Trouble at High Noon

Ever since both Howard Hawks AND John Wayne took “High Noon” to task for its communitarian sentiments, this film, once regarded as a classic western has had its ups and downs. Only recently I was speaking with a fellow film buff who dislikes the film for what he sees as its pretentiousness. I agree that “High Noon” does exude a certain self-awareness of its being “an important film,” made for “thinking people,” but I would point out that, with a few exceptions, the Western was not honored in 1953 as an important film genre, worthy of serious consideration. Yes, there had always been exceptions: “The Ox-Bow Incident,” the John Ford westerns, “Red River,” “The Gunfighter,” “Broken Arrow,” “Winchester 73,” but for the most part westerns were seen as B-movie fodder, as “horse operas.” So perhaps the genre was in need of a boost in esteem. Producer Stanley Kramer’s “High Noon” tried to provide it.

Now Wayne and Hawks both claimed to be repelled by the sight of Cooper’s marshal rushing to-and-fro trying to get help from his fellow citizens. This was seen in their eyes as a sin against Professionalism. The marshal should have refused help from anyone who wasn’t trained in the job. That would mean relying only upon Lloyd Bridges’ bitter deputy and Lon Chaney’s retired lawman. But the problem of Frank Miller was a town problem, not one for Cooper alone. As various townsfolk point out to him, he can always run away. The town has to stay where it is. But it’s precisely because Cooper, in taking the job, swore to protect the town that he feels he must stay, even while he’s being offered a fast horse and an invitation to leave. And it’s precisely because the town can’t run away that it is the town’s problem to deal with Miller and his three thuggish accomplices. So, contrary to the assertions of Hawks and Wayne, there is a sense of professionalism at work here. It’s just not the macho, stick out your chest and strut variety. The damning message of Cooper’s tossing his badge in the street at the film’s conclusion, is that he did stay, because he swore to protect, even though he knew that the town wasn’t worth dying for. The town failed not only in its human duty to Marshal Will Kane, it failed in its communitarian duty to watch out for and protect itself. (A similar ethic of professionalism is at work in the later western “The Magnificent Seven,” when the seven gunfighters spurn the bandit chief Calvera’s “peace treaty” and return to confront him in defense of a village that betrayed them to him.)

The issue of the film’s supposed pretentiousness is a bit harder to dismiss. It certainly puts quotation marks not only around the dialogue, but around much of the action as well. Still I’ve always felt that it’s rude to begrudge a director his way of telling his story. Because Fred Zinnemann is telling the film almost as a ballad, it allows for a certain degree of stylization. (By contrast, because Henry King wanted “The Gunfighter” to look like a series of old photographs brought to life, there was no room for stylization. Everything had to be plain–plain-looking, plain-spoken.) Of course in the end it all comes down to how a film strikes you. If you don’t like the film, you don’t like the film. I can’t disrespect my fellow film-buffs dismissal of the film, but I can certainly disagree with it.

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