Dir. By Fred Zinnemann
The showdown. It is a very familiar trope of the Western. Where two characters stand on opposite ends of a street in a small town, both with their fingers tickling their guns before they shoot, leading one to drop dead.
While the phrase “showdown at high noon” is at least common enough to have its own TV Tropes page, High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann and screenplay by Carl Foreman, actually subverts the expectation. Despite there being a showdown, it isn’t a one-on-one, single draw kind of deal where the protagonist is on the moral high ground. In fact, the movie subverted expectations of Western ideals so much that many people, including John Wayne, basically ended up calling it a Communist film, but that will be discussed further in the analysis section. For now, let’s summarize the tale of Marshal Will Kane.
The story begins in the New Mexico territory with Marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, marrying his Quaker bride Amy Fowler, portrayed by Grace Kelly. Their marriage precedes Kane’s official retirement from being a U.S. Marshal, with the new marshal being over a day away and the couple planning to head out and start a general store in a new town.
Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Frank Miller, an outlaw played by Ian MacDonald, is coming to town on the noon train. Kane was the one who had arrested and jailed Miller and, even though he was supposed to be hanged, Miller was released and sent word to his gang that he was coming back. The telegraph operator, recognizing them, runs to warn Kane, which leads the wedding attendees to rush him and his wife onto a wagon and set them off running. Kane, however, wrestles with his conscious before driving the horses back around. Fowler is confused the entire time, not knowing why she’s being rushed off or why her husband is so conflicted. It isn’t until the make it back that Kane fully explains what is happening, that Miller is coming back for revenge and Kane isn’t willing to run from the fight. He also adds that once they start running, they’ll never stop, and will only be more easily taken by surprise. Fowler, however, refuses to understand his reasoning, not only being devout and a pacifist but also remembering the senseless deaths of her father and brother, and doesn’t want to become a widow on the first day of their marriage. She informs Kane that when the train arrives, she’ll be leaving on it.
Meanwhile, the young deputy Harvey Pell is embittered over Kane’s retirement, as he believes Kane refused to put in good word for him to become the next marshal. Helen Ramirez, a Mexican woman who was Miller’s lover, then Kane’s lover, and now Pell’s lover, isn’t impressed with his moping. Pell isn’t successful in trying to coerce Kane into naming him his replacement in exchange for helping with Miller’s gang, and after Ramirez fends off his sexual advances and calls him out for his immaturity, he goes to sulk in the bar.
Ramirez is visited by Kane who, while no longer romantically interested in her, is concerned for her safety should Miller return. Ramirez agrees and sells her general store, planning to move to Chicago and start a new life. Fowler, who was unaware of Kane’s romantic past, hears of this and confronts Ramirez, convinced that Ramirez is the reason Kane planned to stay and fight. Ramirez informs Fowler that isn’t the case, that he told her to leave and that was what she was doing. While the two decide to wait for the train together, Fowler explains how she can’t understand Kane’s convictions while Ramirez tries to convince her to remain loyal to her man, as she would if Kane still loved her.
Kane, during the hour before noon, is trying to rally a group of citizens to deputize and help him fight off Miller and his gang. Outside of Pell’s greedy offer, Kane is met with almost no support. Half the town’s men are unwilling to fight against Miller out of fear while the other half, such as the hotel owner and barkeeper, actually liked Miller’s presence as it was good for business and didn’t like Kane’s devotion to law and order. Even his most ardent supporter denounces his plans of confrontation, believing that Miller wouldn’t harm the town if Kane just left. The only men willing to join his cause altruistically are a man who is too old, a boy who is too young, a man who is drunk and half-blind and a man who backs down when he realizes he’s the only real volunteer. Pell attempts to convince Kane to leave, which leads to a violent confrontation, leading to Pell being knocked unconscious. Now, with absolutely no allies to speak of, Kane writes out his will.
When the clock strikes noon and the train arrives, Miller gets off while Ramirez and Fowler get on. The gang meet up and begin to ferret out Kane, and as stated, this isn’t a traditional showdown with two men on opposite ends of a street. This is like a dark game of hide and seek, with four against one and all with loaded guns. Kane is able to take out two of the gang but slowly gets cornered by the other two. As the last gang member reloads to kill Kane, Fowler shoots at him from behind, having jumped off the train at the last minute and immediately taking the gun from Kane’s office to save her husband’s life. Unfortunately, after saving him she is then put in danger when Miller grabs her and uses her as a hostage and human shield to lure out Kane. Kane comes out, but Fowler is able to claw at Miller’s face, leading him to push her down and attempt to kill her first, allowing Kane a clear kill-shot.
The two embrace after the danger is over. All of the townsfolk, everyone who stood by and watched as Kane confronted the gang alone, come out. Solemnly and with disgust, Kane drops his tin star on the ground and leaves with his wife, never to return to his life of justice.
Until High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane from 1980, but that’s a different story.
First off, I’d like to say that this is a very dreary, solemn film. That isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable, but the tone of this thing is one of pessimism and defeat. There is a sense of resolve and honor surrounding the character of Will Kane but considering how much he’s risking over those things and how little his chances are, it can really bum a viewer out.
The tone is firmly established by the music, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, as it is slow, wistful and the lyrics for the songs literally spell out the hopelessness of the situation. That a man has to choose between love or honor, and he can’t back down “until I shoot Frank Miller dead.” Literally the last line of “The Ballad of High Noon” (Tiomkin, 1952).
It would also be one thing if Will Kane was presented as a stereotypical ‘good guy’ in this film, because even in the dire situation you would root for him. But he is not. He is Lawful Good incarnate, which is to say that he puts law, order, justice and honor above all else. While this does sound good in theory, this film goes out of its way to show how it has worked against Kane. This nuanced depiction of Lawful Good characters is more common today than it was in 1952, as being a law-abiding citizen and having faith in the system was important to the culture at the time, which you can see later in this essay.
