Author Joseph McBride Talks About Shane
Greenbriar gets out an extra on Shane thanks to a fascinating e-mail received from noted film historian and biographer Joseph McBride, who got in touch following Tuesday's Part Two with word that he was in attendance at that 1966
From Joseph McBride: I was at that 1966 University of Wisconsin, Madison, screening of SHANE and had the privilege of seeing the film for the first time with the director present. It was one of three times I've seen his personal print (1:33). It always looked spectacular. I have written my former writing partner George Stevens, Jr., to share my concern about how the Blu-ray release is chopping off parts of the film. This obviously must not be done.
There is no transcript of the Madison event, but my book PERSISTENCE OF VISION: A COLLECTION OF FILM CRITICISM (Wisconsin Film Society Press, Madison, 1968) contains a report on the visits of Stevens, King Vidor, and Shirley Clarke to our campus. William Donnelly wrote the article. Bill didn't much like Stevens or SHANE. There is nothing specific about the aspect ratio, but Bill does write of Stevens, "Loves his films and will fight for them (suing NBC for what they did to one of them)." Bill also writes of Stevens,
"Convinced he makes films from conviction. Convinced films made from films bad. Doesn't like idea of film being a mass of conventions. Prefers to think of them as moving records of reality. Feels that what will authentically move him will move audience. Unable to defend SHANE as a film growing out of his revulsion at killing. Though he calls it his 'war film' and tells how he waited impatiently to make a statement on his war experiences, when asked to reconcile stated theme with action in film shoots out a cloud of abstractions like a squid. Doesn't allow himself to be pinned down philosophically. Doesn't realize that SHANE is one of the most archetypal of Westerns."
I know Stevens did realize that. As I recall that event, the aspect ratio wasn't discussed. The film simply looked great.
Patrick McGilligan and I interviewed Stevens in 1974. This interview appeared in Gary Morris's magazine Bright Lights and is collected in Pat's book FILM CRAZY: INTERVIEWS WITH HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Stevens talks about how carefully he composed the shot of Shane framed through the grazing elk's antlers (a shot that would lose some of the sky and mountains above the elk if it is shown in 1:66). When we mentioned that Alan Ladd is a marvelous piece of casting but unconventional, particularly since he is short for a Western hero, Stevens said, "It was an interesting thing for the picture because he didn't tower above the others -- the mountains did. We kept him as high off the ground as possible so he wouldn't be dwarfed by people." And Stevens talked about the importance of deliberate pacing and editing. He said,
"It's related to music or painting, the arrangement of film, and it has an enormous effect on an audience. They never relate to it as being devised, any more than I presume I'm seduced because Renoir devises the composition of what he shows me in a painting. I know he sweated it out, erased it, but he got it. There's no question about it, there's the grand man. It surprises me how well audiences, also critics, reward a film that has that kind of thing in mind, by design, not because it just happened. Sometimes we find really fine quality in a film by looking at it, looking at it, and then looking BACK at it -- why, this darn thing's designed as the BOLERO is designed!"
This was a man who took great pains over every aspect of his work, including composition. I am sure he would be appalled to see SHANE cut down to 1:66 again when it could be released in the Academy ratio in which he shot it.
Greenbriar highly recommends the many fine books Joseph McBride has written on lives and careers of directors John Ford, Frank Capra, and Orson Welles, in addition to other works on film history, all of which are outstanding.