HIGH NOON: The Most Un-American Thing I’ve Ever Seen in My Whole Life

High Noon (1952) – Directed by Fred Zinnemann – Starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr., Ian MacDonald, Lee Van Cleef, and Jack Elam.

The quote in the title of this review doesn’t come from the movie, but from a 1971 interview John Wayne did with Playboy Magazine. (Lest one think Wayne was simply trashing movies, he also trashes Native- and African-Americans in the interview.) About HIGH NOON, Wayne offers the following takedown of Fred Zimmerman’s film:

“Everyone says High Noon was a great picture because [Dmitri] Tiomkin wrote some great music for it and because Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly were in it. In the picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to church and asks for help and the guys go, “Oh well, oh gee.” And the women stand up and say, “You rats, you rats.” So Cooper goes out alone. It’s the most un-American thing I ever saw 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.”

Two things. One, ole Coop doesn’t step on the marshal’s badge. Two, as Manfred Weidhorn argues, the film offers both a highly liberal and highly conservative vision of America. While the political Left can see in the town’s refusal to help Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) an allegory for the refusal of Hollywood to stand up to House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunt against Communists by showing “the isolation that overtook people who tried to do what they saw to be the right thing (i.e., accused of being Communists, they would not inform on others) even if that meant standing alone,” the political Right can also see in HIGH NOON “a deeply conservative vision. It shows a community cast into fear and trembling by a criminal justice system that lacks the will to put dangerous men away for good, either by capital punishment or by life sentences without parole.” (Bright Lights Film Journal, February 2005, Issue 47.)

I agree with Weidhorn’s ultimate declaration that “the truth is that HIGH NOON is neither liberal nor conservative because such ideologies are oversimplifications of reality. Those who put the movie in one camp or the other are merely ignoring details that do not fit in with their smug generalizations,” in the sense that if something contains large parts of both halves through its middle, then it can’t be said to definitively be one side or the other unless the film offers an answer to that struggle at the end. HIGH NOON doesn’t answer that question, and instead allows both sides to play out correctly: the town is shown as being wrong for not standing with Kane, and the criminal justice system is shown as being wrong for letting Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) out of jail.

Questions and arguments concerning what makes a “real American” are part of a discourse I find tiring and pointless because few people who engage in these questions have any interest in having a discussion – their minds are already set and they’re constantly looking for ways to apply their ideological cookie cutter to the world. Wayne’s assertion that HIGH NOON is the most “un-American” thing he’s ever seen is far too complex a statement for this review to tackle in full detail, but contextually it must be remembered that HIGH NOON, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, was made in the midst of the HUAC hearings, and one wonders how much of that context (Wayne was a supporter of the committee’s activities and supported blacklisting) goes into his disliking of the film. Wayne’s statement also raises the issue of whether films should serve the national goals (never mind who gets to decide those national goals); Wayne is clearly looking at the film not as an actor or filmmaker, but as an American, and demands that the film not only entertain and engage its audience but reinforce a jingoistic narrative.

I love HIGH NOON, but that doesn’t mean I am in total disagreement with John Wayne’s conception of what a Marshall could, or even should, do. There are certainly times in HIGH NOON where Kane’s actions frustrate my expectations. Take the scene where Kane walks into the Ramirez Saloon to look for deputies. As he enters, the barkeep is laying odds on Kane being killed within minutes of Miller stepping off the train. As he’s finishing, the bar quiets when they notice Kane standing in their midst. The bartender turns around, his face slightly ashen, and you’re waiting for that great, iconic Western line to come from the Marshall, asserting his confidence and dominance. Something like, “I’ll lay 20 on me at that price.” Something that brims with confidence and ego, but also diffuses the situation with just a touch of humor.

It doesn’t come. Instead, Kane slugs the bartender in the face, knocking the smaller man to the floor. The wounded man protests. “You’ve got a gun and a badge, Marshall,” he asserts. “You didn’t need to do that.”

“You’re right,” Kane admits, but not with any kind of bravado or power behind it. Instead of flaunting his authority and masculinity, Kane is taken aback and embarrassed by what he’s done, and relatively slinks away.

