Entry from July 4, 2007

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The third film in the series, Fred Zinnemann”s High Noon, with Gary Cooper, screened on Tuesday, July 3rd. Before showing the film, I spoke as follows:

Recently, I received a free book in the mail as I quite often do. Though I haven’t been the American editor of the Times Literary Supplement for over four years, the free books keep coming. This book was by Lee Siegel and was rather grandly titled Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination. As I also often do, I read a bit of it — an essay on “The Sopranos,” which is a series that interests me — to see if I wanted to keep the book or donate it, along with most of the others I get, to my local library. I got as far as the following sentence: “There is no ethical difference between Gary Cooper’s showdown with evil in High Noon — another movie that obsesses Tony [Soprano] — and Michael Corleone’s showdown with the rival mobster and the corrupt cop in that Bronx restaurant.” At that point I stopped reading. See if you can guess if I put the book on my shelves or in the discard pile.

Mind you, I could see what he was getting at. At least I think I could. Gary Cooper in High Noon is fighting for his own honor. “They’re making me run,” he says to Grace Kelly right at the beginning when he decides to go back to town instead of getting out of it before Frank Miller, the scary bad guy played by Ian MacDonald, comes back. “I’ve never run from anybody before.” Here and elsewhere, Carl Foreman’s script goes out of its way to stress that his character, Marshal Will Kane, is fighting for his pride and not disinterestedly on behalf of the townspeople of Hadleyville. He’s not even the marshal anymore. Besides, the townspeople don’t want him to fight for them. They want him to run. They’re all pretty sure that they’ll be just fine if he does.

But I think we have to take this important piece of information about our hero with a grain of salt. When in the Marine Corps Hymn that begins and ends The Sands of Iwo Jima, which we saw last week, it says: “First to fight for right and freedom/And to keep our honor clean” it doesn’t mean to set up an antithesis between “right and freedom” on the one hand and “honor” on the other. On the contrary, they are complementary. One of the things that the verse has to mean is that, to the Marines, fighting for right and freedom is part of what they mean by their honor.The problem arises because honor has rather disreputable origins, at least as they appear to our post-Enlightenment world. Michael Corleone’s mafia-style sense of honor, like Tony Soprano’s, is much closer to what honor always used to mean before the Romantics and the Victorians rehabilitated it and brought it more into line, at least as they saw it, with Christian and ethical principles.

I think that Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian by birth, alludes to this Victorian elision of honor and morality in the very look of his film. Today we speak of what we regard as excessive moralizing as “thinking in black and white.” Well, never was a black-and-white film more black-and-white, in both senses of the term, than High Noon. Even the greys seem washed out of it in the climactic outdoor shots. The Marshal is himself a composition in black and white, and the sky and the dust that set him off are undifferentiated white blobs. This may be the film’s way of insisting that that kind of highly moralized honor — still quite fresh in the cultural memory though hanging by a thread in 1952 — is what Gary Cooper is fighting for, not the merely factional or tribal honor of the Corleones or the Sopranos.

The point of the film is precisely that his is an honor so internalized, so absolute, that it continues to motivate him even in the complete absence of a tribe or other social support group. Instead, it is a memory for him, as it was for many mid-century Americans, something that over the years has become bound up with his sense of who he is. He can’t now betray it without betraying himself, no matter how strongly he is urged to do so by those whom he expects to be part of his own honor group but who surprise him by declining the honor.

The man alone, standing all by himself in the middle of a hot dusty street face to face with that which would destroy him, morally as well as physically, is part of what we in America mean — or used to mean — by a hero. We owe that to the Western movie, of which High Noon is perhaps the best known example both here and throughout the world. Yet it doesn’t actually happen like that in this movie, though the poster reproduced on the back of the DVD box wants us to think it does. Instead, the fight between Marshal Kane and the four bad guys is mostly a matter of sniping from behind cover and shooting people in the back. Of course, there’s little sense of honor among the bad guys, but even in Kane it is mostly an absence living on only in his hazy memory.

Remember in Sands of Iwo Jima when John Agar’s Pete Conway is outlining the differences between himself and John Wayne? Against the Marine Corps manual he puts Shakespeare and against toughness he puts intelligence. The idea lurking behind that antithesis was that with enough brains you didn’t need to be tough. You didn’t need guts. Well, High Noon explores the same antithesis but in a lot more depth, and it comes to the same conclusion that The Sands of Iwo Jima does. Not only are brains no substitute for guts; brains are often an excuse for cowardice. When the judge in Hadleyville, played by Otto Kruger, is packing up his things — including the American flag and the scales of justice — in order to get out of town ahead of the arrival of Frank Miller and his gang, he twice calls Marshal Kane “stupid” for staying.

Likewise, Joe the bartender, whom Marshal Kane had just knocked down, says that Kane has guts but that Harvey Pell, the cowardly deputy played by Lloyd Bridges, has got the same kind of intelligence that the judge has. “I knew you had guts,” he says in mock admiration to Harve, “but I never figured you for brains. It takes a pretty smart man to know when to back away.” Somehow, Harve doesn’t take it as a compliment. I think the same idea of the trade-off between brains and guts is what lies behind the explanation offered by Amy, played by Grace Kelly, of her religious views. Katy Jurado’s Helen Ramirez asks her: “What kind of woman are you? How can you leave him like this? Does the sound of guns frighten you that much?”

