That Thing We Call Courage
(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Doublethink.)
High Noon is routinely listed as one of the top American movies of all time. And it is almost universally acclaimed as one of the top three Westerns, if not the best Western ever made.
When it was released in mid-summer 1952, the New York Times described High Noon as a “rare achievement” and a “stunning comprehension of that thing we call courage in a man.”
American audiences seem to agree. Almost immediately after opening, High Noon became the number one film of the summer and, at the time, the fastest-earning film in United Artists studio history. It went on to be nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including “Best Picture,” “Best Director,” and “Best Screenplay,” and won Oscars for “Best Actor,” “Best Film Editing,” and “Best Music.” Last June, the film was given the deluxe treatment, with its own two-disc Ultimate Collector’s edition featuring no less than four documentaries and interviews with Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. To this day, it remains the film most requested for private viewing by American presidents.
High Noon appeals to people of vastly different political colors, and there has been a never-ending debate about its meaning. As movie critic Michael Atkinson has remarked, it is “possibly the most Rorschachian film of all time,” being read and re-read in light of changing political environments.
The film’s plot, at first glance, hardly seems complex. The movie opens with Marshal Will Kane’s (Gary Cooper) marriage to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a Quaker, in Hadleyville, a small Western town, some time in the 1870s. Surrounded by the town’s civic leaders, Kane gives up his badge and gets ready to leave town with his new wife to take up a new, pacific life. However, before they leave, word arrives that Frank Miller, whom Kane had sent to prison on a murder charge and who had terrorized Hadleyville before, has unexpectedly been pardoned by the governor and is set to arrive in town on the noon train. Miller’s gang, which includes his brother and two gunmen, has also arrived in town and is waiting for the train at the station. It’s clear to everyone that Miller and his buddies have one thing on their mind: killing the marshal in an act of revenge.
The immediate reaction of Kane’s friends is to usher the couple out of town. But not long after driving their buggy along the trail outside town, Kane stops, and over the protests of his wife, returns to face Miller and his gang. Upon his return, Kane tries and fails to organize a posse of deputized citizens to confront the four gunmen. The townsfolk want no part in the fight, believing Miller’s gang will leave them alone if only Kane skips town. In the end, Kane faces the four gunmen alone. With a timely but unexpected hand from his new wife, he wins the gunfight, killing Frank Miller. As the citizens of Hadleyville gather around him, Kane looks them over one last time, tosses his badge into the dirt, climbs aboard his buggy, and drives out of town with Amy.
According to one popular interpretation of the film, the plot is meant as an allegory for the failure of American intellectuals to stand up to the scourge of McCarthyism. Carl Foreman, the movie’s screenwriter, was in fact “blacklisted” by Hollywood after appearing before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and refusing to divulge names of colleagues who might have been associated with the Communist party. As a result, he was banned from the movie’s set and his name taken off the film’s credits as a co-producer. According to Foreman, “There are scenes in the film that are taken from life.” In his mind, “[he] was the Cooper character”—standing courageously alone, shunned by his professional colleagues for refusing to bend to the red witch hunts of the period.
Fred Zinnemann, High Noon’s director, has rejected this reading of the movie. If anything, Zinnemann’s own history—he was a Jewish refugee from Austria—suggests something quite contrary to Foreman’s take on the film. Didn’t Kane represent America and his wife its isolationist strain? And the cowardly bourgeois townsfolk of Hadleyville, didn’t they represent Europe, who, having needed the marshal to defeat the Nazis, were now reluctant to take on a revived totalitarian threat in the form of Soviet communism? Willing to appease Miller before, when he ruled the rowdy, pre-Kane Hadleyville, they return to appeasement rather than face the hard challenge ahead.
In more recent times, former CIA Director James Woolsey has updated this interpretation to account for the divergent European and American visions of what is required for security in the post 9-11 world. Writing in the Wall Street Journal during the run-up to the Iraq war, Woolsey argued that, contrary to European charges, the U.S. was no “cowboy” intent on going it alone. Rather, like Will Kane, the U.S. “was trying very hard to be multilateral,” to round up a posse, but simply had “no takers.” “What the marshal was unwilling to do is to give up doing his duty just because everyone else found excuses to stay out of the fight,” Woolsey wrote. And he warned: Europe better “start praying that when it’s over we won’t drop our badge in the dirt.”
