Big Hollywood has a long-running series called “For Conservative Movie Lovers.” I’ve found the series unfailingly interesting. The current subject is Shane, a film that has been criticized on various grounds but remains one of the most mythic of Westerns. It was directed by George Stevens, and the linked post, the second in a series on Shane, explains how Stevens evolved from a director of frothy comedies as a result of his service in World War II, a service that culminated at Dachau.
Back in America, the desire to direct again came slowly, and the films became more serious, the work of an auteur surrounded by the ghosts of his past. “I kept feeling I should do a picture about the war — all the other guys had done or were doing pictures about their war experiences, Ford, Huston, Wyler, and so on. And here I was avoiding the subject. Until I found Shane — it was a western, but it was really my war picture. The cattlemen against the ranchers, the gunfighter, the wide-eyed little boy, it was pretty clear to me what it was about.”
Ever since the war, he had become acutely aware of the depiction of violence on screen, and the gaping difference between Hollywood violence and what he had seen at Dachau. “At the time we made this picture there was a great vogue of kids with cowboy hats and cap pistols going bang, bang, bang. . . In the popular movies we saw western guys with guitars, not six-shooters.” Stevens now knew better. “A gunshot. . . is a holocaust. It’s not a gesture of bravado, it’s death.”
“What I wanted this film to do,” Stevens said, “was catch something of how people looked and lived, their home ways, their manners and ways of doing things, and most importantly the violent character of the six-shooter. . . I wanted to show that a .45, if you pull directly in a man’s direction, you destroy an upright figure. I wanted to make that one point.” How he went about doing all of that — the directorial decisions, the editing, the clever cinematic tricks — would change the way westerns were made forever after.