I thought I knew what this was about – Western film, sheriff facing off against bad guys in a shootout on Main Street at noon, yadda yadda yadda. ….Not so fast. I mean, yes, there is a shootout at noon, and it is a western. But the vast majority of the film leading up to that shootout gives it a fascinating context.
Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, retiring as marshal of the small New Mexico town of Hadleyville. We meet him at the courthouse – but under happy circumstances, where he is being married to Amy (Grace Kelly), a pacifist who has convinced him to give up his post out of respect for her Quaker faith. His replacement isn’t due until the following day, but the town fathers convince him that they can manage alright on their own for just one day, and encourage him to head off for his honeymoon with Amy. But right before they leave, the local train station master hurries in with news – the outlaw Frank Miller, a criminal Kane captured and sent off to prison, has just been pardoned in Texas, and is on his way back to Hadleyville that day. In fact, Miller’s gang is all hanging around the station right now, for Miller is due on the noon train.
Amy and Kane’s friends all convince him to get going while the getting’s good – in fact, an indignant Amy warns him that if he doesn’t leave with her now, she’ll leave on the noon train herself. But Kane’s sense of duty is too strong, and he re-assumes his post for just one more day.
That’s all just setup, though. Most of the film concerns Kane trying to gather a posse to stand with him against Miller’s gang – as most of the town, for one reason or another, turns down his requests. One man (Lloyd Bridges) refuses out of pride, since he wasn’t appointed Kane’s replacement. Another (Harry Morgan) flat-out hides when Kane comes to the door, urging his wife to tell Kane he’s not available. Kane even interrupts a service at the local church to plead for help. But come noon, as Amy starts boarding the train out of town and the rest of Hadleyville cowers indoors, Kane is left to face down the Miller gang alone.
The actual gun fight is exciting and all, but brief – the real drama comes with Kane’s desperate lengths to enlist help, and the reasons he is turned down. The scene in the church is most telling and gripping – he actually has seven or eight volunteers who leap to their feet when he first makes his case. But then a couple naysayers stand up with arguments – didn’t Kane already put Miller away once, and shouldn’t this be his fight? Don’t they pay taxes so that Kane can take this on so they don’t have to? Isn’t this gonna be, y’know, dangerous? There are even those who say Kane should stand down and save himself, and they’ll take care of Miller. Just…later, maybe. Everyone comes up with thoughtful, reasoned arguments for why they’re abandoning him, but – abandoning him they are.
It’s an especially pertinent scene today – as pertinent as it was in 1952. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee as he was working on the script, and was told he would be called to testify right in the middle of shooting for High Noon. His Hollywood friends were sympathetic, but started holding him at arms’ length. His producer and longtime collaborator Stanley Kramer was urging him to plead the Fifth Amendment before HUAC and save himself. But Foreman rankled at effectively pleading guilty, and was getting frustrated at how easily everyone else was caving in to HUAC. Even though he swore up and down to Kramer that his script for High Noon “wasn’t political”, a lot of the actions of Hadleyville’s citizens were inspired by the actions of Foreman’s friends. I’m by now well aware of the play The Crucible being a parable of the McCarthy era in politics; it was really clear to me that High Noon was another one.
The politics didn’t affect its reception – supporters of HUAC interpreted the film their own way, seeing the heroic Will Kane as a stand-in for Joseph McCarthy standing up to the Miller-gang Communists. One notable exception was John Wayne, who scoffed that the film was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen”. Ironically, when Gary Cooper was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and found he was unable to attend, he expressly asked John Wayne to accept on his behalf if he won. And Cooper won, so John Wayne was compelled to take the stand and speak favorably about Cooper’s performance in the very film Wayne hated.
Today that would be something like, maybe, if Spike Lee had tapped Clint Eastwood to accept the Best Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman on his behalf. So it’s notable, too, that Wayne did indeed give a gracious speech about Cooper’s performance, and even closed with a flattering joke about wishing he’d played the lead in High Noon himself.