Classics Corner: “High Noon”

7 06 2011

After the Coen Brothers made the Western cool again with their remake of “True Grit,” I decided it was about time I brushed up on some classics of the fabled American genre.  And, unsurprisingly, I was reminded of why so many of them bear the label classic – because they actually are timeless, with lessons and ideas that can apply to any generation of moviewatchers.  From what I saw, the best of the bunch has to be “High Noon,” a movie that in time could join my all-time favorites.

The premise is simple (and very unlike most movies the genre); the set-up, short and sweet.  Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the retiring marshal of the town of Hadleyville, and at noon, three criminals will return to his town with the intent to kill him for putting them away.  The townspeople encourage him to hurry out in the hope that his departure will keep them out of harm’s way.  But Kane sees it as his problem to solve, and he stays put to face the imminent challenge.

Kane then goes through the town, looking for citizens willing to help him stop the criminals.  While everyone wants to keep their town safe and on principle want to give aid, ultimately no one will pick up their gun and defend their town.  As the high noon shadow falls over the town, it is Kane alone who must stand and fight for the lives of the people he no longer has to protect.

Just like “Modern Times,” the subject of last month’s Classics Corner column, “High Noon” is such an incredibly rewarding movie to watch because it captures a moment in time and then uses that moment to highlight some universally timeless truths about the human condition.  When analyzed against the backdrop of 1952, the year it was released, the allegory is very clear.  The people of Hadleyville are representative of another western community beginning with the letter H, Hollywood, who were afraid to stand up for themselves and their basic rights when Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were sanctioning an era of blacklisting in the industry.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s easy to see that McCarthyism is a stain on our history and anyone in 2011 would stand up to such violations of civil rights.  But with McCarthy at the height of his power at the time of the movie’s release, it was certainly easier said than done.  Kane embodies the spirit of the times – a man who wants to protect the livelihood of his fellow townspeople but cannot get them to stop cowering in fear.  As the saying goes, freedom doesn’t come free, and Kane is the only one who seems to understand that.

But Kane is more than just the unspoken thoughts of screenwriters in 1952; however, in the moment, the heated political debates surrounding McCarthyism and blacklisting clouded people’s view of it.  Kane is not a sheriff embodying the liberal ideas of the time – and in case you are narrow-minded enough to be fooled, this was a favorite movie of Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan.  He is a man driven by duty even when it isn’t necessary.  He is a protector of liberty even when he stands alone.  He puts his life on the line even when the people he protects have left him out to dry.

More than just a vision of 1952, Sheriff Will Kane is the paradigm of American citizenship and virtue, a champion of the blessings of democracy willing to make sacrifices to ensure its efficacy.  Such uprightness is what all of us should aspire to achieve, be we American or of any other nationality (the Polish democratic group Solidarity used Kane as a powerful image in the country’s first free elections).  And when the movie comes to a halt, I like to imagine that if Kane had a last line, he’d reiterate the words of the great Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

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One response

22 07 2011
Joel Burman

I totally see a remake of this one within 10-15 years time. Nice take on it!

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