There are movies that make history, and then there are movies that are history. Over the last century, few movies have reflected the era they were made in as vividly as Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon did back in 1952. Upon its initial release, the seemingly simple story of a small town sheriff having to confront of a pack of bandits all on his own resonated across the US like no other film did in those years. In a decade marked by fear mongering, oppression and palpable tension, High Noon had the guts to speak out against a powerful system that worked toward the destruction of people’s livelihoods and beliefs. Today, I want to tackle the film’s artistic and cultural merit, as well as explore our undying need for heroes.
The film opens with a ballad written by composer Dimitri Tiomkin and sang by country singer Tex Ritter. The lyrics to this monumental opening say a lot about the overarching themes of the movie;
I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave,
And I must face a man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave
The song, written and performed from the perspective of our protagonist, Marshall Will Kane, helps establish what’s at stake. Namely, a man’s honor and sense of duty. Like a soldier on his way to battle, Will Kane (played by a never-better Gary Cooper) is aware that whatever comes his way, he must face it. There is just no other way. The evil looming over the small town of Hadleyville in the form of a vengeful murderous ex-convict by the name of Frank Miller is no exception. It must be dealt with at all costs, whatever the consequences may be. However, that’s not entirely how it works. How life works, I mean.
After we learn of Frank Miller’s return to Hadleyville (released free despite having killed an innocent man), we are introduced to Kane himself. The Marshall is getting married. He is finally, for once in his life, doing what feels right. His plan is to set the tin star aside and quit town. Become just another regular Joe. Become simply Will Kane, without the expectations, regulations and local politics hanging over his head. And the town of Hadleyville is ready to set him free. His work contributed to a safer, friendlier environment. Hadleyville, we learn from Kane’s circle of friends, used to be wild and dangerous. He re-established order, and made sure that those that broke the law would not go unpunished. Inevitably, it’s time for them to part ways.
However, once Kane learns of Frank Miller’s return, something snaps. Something deep down tells him, despite his friends claiming otherwise, that he must stay. He must stay and fulfill his final call of duty. And it is here that one of the greatest allegories of all time starts to unfold.
The supposedly tight-knit community rapidly crumbles before our eyes. Friends turn into conspirators and Kane, desperate for help, realizes that everything he’s built and gathered over the years has amounted to nothing. All he’s got is the tin star strapped to his breast pocket. At the end of the day, that’s what separates him from the likes of Frank Miller. Miller, on the other hand, is still perceived as the man who made Hadleyville a place worth being in. A murderer? Yes. A violent and unpredictable man? Sure. But he made things happen one way or the other. He made small town life exciting. He put Hadleyville on the map, and had it not been for the Marshall, the town would probably still be there.
Before leaving, the town’s judge warns Kane of what will eventually turn out to be the crux of the story. Namely, that people are capable of welcoming with open arms even the worst oppressor of all. And after welcoming him, they are ready to support him, and watch as the oppressor continues to exercise his cruel rule. Kane at this point is still not buying it. His faith in friendship and belief in values like loyalty and duty make it impossible for him to think otherwise. In this moment of need, he is sure that the town will stand with him. He is confident that the moment the clock strikes noon, he will not be alone in his plight.
Following the film’s release, the director, Fred Zinnemann, emphasized that High Noon is not a Western. He explained that the only thing in common it has with a Western is that it takes place in the days of sheriffs and outlaws. Otherwise, the story itself was of contemporary nature, and the study of its principal themes was meant to reflect what was going within Hollywood at the time. In other words, the film reflected a community of artists rocked by the fanaticism of McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A community of people willing to turn on each other and ruin entire livelihoods in the name of some madman’s political ideals. A community that turned its back on those unfortunate enough to be marked and labelled as enemies of the state. This was a time when actors, directors, playwrights and musicians were sent into exile because they were deemed to be traitors. Threats to society. Those that refused to comply were, similarly to Marshall Kane, turned into sacrificial lambs.
High Noon presents us with a wide range of supporting characters. There’s Deputy Harvey Pell, the Marshall’s right-hand man, whose own aspirations for the Marshall’s star prevent him from lending Kane a hand in the moment of need. There is the town’s mayor who stages a meeting at the local church in order to convince the Marshall that he is better off leaving. Avoiding unnecessary bloodshed will benefit both him and the community, and after all, Frank Miller’s not so bad.
Finally, there are the two women – Kane’s former lover, Helen Ramirez, and his wife, Amy. Both struggle to make sense of Kane’s determination to confront Miller and his gang. But Helen, through her own experience as a businesswoman, has learned of the same attitude the judge hinted at in the beginning of the film. She knows that if the townspeople are willing to turn their back on the Marshall, they will not hesitate to turn their back on others, too. All of a sudden, Hadleyville is overwhelmed by a sense of dread. The only thing one should do is get busy dying or get busy riding off.
Before the movie’s climax, Kane pays a visit to his old friend and former Marshall, Martin Howe. Martin is old, his face cracked with age and years of hard work and disappointments. He can’t be bothered to get up from his chair and he’s certainly not picking up a gun and getting into a gunfight. Over the course of his life, he’s come to terms with the idea that there is no such thing as going out in the blaze of glory. As Kane desperately does his best to convince him otherwise, Martin tells him, “If you’re honest, you’re poor your whole life, and in the end you wind up dyin’ all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothin’. For a tin star.“
The director stages this scene by placing the camera behind Kane and locking it on Howe. As Howe makes his grave confession, Zinnemann cuts to Gary Cooper’s face: a face of sudden disappointment, a face that has just learned a brutally honest lesson. This sacrifice that he is about to make, this burden that he is about to take upon himself, what good will come of it if it means him getting killed?
And thus, we arrive at the central point of the film. Our need for heroes. At the time, Hollywood glorified and rewarded those that collaborated with McCarthy’s Committee by pointing out potential threats to the American way of life. In those years, as Orson Welles put it, it was fashionable to “celebrate the informer” with movies like On the Waterfront becoming classics of 50s cinema. All of a sudden, heroes were deemed to be the ones who took the easy way out. Those who accepted the status quo and acted accordingly. Those who conformed with the madness of it all.
Zinnemann’s High Noon defied that. The reality is that the situation called for a different kind of hero. A hero that refused to be boxed into the industry’s standards. And with major stars like John Wayne and James Stewart actively opposing the release of the film, High Noon accomplished what it set out to do in the first place. It shone a light on the immoral complicity of the ‘townspeople’ of Hollywood by introducing a hero that went against the (then) contemporary idea of what a hero should be.
As the clock struck noon, and as the train whistle blew and echoed across town, as the good citizens of Hadleyville looked up in worry or excitement, the truth came to light. The truth was that Marshall Will Kane was on his own, committed to face the impending doom.