The following thoughts arose after watching one of my three favorite westerns, High Noon (1952), my other two favorites being Red River and Shane, though there are a dozen more that are up there.
For those unfamiliar with this western classic (ranked #27 in the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of great films), High Noon concerns marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) of Hadleyville, New Mexico, who, when the film begins, has just married his Quaker wife, Amy (Grace Kelly) and is retiring from marshaling, the couple leaving town to start a new, (Quaker wife insistent) more peaceful existence elsewhere.
At this point, news arrives that badman and gang leader Frank Miller, who had been jailed and sentenced to hang, has been pardoned and is on his way to join three henchmen, Miller intent on getting revenge on Kane for apprehending him, and for taking his girlfriend, Helen Ramirez (played by Katy Jurado.) And who wouldn’t have? That woman en fuego!
We know Miller is serious about his revenge scenario, because the ballad pervading the production (immortalized by Tex Ritter) clearly states – from the marshal’s point of view):
He made a vow while in states prison
Vowed it would be my life or his’n…
The bare bones of the conflict are these: Miller and his confederates are gunning for Kane (the gunning to begin when Miller’s train arrives at, you guessed it…
Complicating the proceedings is that Kane’s Quaker wife Amy insists that Kane avoid the danger by simply being gone when Miller arrives (they are already buggying their way elsewhere.) Turning the buggy around, Kane explains his return to trouble with the simple, yet eloquent,
“I’ve got to, Amy. That’s the whole thing.”
(God, how I love that line!)
Quaker Amy promises that, if Kane goes back to town, they’re finished, the nutshell of their dispute summarized in the lyric:
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
You made that promise when we wed.
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
Although you’re grievin’
Don’t think of leavin’
Until I shoot Frank Miller dead.
Wait alo-ong (etc., but that’s got nothing to do with the story.)
The central portion of the movie involves Kane trying to recruit townspeople to help him take on the Miller gang...
And nobody steps up.
Offering various rationales – all of them practical – the people of Hadleyville (which Kane has heroically eradicated of outlaws) refuse to be deputized. In the end, Kane has to take on four gunslingers alone.
And so he does. (With last-minute assistance from an unexpected source, but I’m not going to ruin it for you, in case you want to check High Noon out. The movie seems clichéd in spots, but it should be remembered that many of those now clichés originated with High Noon.)
So here’s the thing. The screenplay for High Noon was written by Carl Foreman, who had once been a member of the Communist Party, had quit, but was blacklisted (restricted from working) anyway for refusing “name names” (of other Communist Party members.)
Blacklisted writers had an agonizing time during that period. They lost their livelihoods, and many, Foreman included, were required to leave the country to continue working. (Carl Foreman went to England, where, among other things, he co-wrote the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai, which received the “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar, credited not to the blacklisted Foreman – and fellow blacklisted co-writer Michael Wilson – but to Pierre Boulle, who had written the original novel, and did not speak English.)
It has often been conjectured that High Noon was inspired by the blacklisting period, where people found themselves standing alone against enormous “House on Un-American Activities Committee” pressure, and for various reasons – all of them practical – no one would stand with them. If true, that would be interesting – creative moviemakers employing a classic American, generally ennobling film genre as a metaphorical vehicle concerning a period when Americans…were not exactly at their best.
True or not, High Noon incensed other moviemakers, such as actor John Wayne (who called High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life”) and director Howard Hawks, who admitted, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon.” Not only did Hawks make Rio Bravo (1959), a movie about a law officer (John Wayne) fighting against overwhelming odds, in which assistance comes from everywhichwhere, including Angie Dickinson – who played “Feathers” – and Ricky Nelson – “Colorado”, Hawks made two virtual remakes of Rio Bravo (also starring John Wayne) – El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970.)
Those guys really hated High Noon.
(WITH A JOHN WAYNE DELIVERY:) “Did they get the point of the movie? Americans help, goddamit! And if that doesn’t sink in, we’ll make two more movies saying exactly the same thing.”
Movies based on conflicting beliefs? That’s what you get in a free country, which is fine. The thing is, movies – and media in general – can be very influential. What happens when the side with more dangerous beliefs produces a better, more persuasive picture?
I may be a voice in the wilderness here, but I’m not sure I want movies to decide these things.