Released in 1953, “The Man from the Lost Valleys” has become one of the most popular westerns of all time. Born from a conversation between director George Stevens and his son, this major film gave Paramount some cold sweats during its production.
The Man of the Lost Valleys : a regularly quoted classic
Either it’s about Pale Rider, the lone rider or of Loganwhich openly quotes him by repeating an emblematic dialogue in its tragic conclusion, The Man of the Lost Valleys has influenced many feature films, especially thanks to its extremely effective narrative structure. Released in 1953, the film is set in a valley in Wyoming. Sumptuous landscapes in the middle of which appears the enigmatic Shane (Alan Ladd).
This rider stops at the farm of Marian (Jean Arthur) and Joe Starret (Van Heflin), who live peacefully with their ten-year-old son Joey (Brandon deWilde). The young boy is immediately fascinated by Shane and his revolver. Their admiration grows when this mysterious hero helps them face the ranchers led by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who calls on the fearsome killer Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to carry out his dirty work. If Joey only has eyes for Shane and dreams of becoming like him, the latter will teach him that the path to arms never leads very far.
Nominated for six Oscars and awarded Best Cinematography, The Man of the Lost Valleys is one of the highlights of George Stevens’ filmographydirector of Giant, A place in the sun or The Greatest Story Ever Told. The feature film seduces both by its natural settings but also by the simplicity of its story, popularizing the figure of the lonesome cowboy which returns to the horizon once its mission is completed.
The adaptation of a cult novel
If the filmmaker decides to devote himself to The Man of the Lost Valleys, it is partly thanks to his son, the future director and producer George Stevens Jr. When the latter had just finished high school in 1949, he was hired by his father to help him find the subject of his next project. Identifying himself with little Joey during his reading of the cult eponymous novel by Jack Schaefer, the teenager believes that the book could be adapted.
Asked by the Los Angeles Times in 2013, George Stevens Jr. recalled:
I went to see my father one evening while he was reading in bed. I had the book with me and I told him: “You should read it, it’s a really good story”. He said to me: “Tell me”. So I told him as I walked around his bed.
Another representation of violence
Won over by his son’s proposal, George Stevens therefore agreed to transpose to the screen The Man of the Lost Valleys. If the filmmaker is enthusiastic, it’s because this feature film allows him to go back to westerna genre to which he devoted himself during his career as a cinematographer, working for example on silent films such as The Devil Horse Where The Valley of Hell. But as a director, he mainly directed romances and musicals, including On the wings of the dance, Marriage incognito or The Woman of the Year.
This return to the western also allows him toapproach violence differently from most productions of the time. Having filmed the Normandy landings and the liberation of the Dachau camp during World War II, George Stevens refuses to glorify it. His son explains about it:
He also saw there, when he had just returned from the war, this opportunity to show the power of a revolver. He came back and saw those westerns where people keep shooting, get up and start shooting again. He wanted to show the power of a single bullet, which he had seen during the war.
An intention which explains the short and brutal confrontation scenes of The Man of the Lost Valleys.
For the production of the film, Paramount grants a budget of two million dollars to George Stevens, supposed to complete the shooting in 48 days. But the shots are delayed and the filmmaker ultimately needs 75 days, plus another million. As the expenses keep piling up, the studio hesitates to sell the feature film to another distributor but ends up retracting.
Originally, The Man of the Lost Valleys is a minor project for Paramount, which nevertheless postpones the release date to make it one of its flagship films…