High Noon And The American Western
I saw this classic 1952 western, "High Noon" many years ago as a child or adolescent but had little recollection of it. The past few years I have become interested in American westerns and have read some of the literary examples of the genre, including works by A.B Guthrie and "Butcher's Crossing" by John Williams. I have also revisited some classic western films, such as "Shane". My book group recently discussed Williams' "Butcher's Crossing", and thus I was primed for more westerns. The timing was good, and I saw "High Noon" on screen at the beautiful AFI Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. The AFI presented "High Noon" in celebration of the film's 65th anniversary and as part of a promotion of a new book, "High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic" The author, Glenn Frankel, attended one of the earlier showings and signed copies of his book.
Westerns were everywhere in the 1950s and early 1960s. I became interested again to see the qualities the genre possessed beyond formulaic stereotyping. I also thought this once highly popular genre might still have something to teach about how Americans understood and could still understand themselves and their country.
The best works in the genre take formulaic elements and turn them into something original and creative. The books and films mentioned in the first paragraph of this review do so, and "High Noon" does as well. The film tells the story of Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) who has served a small town. Hadleyville, in the Territory of New Mexico and cleared out its outlaws. Kane has just married Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and is about to retire. He learns that a killer he was responsible for putting in jail years earlier had just been released and was returning to town with three other thugs. Kane determines to stand the killer and the gang down. Most of the film, shot in real time, shows how the townspeople were afraid and unwilling to help and how Kane's determination to fight the gang threatened his marriage just as it began.
On its release, "High Noon" was widely taken as a parable which critiqued Hollywood blacklisting, and, from the title, this theme is developed in Frankel's book. The film was properly seen that way both by its supporters and its critics in the 1950s. But if the film were only a topical critique of blacklisting, it probably would not have survived much less become a classic example of its genre. As with much art, the film has a breadth of meaning beyond political events,
Creative work often is ambiguous and will bear many meanings or interpretations. And so it is with "High Noon". I saw the film as a western and as a story of the qualities which made for settlement of the American West. These qualities included a devotion to law and to community. Even if the community displayed cowardice and timidity at a crucial moment, the community was still the source which gave meaning to the determined and purposeful acts of an individual, such as Marshall Kane. The film also emphasizes the importance of having a view of what is right and being willing to act upon it, toughness, and a certain stubbornness. In the film, Marshall Kane had these qualities while most of the town residents were timid and preferred not to get involved. The film celebrates Marshall Kane's loyalty, devotion to duty and willing to take a large chance. In the process, it also shows the community which was able to grow and thrive, after its cravenness, due to an act of courage. The film's exploration of character and community transcends Hollywood blacklisting.
There is a great deal to be learned about American creativity, American character, and the way Americans see themselves from American westerns and other parts of our popular culture. I was grateful for the opportunity to see this film in period theater, to enjoy it, and to think about its significance.