Summary: High Noon is a great and prophetic film, pointing us to a cause of the problems with America, and why political reform remains necessary but elusive.
“Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful — horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember…”
— An insight from a demon (they know us well) from The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1959).
High Noon (1959) gives a classic portrayal of a popular American myth: the lone hero who defends us from evil. Gary Cooper and John Wayne as sheriffs in the Wild West, Batman as our protector in modern America. These are among our most beloved stories. But High Noon is different from most. It reminds us of reality.
American heroes fight groups of bad guys, seldom needing help beyond a few loyal followers. The townsfolk are passive bystanders, scurrying to hide from the violence. They emerge only afterwards, to applause. Dodge City or Gotham City, 1870 or today, we love the same script. Perhaps we identify with the bold hero, not the weak helpless citizens cowering indoors.
That’s a fantasy. In the Wild West, as in our inner cities today, law enforcement institutions were too weak to restore order in the face of determined criminals. Only the community could do that. Sometimes by support for the law, sometimes with posses, and sometimes with vigilantes.
In High Noon, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) faces a gang of professional criminals coming back for revenge. He attempts to recruit deputies from the men of the town. Together the town could easily defeat the criminals.
In a remarkable display of cowardice, the town abandons Marshal Kane. In the climactic scene the Marshal confronts the town’s people in a church, and is betrayed by the town and its leaders.
The core scene in High Noon: cowardice by the city’s leaders and people.
This realism repelled many of our myth-makers. John Wayne hated it, as a traditionalist (Playboy, May 1971). How could American men not rally to support the sheriff?
“Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin wrote some great music for it and because Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly were in it. So it’s got everything going for it. In that picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to the church and asks for help and the guys go, “Oh well, oh gee.” And the women stand up and say, “You’re rats. You’re rats. You’re rats.” So Cooper goes out alone. It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ole Coop putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it.”
Howard Hawks, who directed so many of our great westerns, also hated the realism of High Noon — but for modernist reasons. Hawks was offended by the marshal seeking help instead of acting like the superhero we now need and expect.
“I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. …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.
“I 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 have to take care of you.’ And that scene was in Rio Bravo. It was the exact opposite of High Noon.'” (From John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn.)
Both films end with thrilling climaxes, battles of a few good guys against an army of bad guys. Both are improbably won by the good guys. That is the great tradition of westerns. Where necessary, Hollywood reverses the historical outcome. For example, the Lincoln Country War ended with the bad guys victorious while the film Chisum ends with cows as a deus ex machina bringing victory to the good guys.
High Noon is prophetic
It is prophetic, and so it is among the least popular of the great westerns. Our America is one in which Marshal Kane asks for volunteers to help reform America. We need activists to fight the rising tides of totalitarianism on the Left and Right. We need officers to fight within the military for reform of its broken systems. We need citizens to work the idle political machinery bequeathed us by the Founders, and make the political parties respond to our needs and values.
But just as in High Noon, there aren’t volunteers (or not enough of them to make a difference).
Instead we wait for superheroes to save us. We watch them on TV and in theaters, pretending that these are idle entertainments. Their vast popularity shows that these are something more, tapping our fears of national decay — and fantasies of salvation without work or risk.
How do our heroes see us?
“Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.”
— Anton Chekhov (Russian doctor, playwright, author; 1860-1904), in his Notebook.
Marshall Kane contemptuously throws his marshal’s star into the dirt, disgusted with townspeople’s cowardice. What does Batman think of the people of Gotham, as they sit on their butts while he fights to defend them? What do the townspeople think about themselves?
What do we think about ourselves? Polls show that Americans are concerned about the condition of America and the world, both society and the physical world. Yet we remain passive and apathetic. Perhaps the necessary first step for reform is awareness that we are the problem. We were strong once, and can become strong again.
“Weber points us toward Nietzsche as the common source for serious thinkers of the twentieth century. He also tells us what the single fundamental issue is: the relation between reason, or science, and the human good. When he speaks of happiness and the last man, he does not mean that the last man is unhappy, but that his happiness is nauseating. An experience of profound contempt is necessary in order to grasp our situation, and our capacity for contempt is vanishing.
“Weber’s science presupposes this experience, which we would call subjective. After having encountered it in Nietzsche, he spent the greater part of his scholarly life studying religion in order to understand the non-contemptible, those who esteem or revere and are therefore not self-satisfied, those who have values …”
— From Allan Bloom’s great book Closing of the American Mind (1987).
For More Information
- The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes.
- Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit.
- We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep.
- We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
- Hollywood’s Hero Deficit – both a cause and symptom of our weakness.