Amy replies: “I’ve heard guns. My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn”t help them any when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That’s when I became a Quaker. I don’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. There”s got to be some better way for people to live.” There’s the eternal plaint of the intellectual: fighting and killing is so horrible that there must be some way around it, if only we were smart enough to find it. “There’s got to be some better way for people to live.” For there not to be is almost literally a thought unthinkable for the intellectual, as much a denial of who he is and what he believes as running from a fight is for Marshal Kane.

It is a form of utopianism and one which a lot of people, then as now, would base on Christian principles. Dr. Mahin, the Minister played by Morgan Farley seems to want to do this, but he hasn’t quite got the face to do it in front of the Marshal, whose need is so desperate: “The commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but we hire men to go out and do it for us. The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you”re asking me to tell my people to go out and kill and maybe get themselves killed, I”m sorry. I don”t know what to say. I”m sorry.” In other words, it’s your job — and it’s your job precisely because we don’t want it to be ours. That’s a great line in the mouth of a clergyman: “The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here,” though somehow what to do about it doesn’t seem clear at all. It’s just like Grace Kelly saying “there’s got to be some better way.” Even the most unmistakable and obvious moral realities can be ignored if you can make yourself believe in an alternative world where they don’t exist.

And if the intelligent can reason themselves into safety and detachment, the brave are left almost inarticulate. Again and again Gary Cooper is left speechless. Why risk his life when he doesn’t have to? “I think I ought to stay,” he says simply. Or: “I”ve got to, that”s the whole thing.” Or: “If you don’t know, it’s no use of me telling you.” Or even, simply, “I don’t know.” It’s pitiable, really. Here’s a man who feels bound to undertake what is virtually a suicidal task and he can’t even tell why. Moreover, when he seeks for validation among his friends, they can’t tell why either. On the contrary, they can only tell why not. Martin Howe, the old lawman and mentor to Kane who is played by Lon Chaney Jr. tells him: “You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you’re honest you’re poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.”

This is reminiscent of the judge’s words earlier: “This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important,” he says. Why risk your life for that? No one will know if you don’t. No one will care. Even the people on whose behalf you’re doing it don’t want you to do it. Frank Miller may be a bad and a dangerous man, but the townsfolk calculate that their personal chances of avoiding him and what they know he can do to them are a lot better if they keep out of his way than if they help and befriend his mortal enemy. And yet everybody really knows what everybody professes not to know, everybody admires what everybody professes not to admire and everybody, like Joe the bartender when he ironically compliments Harve on his brains, despises what he professes not to despise.

It’s a good summing up of America at mid-century: a land that still understands honor and the demands of honor — understands them, perhaps, a good deal better than it wants to understand them — but no longer has any language in which to express them.

One thing we might want to think about in the discussion after the film is whether it implies any criticism of Cooper’s Marshal Kane. It seems to me there is something of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in him. Coriolanus is also a man alone. He is also betrayed, abandoned, disliked and repudiated by those on whose behalf he risks his life. The moment at the end when the Marshal throws down his tin star is reminiscent of Coriolanus’s indignant turn away from Rome with the words: “There is a world elsewhere” — one of the great Shakespearean lines. But it’s also a big temptation, especially for a civilization like ours which has been infected with the virus of utopianism. For the utopians are also trying to live in that world elsewhere. In the end, the prospect of escape from the heartbreak and tragedy of the world he actually lives in proves too strong for the Marshal as well, and he shakes the dust of Hadleyville off his feet.

However understandable his feelings of disgust with those whose cowardice would not allow them to help him when his life was endangered, I can’t help feeling that there’s something not quite right about this ending. Perhaps it’s what John Wayne felt too when he supposedly “answered” High Noon with Rio Bravo, a movie which shows the fight against evil as a collaborative and not a solo effort. There was also, of course, the objection of the more strongly anti-communist element in Hollywood, of which Wayne was surely a member, that High Noon was a parable of what has come to be known as McCarthyism. Carl Foreman was one of those whose sympathies with the left had got him into trouble when Senator McCarthy and others were looking into communist influence in the movie business. It is understandable that he seems to have cast himself in imagination in Will Kane’s role, forsaken by friends who couldn’t scuttle to safety fast enough and left alone, exposed to the fury of the right-wing witch-hunters.

The trouble with this analogy is that if the witch-hunters are Frank Miller and his gang and the noble, brave, political idealists being persecuted are Marshal Kane, that makes the townsfolk the American people. I think this is why the film leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth. There has always been something of this self-righteousness and contempt for ordinary Americans on the left in this country — because they have historically resisted the left’s attempts to lead them to the promised utopia. Fred Zinnemann has set us up to take the hero out of his community and put him on a pedestal all by himself. It seems inevitable in this case, but as we’ll see in the weeks to come, it will ultimately make real heroism ever more remote from its admirers.


Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts