The Lonely Centrist

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Friday, July 15, 2005

Friday Night Video: "High Noon," a Film for These Troubled Times

Near where I live there is an NPR station that plays old western music on Saturday mornings. By old western music, I don't mean something like Crystal Gayle, but real classics, such as the Texas Playboys, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers. Apparently the marketing strategy goes something like this: on Saturday morning, the typical chamber music fan suddenly wakes up and thinks, "Man, I could go for some yodeling!"

Anyway, a couple weeks ago I caught Tex Ritter singing the title song to the movie, "High Noon," this week's Friday night video.

Even those who have never seen the movie know the basic plot, so we can recap it quickly here:

Will Kane (Gary Cooper), for the past 6 years or so, has been Marshall of the small town of Hadleyville. The movie opens at 10:30 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday morning. Kane has just married Amy (Grace Kelly, one of the two most beautiful women ever to grace the big screen). It is his last morning as Marshall - he has resigned, and he and Amy will leave town for a short honeymoon, and then open a store in Clarksburg, 100 miles away. But their honeymoon is interrupted before it begins: word arrives that three members of Frank Miller's gang are waiting at the train station. The Miller gang had terrorized the town until 5 years before, when Kane, with the help of six professional deputies and several of the townfolk, had captured him. Miller was sentenced to death, but up in the state capital his sentence was first commuted and now he has been pardoned. He is coming into Hadleyville on the noon train for the explicit purpose of seeking his revenge on Will Kane.

The townfolk urge Kane to go, assuring him that they will be alright, and that the new Marshall will arrive the next day. Amy also urges Will to leave. Will starts to go, but realizes he cannot. "They'd come after us," he tells Amy, "and we'd have to run again, as long as we live." Amy, a pacifist Quaker, finally makes an ultimatum - he must leave, or she will leave without him. Over her protestations, he returns to town and dons his badge. Amy heads to the train station to buy a ticket out of town, abandoning Will.

Over the next 75 minutes - with the time in Hadleyville passing at almost exactly the real time of the film, Kane tries to find support to take on the four outlaws. But his lone deputy Harvey, angry that Will did not support his application to become the new Marshall, demands that Will recommend him as permanent Marshall as the price of his support. This Will refuses to do - obviously, he knew Harvey's weaknesses, so clearly on display, long before. Harvey walks out, heading to the saloon where he gets drunk.

One citizen, Herb, quickly responds to Will's call for special deputies. But elsewhere, Will meets only rejection. Some citizens wear their cowardliness as a badge of honor, and call Will a fool for not leaving. Others are more ashamed, and literally hide from Will to avoid making the choice in public. But some have motives even more venal. Trying to recruit men at the local saloon/whorehouse, Will discovers that there are many who are not so concerned about the Millers' return, in fact looking forward to it - when the Millers ran the town, there was always action, and business in the vice industry was good. But it is not just at the saloon that this attitude holds. The town's more respectable businessmen also urge Will to leave, and to make sure he does, they tell him they will not aid him if he stays. They note that business has been good in recent years; a nasty shootout will only ruin the town's image; if Kane will just leave, the Miller boys probably won't stay anyway, and everything will go on as usual, really. The only ones who offer to help are a boy of 14, and Jimmy, the town's one-eyed drunk. Will gently sends them away.

Reciting the realities of the situation, even Will's old mentor, ex-Marshall Matt Howe, too old and ailing to help in the confrontation himself, urges Kane to flee. Kane starts back to his office, and runs into Harvey again, who tries to force him to leave - it is now important to Harvey that Will be seen as no braver, and no better, than he. The two fight, and Will eventually knocks Harvey out. Sore and dejected, Will returns to the office, where the loyal Herb waits. But when Herb finds out it is just he and Will to face the Millers, he too begs off in this exchange:

Herb: I volunteered. You know I did. You didn't have to come to me. I was ready. Sure, I'm ready now - but this is different, Will. This ain't like what you said it was gonna be. This is just plain committing suicide and for what? Why me? I'm no lawman. I just live here. I got nothin' personal against nobody. I got no stake in this.
Kane: I guess not.
Herb: There's a limit how much you can ask a man. I got a wife and kids. What about my kids?
Kane: Go on home, Herb. Go on home to your wife and kids.

And so, abandoned by all, Kane listens as the noon train arrives, and then walks into the street to meet his probable death, leading to the climactic showdown.

It's been said that the movie was intended as an allegory for Hollywood blacklists and the activities of the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee. If so, it's hard to see. But whatever its original purpose, to me it seems like a wonderful allegory for the current state of world affairs.

The terrorists vow to kill us and destroy our society. The pacifists refuse to face this reality (though in the movie Amy returns at the last moment and provides crucial aid to Will in his struggle); there are the businessmen, the Chiracs and Schroeders of th world, eager to avoid anything that interferes with their commercial arrangements; there are the Spanish, like Herb, ready to face the foe, but only until it looks too risky; and there are the Harveys of the world (Michael Moore?), hoping for Will's humiliation to mask their own cowardice. Each group works to convince themselves that things won't really be so bad if evil is allowed to triumph. Why, people even start to talk fondly about the Millers. Soon, it's Will himself who is the villain - he's the one who is cutting into the saloon's business; he's the one whose refusal to run away is going to lead to a showdown that will hurt the town's image; if he gets hurt, or even killed, he deserves it, and its totally wrong and unfair of him to demand that others take risks too.

And of course, the wonderful touch - this all comes about because Miller, a known killer, is pardoned by unnamed politicians in the far off capital, those who never actually have to live in danger of people like Miller. His first act after being released is to go to Hadleyville to kill Kane.

Meanwhile, throughout the film, Ritter's plaintive voice carries the title tune. It is a tune that is terribly hokey, almost laughably so, and yet at points incredibly moving, for in its kitschy way, it is a wonderful song about courage and honor.

I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave.
For I must face a man who hates me,
or lie a coward,
a craven coward,
or lie a coward in my grave.

When was the last time you heard someone use a phrase such as "craven coward?" Or consider that reputation worse than death? When I heard those words while driving that recent Saturday morning, I thought about our soldiers in Iraq: the valor they show; their determination even as, sometimes - like after a Dick Durban speech - they must feel somewhat abandoned; the desire of so many of the wounded to return to active duty. And I thought, next, of how little our society - except in the military - any longer incubates such values. Will Kane understands that evil must be faced sooner rather than later, and that one certainly can't hide from it. And it matters not to Will that the townfolk urge him to leave, and make clear that they won't think the less of him for it (whether he really believes their protestations on this point is irrelevant) - Will cannot live with himself if he runs away. Some things are more important even than life itself.

A great film. The dialogue is superb, as it used to be in films. The tension builds slowly and palpably. If you've never seen it, if you haven't seen it in years, watch it.

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