HIGH NOON is about a retiring Marshall, just married to the much younger Amy Fowler (a 20-year old Grace Kelly in one of her first movies), and ready to start living life as a member of the public because that’s what his wife, a Quaker, wants. Kane seems hesitant about this, but he’s made his decision and he’ll stand by it. After the ceremony concludes but before the crowd has dispersed, word comes that Frank Miller, a wild killer that Kane had arrested and seen convicted, has been released by the people “up North” and that he’s on the noon train for Hadleyville. Three of Miller’s associates (Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, and Sheb Wooley) are already in town and at the train depot, waiting for their boss to arrive.

The townsfolk at the ceremony rush the protesting Marshall and his non-protesting wife to their wagon and hurry them out of town. Kane insists he should stay, at least until the next Marshall arrives in the morning, but everyone is adamant that Kane has done enough for this town, cleaning it up and making it safe for women and children to walk the streets, and that he deserves to flee. So the Marshall does, urging their horses to thunder them out of town. They don’t go very far before Kane has a change of heart, however, and turns the horses around, coming back to town to reclaim his Marshall’s star and role of town protector.

Amy can’t understand why he’s doing this and after a brief spat, she tells him she’s leaving town on the noon train without him. There’s a very real sense that these two are not exactly love crazy for one another right from the start. At their wedding ceremony, Kane looks almost pained and certainly not like he’s experiencing anything close to the happiest moment of his life, and Amy looks a bit blank and overwhelmed by it all. My read is that these are two people marrying ideas more than each other – she’s marrying a man of violence to turn him into a man of peace and he’s marrying a woman because … well, seemingly because he’s cleaned up the town and realized that he’s reached that advanced stage in life where if he’s going to marry he’s got to do it soon, and since Amy is probably the nicest and prettiest woman to ever cross his path, marrying her is the thing to do.

Kane goes right back to the office after Amy leaves him and starts putting out the word that he needs a posse to help him take on Miller’s gang. The bulk of the film sees Kane getting rebuffed by a community that has little interest in putting their lives on the line to take on a bad guy like Miller. Harry Morgan hides in his home, forcing his wife to lie to Kane about her husband’s whereabouts. The old Marshall refuses to go with him, blaming his arthritic hands and bitterly telling Kane that this is what they’re left with at the end – a life spent arresting bad guys only for others to let them go free. At the church (in the scene that Wayne found particularly distasteful), Kane makes his plea to the crowd and they debate whether to help or not, but ultimately the voice that carries the most weight convinces the crowd that if Kane would simply go away, there would be no violence in town and the money men upstate would continue to view Hadleyville favorably as a place to invest their money.

The church scene is where everyone, but most importantly Kane, finally realizes that help isn’t going to come. It’s a wonderful debate between doing what’s right – right for the town, right for the man who cleaned up the town, and right for the community. What should one do when faced with a situation like this, where the Big Bad is coming back, looking for revenge. The women serve as bright spots, reminding their men what Kane has done to make the town safe for them and telling them that it’s their time to help, but the men ultimately decide to do nothing.

Almost a decade later and in response to HIGH NOON, John Wayne and Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo. Hawks explains the decision by saying, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like HIGH NOON. Neither did Duke. 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 Marshall would turn around and say to someone, ‘How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they’ve got?’ And that fellow would say, ‘No,’ so the Marshall 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” (Michael Munn. John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, pg. 148).

What Wayne and Hawks either don’t realize or care about is that HIGH NOON is the movie that takes place after a John Wayne movie. What Wayne and Hawks want to see – that tough, individualistic man-of-action taking on the worst of the worst – is what HIGH NOON has as its back story. When Kane came to town, Hadleyville was a pit of lawlessness, and he cleaned it up and made it safe (as the movie tells us numerous times) for women and children. It’s telling that the women offer the strongest voices of support for Kane inside the church, and then when he walks alone out of the church, the shot foregrounds children playing freely. For Wayne, Hawks, and the townsfolk, the want is for the tough guy sheriff to be eternal, but HIGH NOON shows that it takes a huge toll on the man at the center. Perhaps this is why the film is so popular with Presidents of the United States; Weidhorn says that HIGH NOON “is the movie most requested for viewing by American presidents,” and was a favorite of both Eisenhower and Clinton, and argues that political leaders “sense that the burden of decision making isolates them and that, at the end of the day, they, like Marshal Kane, are alone.”