The most important relationship he has in the movie, aside from his two love interests, is with his deputy Harvey Pell, and while Pell is immature and grossly ambitious, Kane does nothing to prevent the souring of their relationship as law enforcement partners. When Pell questions why Kane didn’t recommend him as the new marshal, Kane states that he said nothing about Pell. Not that Pell was a good or bad choice, but Kane believed he had nothing to say in the matter.
Pell is clearly a bad choice for marshal, and his attempt at bargaining during a life-threatening situation shows that, but Kane does nothing to salvage their partnership. Even after Pell got drunk in anger over the slight, he does attempt to get Kane out of town, which goes unappreciated and is seen as an insult by Kane.
Other than Pell though, there is practically no one willing to stand up to Frank Miller, aside from the aforementioned poor choices. The worst thing about the situation is that Kane can’t even blame the people who back down. Instead of fight for justice and honor, they sit back for life and their family. In a way, Kane wishes he could make that decision, but ultimately he sees it as the bad choice.
In that sense, that is why this movie was considered “un-American” by some people. The hero’s goodness is at conflict with others sense of it, and the established word of law will not defend you. When I said that it was considered a Communist film, that isn’t entirely accurate. What people called it was an anti-blacklist film, which indirectly amounts to being Communist because, y’know, the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Carl Foreman, the screenplay writer, was even called to appear before HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, during the production. Foreman had been a member of the American Communist Party but quit after being disillusioned by it, but was still found guilty and black-listed for being an “uncooperative witness.” What that means is that he didn’t name any of the people he knew while he was still a member of the party, and to be black-listed meant that he wouldn’t be allowed to find work in Hollywood.
He was still be listed in the film as the writer but his interest was sold off to the producer, Stanley Kramer. Foreman tried to make his own production company and even had the support of High Noon’s star, Gary Cooper, but the public brought an end to it and Foreman, his path to becoming a Hollywood film director forever blocked, eventually emigrated to England,
The thing is, despite Foreman’s sympathy for Communist ideals, if any at the time of writing the screenplay, I’m not sure I see that much of a parallel in this story. Even if the anti-black-list sub-text was intentional, it is far more subtle than, for example, The Crucible play from 1953, which was a WAY more obvious criticism of the McCarthy era. This is not some propaganda film trying to convince American’s youth of the Communist party’s ideals nor is it a scathing caricature of real life individuals at the time. I think the whole “un-American” thing is an exaggeration by the film’s detractors, such as John Wayne, to justify black-listing Foreman and for disliking the film for other elements. Those other elements being the slow pace, the moral ambiguity and lastly, the fact that a Quaker woman saves the protagonist’s life.
Seriously, its reasons like that are why John Wayne hated the film so much that he and director Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo in response. As stated by Hawks in John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western” (Munn, 2005, p 148).
To unpack that a little, why is being saved by a woman, a Quaker woman at that, such a bad thing in a Western? That is basically the crux of his argument that the movie is bad, as it is the example from the film he uses to illustrate his point. If anything, I think Fowler going to save her husband only strengthens the theme of the whole film; that Kane got his hands dirty for honor and refuses to be passive for the sake of love, while Fowler was about to remain passive to defend her honor before ultimately getting her hands dirty for love. It shows that doing good isn’t always clean, but you live with it because it is what you feel is the right thing to do. To see Fowler’s sacrifice of her innocence in this film and see it as a reason why the film is bad is something I can only chalk up to a sense of emasculation in a very masculine genre. And that is stupid.
And why is a marshal trying to rally help framed as a bad thing too? Again, Hawks said “that a good marshal would turn around and say to someone, ‘How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they’ve got?’ And the fellow would say, ‘No,’ so the marshal would say, ‘Then I’ll just have to take care of you.’ And that scene was in Rio Bravo. It was the exact opposite of High Noon” (Munn, 2005, p. 148).
But, is it though? Kane refuses the help from the people more likely to die rather than help in his conflict with Miller, and decides to defend the entire town despite having no support from it. That isn’t Kane’s way of saying ‘Then I’ll just have to take care of you’? Just because the sentiment wasn’t blatantly stated in a heavily masculine fashion doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Much like how I mentioned in my essay on the Ghostbusters franchise, politics had a very heavy hand on how this film was received. This is especially interesting considering that the two films had about 63 years between them, as well as being from two wildly different genres.
Thankfully, Wayne and his fellow detractors weren’t the only people talking about the film. The film was fairly popularly received, was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four of them, Katy Jurado was the first Mexican actress to win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Helen Ramirez, and Will Kane became one of the main well-remembered Western characters. As far as people with conservative politics go, Ronald Reagan stated his favorite film was, in fact, High Noon. (Mulholand, 2003)
High Noon is a surprisingly fascinating film. It is a good movie, no doubt, but the fact that it had such varying degrees of praise and hate is just interesting, and is just one of the many examples of McCarthy Era Hollywood. Thankfully, we as a culture have moved on and can enjoy this film as it is. And I can remain comfortable in my ambivalence towards John Wayne as a public figure, but that’s something to explore in another post.
Mulholland, J. (2003) Inside High Noon. DVD documentary.
Munn, Michael (2005). John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth. Penguin. p. 148. Accessed via Google Books. Retrieved at https://books.google.com/books?id=lVJL6w1T3ocC&pg=PT148&lpg=PT148#v=onepage&q=Howard%20Hawks%20%22I%20didn’t%20like%20High%20Noon%22&f=false
Tiomkin, Dmitri. (1952). “The Ballad of High Noon.” On High Noon (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). Retrieved at https://genius.com/Dimitri-tiomkin-the-ballad-of-high-noon-lyrics