Spoiler alert: Plot details are revealed.
I have a simple relationship with the movie High Noon. If it’s on, I watch it.
So there it was on the Starz Westerns channel Wednesday and there I was, watching.
One of the reasons I like High Noon is that it tackles complex issues. It’s about law, order, faith, friendship, trust, community, justice, family, vengeance and unspoken codes.
It’s also about bullies.
Frank Miller, the largely unseen outlaw at the center of the story, was sent to prison for murder some years back by Hadleyville’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper).
Now Miller is heading back to kill Kane, because he wants the world to see that no man can hold Frank Miller accountable for his actions.
Bullies like doing what they want, when they want. Rules are for the weak. Frank Miller also doesn’t like that he couldn’t bully Will Kane, since he seems to have bullied pretty much everyone else in Hadleyville.
It’s not that the townspeople like murderers. No, Hadleyville is a good-old-days American town, full of God-fearing and hard-working people who want to raise their families right and live by the law.
But when it becomes known that Frank Miller will be arriving back in Hadleyville on the noon train, and Will Kane tries to round up a posse to defend the law, not one grownup in town signs on. His only volunteer is a 14-year-old boy, whom Kane thanks and sends home.
Now all the God-fearing, law-abiding townsfolk of Hadleyville have to know that if they let a bully come to town and murder their marshal, that bully will own the town.
He may not have any other specific killings in mind today, but what if someone looks at him cross-eyed tomorrow? What if he takes a fancy to someone’s daughter? What if he decides he wants someone’s land?
If Will Kane dies, Hadleyville dies. It’s as clear as the sky at high noon. But the townspeople have willed themselves not to think about that. It’s easier not to concern themselves with what happens to somebody else, to keep their heads down and tell themselves they won’t be next.
In the end Will Kane survives, thanks to his own skill and a decision by his tormented pacifist wife that staying out of the fight sometimes really means helping the bully.
Kane killing Frank Miller doesn’t give High Noon the fist-pump ending of most Westerns, where the bad guy pays the price and the good guy has affirmed the triumph of justice.
As written by Carl Foreman, directed by Fred Zinneman and produced by Stanley Kramer, High Noon suggests that Hadleyville has died anyway.
When High Noon came out in 1952, its story was seen as a metaphor for America’s cowardice in the face of a real-life bully, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade was destroying lives and careers, and yet it rolled on as some people embraced it and too many others told themselves it wasn’t their problem.
America’s defining Western actor, John Wayne, hated High Noon. Not alone, he considered its depiction of decent, God-fearing, hard-working Americans slanderous.
Wayne starred several years later in an answer film, Rio Bravo, that portrayed its townspeople, and sheriff, as courageous and bold.
The American people, Wayne declared, will not be bullied. They cherish fairness and follow those leaders who do what is best for all, not for themselves and their friends.
We’d all like to think he’s right. High Noon is what happens when he’s wrong.