In the film, this point is made most sharply by Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), a former lover of both Miller and Kane. The film keeps the exact details of much of its back story cloudy, but we know that Ramirez was first the lover of Miller, then turned her affections to Kane, and then roughly a year previous to Kane’s marriage to Amy, that relationship ended and in the time between then and now she has taken deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) as her latest lover. Amy goes to Helen’s room, erroneously thinking that Kane is staying for her, but Ramirez puts her straight and then condemns Amy’s leaving as an act of cowardice. “If Kane was my man,” she tells her, “I’d never leave him like this. I’d get a gun. I’d fight.”

Ramirez is, of course, no longer Kane’s woman and thus is free to leave town, which is exactly what she’s doing.

Ramirez not only attacks Amy’s womanhood but Harvey’s manhood, telling him that she no longer wants him to touch her and that while he’s got broad shoulders, it takes more than broad shoulders to make a man, and she doesn’t think he’ll ever get there. The experience has taken a lot out of Kane and the men who helped him as deputies, but where they’ve decided enough is enough, Kane knows he has to keep fighting. His spirit is gone, however, and we see a man struggling with his own ideals in the face of no one else caring. Everyone wants him to leave town, either for his safety, their safety, or in the case of his deputy Harvey, out of spite and jealousy. Bridges is fantastic in HIGH NOON as the spurned deputy who’s been passed over by the town’s leaders (and perhaps by Kane himself), whining, pouting, drinking, and fighting his way through the movie in a desperate bid for respect. When he confronts Kane in a stable, telling him to just leave if he’s thinking about it, you might think this is the moment where Harvey comes around to Kane’s side. Throughout the movie, he’s clearly struggling with what’s happening, and this fight between him and Kane is the kind of scene that triggers the two men to come back to the same side.

It never happens.

No one stands by Kane’s side when Miller’s train comes to town. The one man who’d agreed to help bails when he realizes no one else is coming. So Kane stands alone and after nearly 60 minutes of everyone turning him down, Kane and the Miller gang start shooting up the town in a cat and mouse game of gunplay. It’s a quick scene, not drawn out or overdone, and when it comes down to Kane against two, he’s saved by his wife, Amy the pacifist Quaker, who picks up a gun inside the building she’s in and shoots one of the gang members in the back.

Hawks and Wayne apparently found this improper, too, because a hero doesn’t need a woman to save her, but director Fred Zinnemann doesn’t treat this as moment of feminist uprising. This isn’t Hannie Caulder’s moment of arrival at all, but a tragic moment of a woman forced to compromise her ideals in order to survive.

There’s no triumph at the end of HIGH NOON. As the townsfolk gather around, the one young messenger boy that was willing to fight pulls up in Kane and Amy’s wagon. Kane looks around in disgust and tosses his marshall’s star into the dirt, then climbs aboard the wagon to leave Hadleyville behind. Kane’s rejection of his status as the lawman is a powerful ending to a powerful film, and we finally see that he’s ready to move on to his new life with Amy.

HIGH NOON is a simply told film with a complex underbelly, a rich and powerful American film that still resonates over six decades past its initial release. Zinnemann plays everything low-key, letting the tension rise by the presence of the omnipresent clocks as Kane’s desperation grows. Cooper is wonderful in HIGH NOON as a tired man compelled to stay. That he’s not, in his attitude, this rugged American hero, individualistic and bad-ass and the unquestioned king of the town, shouldn’t dimish that he is these things in his actions. Kane stays, Kane fights, Kane kills, and Kane wins.

Thanks to the one person in town who sees him as something other than his badge.

