Author, former Variety guy and renowned cineaste Joseph McBride has revealed that he’s written George Stevens, Jr., with whom he co-wrote several AFI tribute specials in the ’80s, and told him he’s wrong about having contributed to the presentation of his father’s western classic, Shane, in a 1.66 to 1 aspect ratio on the forthcoming Warner Home Video Bluray.
“I have written my former writing partner George Stevens, Jr., to share my concern about how the Shane Bluray release is chopping off parts of the film. This obviously must not be done.
“Patrick McGilligan and I interviewed Stevens in 1974, [and during that discussion] Stevens talked about the importance of deliberate pacing and editing.
“‘It’s related to music or painting, the arrangement of film, and it has an enormous effect on an audience,” McBride quotes Stevens saying at one point. “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!”
McBride concludes that “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.”
Portion of actual letter from McBride to Stevens, Jr.: “Since your father composed Shane so painstakingly and beautifully in 1:33 (I remember vividly him telling me how he achieved the great composition of Shane framed within the antlers of the elk in the opening of the film), I would not see any value in changing that original ratio for home viewing, even if your father had to go along with a cropped widescreen version for early theatrical engagements during that first all-encompassing craze for widescreen.
“I have seen your father’s 35mm print projected on theatrical screens three times (once by your father himself in Madison the first time I saw the film at the University of Wisconsin, in 1966), and it was carefully preserved (indeed spectacular-looking) and in the 1:33 ratio.
“I have seen recent frame comparisons between Shane at that ratio and Shane at the 1:66 evidently planned for Bluray, and it seems clear that important visual data would be lost if the film were cropped again to 1:66, no matter how carefully and no matter whether it were to be done frame by frame. Your father’s great compositional sense would be at risk here, in my opinion. This great film would be diminished.
“I would hope at least that you could influence Warners to release both the 1:33 versions and the 1:66 versions on a Bluray set so viewers can choose to watch it either way. There may be some of the usual arguments about the public expecting to have their TV screens filled, but I recall how we went through all that when even the clips for AFI Life Achievement Award shows had to be panned-and-scanned, but later the industry and the more knowledgeable segment of the public (the segment that values and reveres classic films) learned to accept black bars at the side to preserve a film’s original 1:33 ratio.”