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But to read High Noon solely through current events and the biographies of those involved in its making is to short-change this classic. Indeed, the fact that the movie can speak to audiences of different political stripes and generations suggests that it has an underlying meaning that transcends the particulars of any one person or time. As Zinnemann himself noted, the story of High Noon was intended to have “something [both] timely—and timeless—about it.”
So, what is the movie about? Like any classic, it raises a number of interesting questions. However, at its core, “the movie is really about Kane and what he will do,” as movie historian Michael F. Blake aptly and succinctly puts it.
Virtually everything—script, direction, and editing—in the movie points the audience toward Kane. To start, the film is shot in black and white, with no light filters for the camera. The result is a stark, hot-like feel to the film in which the characters stand out against the town and the nature that surrounds them. As a result, there are no distracting clouds or town color to pull a viewer’s eyes away from the key action and actor. To sharpen the viewer’s focus, Kane is dressed in black pants, vest, tie, and hat, while the rest of the town is dressed predominantly in grays. Even Frank Miller, whose presence hangs over the whole plot but never appears until the last 20 minutes of the film, gets off the train dressed in a light-colored hat, coat, and tie.
Two cuts in the film further highlight Kane’s centrality. In the original script, the opening scene is of Hadleyville as a ghost town, slowly dissolving back into the town in which the gunfight takes place. Likewise, in the original script, the movie’s final scene has Kane taking off his badge and then the picture dissolving back to Hadleyville as an abandoned shell of a town. The second cut, typically overlooked by the film’s commentators, is of a deputy marshal, Toby, who is trying to make his way back to town but never arrives. In both cases, the scenes were cut: the first for reasons of substance and the second because it would have been a distraction to the central plot. Beginning and ending with the town’s eventual state is to put the emphasis not on Kane’s own virtues but on the consequences of the town’s lack thereof. Similarly, a sub-plot about whether someone can make it back in time to help Kane only acts to pull the viewer’s attention away from Kane, his decisions, and his predicament. As the film’s editor commented later: “I worked day and night re-cutting the film. I felt the emphasis should be on [Gary] Cooper and his problem, and anything that didn’t contribute to this should be eliminated.”
One of the striking elements of the film is how little Western-style action there is. Until the last few minutes of the movie—when the gunfight takes place—what action there is, is really the “action” of Kane deciding to stay, failing to rally the town, and yet still doing his duty as he sees it. To drive that point home, the movie takes place in “real time,” that is, with the time elapsed on screen matching the time elapsed in the theater. This is dramatically punctuated by a shot of a clock slowly ticking away the time until noon, when Frank Miller’s train is scheduled to arrive. The technique serves to draw the viewer into Kane’s timeframe and share even more directly his anxiety over the town’s failure to help and, quite likely, his own impending death. All of which is brought to a head with perhaps the most famous boom shot in movie history. As the clock strikes noon and a train whistle is heard in the distance, the camera pulls back and up from Kane, showing him alone on the streets of Hadleyville.
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So, who is Kane? The one thing we know for sure is that he’s been one heck of a marshal. When Frank Miller and his crowd were allowed to run free, Hadleyville had been a town in which the bar and hotel/brothel were the center of “civic” activities. As one woman reminds the town when Kane comes to the church to appeal for help, Hadleyville had been a place “where a decent woman couldn’t walk down the street in broad daylight” and now, as the mayor points out in the same scene, it is a town investors from “the North” are thinking of putting their money into. Kane is obviously a man of extraordinary talents working for, at best, a very ordinary town.