What makes him unique and HIGH NOON so powerful is that Kane is these things without that attitude. That he’s scared and desperate, that his face is constantly covered in glistening sweat that accentuates his dire situation, that Kane is abandoned and asked to leave, and that he’s ultimately left to face the Miller gang alone gives HIGH NOON a power that it wouldn’t have if he was a typical hero. It wouldn’t necessarily make it a bad film, either, of course, as Wayne and Hawk’s response to HIGH NOON, Rio Bravo, is also considered an American classic.

I’ll let you know what I think before the month is out, but the important thing to remember is that favoring HIGH NOON or Rio Bravo isn’t, for me, any kind of ideological victory. HIGH NOON isn’t a truly great film because of its ideology or in spite of its ideology. Instead, the ideology present in the film helps to complicate a simple premise and allows HIGH NOON to resonate down through the ages. It might be the most un-American thing John Wayne ever saw, but for me it’s a highly American film and a cinematic masterpiece.

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6 thoughts on “HIGH NOON: The Most Un-American Thing I’ve Ever Seen in My Whole Life

  1. Great piece, Mark. As for the Duke, he’s the most famous draft dodger of Word War Two, making movies like “The Sands of Iwo Jima” while real heroes like Jimmy Stewart were flying B52s over Europe and Ted Williams was leading his fighter squadron into action. At the height of the Vietnam War, he went on the Johnny Carson Show and explained why he didn’t fight in the Second World War: “They wanted me to go in as a second lieutenant, and I took a dim view of that. I also felt I could help the war effort by making movies about patriotic Americans.” Yeah, you sanctimonious chickenshit asshole? Well, my father was helping the war effort by landing on Utah Beach. He was a Jewish Polish immigrant and a thousand times the American you ever were. “High Noon” is probably, if not the greatest western ever made, certainly, like “Shane,” one of the ur-western films upon which so many other films draw, and not just westerns. As for Rio Bravo, the only reson why Wayne’s character John Chance didn’t get ambushed and killed twenty minutes into the film is that they needed him to live thorugh the film. That movie had all the verisimilitude of a Harlequin Romance. John Wayne can go to hell.

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    • A lot of people didn’t fight in WWII, I’ve never served in the military. My dad did, he was in the Philippines when he was 16 and a half 2 purple hearts not serious wounds but he also contracted Malaria which never left his system and led to severe health issues later in life, he died at 52. I honestly don’t know what he thought of John Wayne he never said anything about him one way or another. We did see all the John Wayne movies at the Drive In. You mentioned Jimmy Stewart, well I know they were good friends, don’t think the hung out together however. I’ll leave judging him on his service to this country to guys like them. I do believe he loved this country. Which is a rare thing these days. Initially I did take offense to you writing Wayne can go to hell, but as I began I realized you have every right to say Wayne can go to hell. I’m sure it wouldn’t have phased him at all. Yes you have every right to say it and to think, but you’re wrong feeling that way, that much I know.

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  2. Excellent analysis of the movie, done with your usual intelligence and well-thought out reasoning. But at the end of the day, I’d still rather watch RIO BRAVO than HIGH NOON.

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  3. I saw a documentary about Carl Foreman the writer and he said that he explicitly made the script about people not willing to do the right thing during the McCarthy period. According to this documentary Foreman, himself was on his way to being blacklisted very shortly after he had finished the movie and the guy he considered one of his best friends, Stanley Kramer, the other producer, acted just like one of the townspeople.

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  4. i never knew John Wayne was such a bully
    his ideas about running people out of hollywood make me sick
    but i have to say he should have won best actor for THE SHOOTIST
    that was a magnificent performance

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  5. to me high was the greatest western movie ever made. It sums up life in general. Everyone wants law and order[well most] so long that it does not apply to them. I can relate to the story. At the end of the day you are on your own whatever you decide. I am from the U.K. I do not think that it was an unamerican film it was true to life. When he threw his badge down it was in disgust. He was left on his own a nd had to sort out the problem himself. when the crunch comes not many want to support you.

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