, the loner, does not act on his feelings, but it's obvious to Joe that his wife has her own fascination with the handsome stranger.
In town, a man named Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) is not so fond of the homesteaders, driving his cattle through their fences and gardens. There is a small, close group of families that Brutus bullies to get them to leave.