How extraordinary, the movie suggests subtly by the women in Kane’s life. We are introduced to Kane at his wedding to Amy, a Quaker. On its face, it’s an odd match for a man who has lived his adult life as a fairly fearsome lawman and, as the movie makes clear, is not a churchgoer. However, we gain further insight into Kane, the man, when it’s revealed that at some earlier point he had a relationship with Helen Ramirez, the town’s hotel and saloon owner, and a woman whose reputation is such that normal townsfolk are reluctant to associate with her. (In fact, prior to Helen’s relationship with the marshal, she had been Frank Miller’s lady.) In both cases, Kane’s personal relations are with women who don’t fit into the norms of any town, either because they shun what all towns need—guns to uphold the law and protect themselves—or because they ignore the social conventions that bind all towns together. In short, Kane may have been the town’s marshal, but he was not really a member of the community—a fact that becomes all too apparent to him as he tries and fails to round up deputies to confront Miller and his gang.
Indeed, it’s striking how the film progressively strips Kane—and hence his decisions—of any conventional cover. The first to abandon him is the town’s judge, who, having originally sentenced Miller and having no faith in the town’s willingness to defend “the law,” is seen packing up his law books and heading “out of Dodge.” Seemingly confirming what the judge predicted, neither the decent folk in town—gathered for Sunday service in the town church—nor the non-churchgoers—congregated at the saloon—rally to Kane’s support. When asked to give his advice, the parson provides a largely incoherent argument about right and wrong while the town’s mayor moves from professing his friendship to Kane to arguing against helping him on the grounds that the fighting will prevent outside investment in the town. Finally, someone notes that technically Kane is no longer the marshal, having turned in his badge earlier that day.
What we are left with is Kane, alone, acting on his own internal code of conduct. When the camera pans to Kane driving in a carriage with his new bride, having just left town in advance of Miller’s arrival, he is clearly bothered by his decision to leave. He stops and tells Amy, “They’re making me run. I’ve never run from anybody before.” When she protests his decision to turn back and appears to leave him for doing so, he simply responds, “I’ve got to, that’s the whole thing.”
In the classics’ account of courage, fear of violent death—death in battle, in particular—is the situation in which this virtue is most readily seen and defined. Yet, as classical authors also note, this is a somewhat problematic definition in that both patriots and a gang of criminals can conceivably exhibit such courage. As the saying goes, there is “honor even among thieves.” Courage, then, must be combined with something else—a standard outside itself—if it is to be considered truly virtuous. The standard that normally applies is either facing death in service of one’s country or risking death in service of a noble deed. But, here again, the problem is that praise for such courage is itself contingent on the justness of the country one is willing to die for or, in the case of a noble deed, is limited by imperfect human judgment of what is “noble.” Kane’s problem is not his willingness to face death but his reason for doing so.
By any reasonable account of his situation, his decision to stay rises “above and beyond the call of duty.” The truth is that few would have thought any less of him if he had simply decided to leave. He had fulfilled his duty to Hadleyville—perhaps more than the town deserved. What he had not fulfilled was the duty he owed himself. As High Noon makes clear this is something not easily understood by others: not his wife, not his one-time deputy, not even his closest friend, the retired marshal. As undeniable as the sense of duty to stay and fight is, Kane himself can only utter: “I’ve got to, that’s the whole thing.” While that hardly clarifies matters in a philosophic sense, nevertheless, there is only one in a thousand moviegoers who doesn’t at the same time understand and admire Kane’s decision to return to Hadleyville.
In a different age, such lessons were taught in epic poems, like Homer’s Iliad, or the genre known as the “mirrors of princes,” such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedea. Needless to say, a movie, even a great movie, cannot duplicate the subtlety and complexity set out in such texts. That said, a great movie like High Noon can still raise important questions and make us, in turn, more reflective and, one hopes, better citizens.
High Noon puts the practice of virtue for its own sake—in this case, the martial virtue of courage and, with it, a man’s sense of honor—at the heart of the plot. For an audience of Americans, who Tocqueville once described as driven by the maxim of “self-interest rightly understood,” the film presents a morality play suggesting that a calculating civic culture may not be enough. Certainly, at the time of the movie’s release—when World War II was a recent memory and it was by no means clear that the Cold War would not turn hot—there was a real question about just how much of a burden Americans could take. Yet High Noon’s popularity then and its continuing popularity today suggest that Americans have remained open to this older notion of virtue. Somehow, it still makes sense to us, and it’s still a pleasure to watch.
-Gary Schmitt is resident scholar and director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.