The opening scene is a miniature classic in itself. Little blond Brandon de Wilde plays with his toy gun in the field behind his farmhouse. He spots a deer, which raises its antlered head to frame the horseborne figure of Alan Ladd, in pale buckskin on a white horse - the eponymous good guy.
Ladd plays Shane, a loner who agrees to help Joe (Van Heflin) and Marion (Jean Arthur) against the predatory ranch imperialism of Ryker (Emile Meyer). But the little band of farmers is split over whether to run or fight. Hothead Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr) is ready to rumble and he rides into Ryker's town to square up to the corrupt ranch chief.
Ryker has one powerful card up his sleeve - hired gun Wilson (Jack Palance). It is Wilson who faces Torrey from the raised platform of the saloon and who dares him to draw, in one of the most famous sequences in western history. The sound and sheer power of Palance's pistol were unheard of; until then, men crumpled gently to the ground, or staggered and dropped. Little Elisha Cook Jr is blown clear off his feet.
Some critics have commented on the questions left unanswered. Alan Ladd is a small man who looks tiny next to the rangy figure of Palance. In the film, Shane is ridiculed for the white tasselled material of his jacket. He appears almost effeminate, yet he seems ever conscious of his ability to defeat anyone whom he fights. Roger Ebert, film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, refers to Shane having "a little of the samurai in him, and the medieval knight."