Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is a retired marshal in the western town of Hadleyville. As Kane is about to depart on his honeymoon, he gets word that Frank Miller, a longtime enemy of Kane’s (and a criminal whom Kane had previously put away) is scheduled to arrive in Hadleyville on the noon train, meeting up with a gang of three bandits to exact their revenge on Kane and the town. Though his wife wants to leave, Kane decides he must stick around and defend the town against Miller and his bandits. He attempts to rally the townsfolk, but no one is willing to join Kane is his epic stand against the gang. With his wife threatening to leave on the noon train no matter what, Kane is left alone to battle Miller and his three cutthroats in an epic duel in Hadleyville at “high noon.” Who will be the last man standing? Can Kane defend his beloved town in an epic battle of good meets bad?
Cold War Connections and Themes
This is crazy, I don’t even have any guns.
–Gary Cooper as Will Kane, High Noon, 1952
The Cold War, by very definition, was a war without sustained, active combat. Rather, it was a face off between two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—in an ideological and political battle. Citizens, perpetually fearful of the great Soviet unknown, galvanized themselves at home against the growing threat of the “Red Scare.” Communism threatened to destroy the most basic tenets of the American lifestyle—capitalism, individualist beliefs, and religious freedom, just to name a few. As such, Americans had good reason to distrust (or attack) any Communists or Communist sympathizers living among the general populace.
Enter HUAC: the House Un-American Activities Committee. Establishing itself as a standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1945, HUAC aimed to root out the threat of Communism in American life by investigating suspected Communists in influential positions in government, military, and entertainment. One of HUAC’s most infamous (and publicly visible) targets was the Hollywood Ten.
The Hollywood Ten was a group of directors screenwriters suspected of harboring Communist viewpoints who, in 1947, refused to answer any questions asked of them by HUAC in court. Citing 5th Amendment rights, these ten individuals challenged the contempt of court ruling handed down to them, but their appeal was rejected and each was sentenced to a year in federal prison.
While the Hollywood Ten were perhaps the most prominent victims of the “Red Scare” in the entertainment industry, hundreds of others were blacklisted from Hollywood as well. One of them was Carl Foreman, the director of High Noon. While Foreman was never tried directly, he refused to answer questions and name names about suspected Communists in Hollywood, resulting in his being branded an “unfriendly witness” and his eventual blacklisting.
In contrast to Foreman, High Noon’s star, Gary Cooper, was actually deemed a “friendly witness” by HUAC for his perceived cooperation during questioning some years earlier in 1947. Despite not naming any names (claiming he threw away scripts with Communist influences as soon as he read them, and completely disassociating himself with any sympathizers), Cooper maintained an anti-Communist lifestyle and never gave the committee any pause in terms of where his loyalties resided. Although Cooper was never linked to any Communist activities, some had reasons to doubt his true beliefs—one of these individuals was John Wayne.
Critical Response to High Noon
[High Noon] is the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.
–John Wayne, interview with Playboy Magazine, 1971
One of the reasons for John Wayne’s incredible distaste for High Noon was because he viewed it much like many historical scholars: as a sharp criticism against HUAC’s investigation and blacklisting of Communists in Hollywood. The elements of this allegory encompassed all of Hollywood and the aura or paranoia at the time of the “Red Scare.” Miller and his gang of no-good bandits represented the chairmen of HUAC, invading Hadleyville (meant to represent Hollywood) and threatening the townspeople. The townspeople, unwilling to fight back against the threat facing them, are seen to represent the cowardly, cooperating witnesses to HUAC. Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) is seen as the “lone ranger” of the town willing to stand up against Miller and his gang, which he (and Cooper and Foreman) saw as a clear and present threat to a democratic lifestyle. Kane, disgusted and left bitter at the town’s events, leaves town with his marshal’s star crushed underfoot.
Wayne thought the film was an embarrassment to American ideals as well as the idea of the classic Western. He believed that a truly brave sheriff would have faced the villains head on—instead of asking everyone in the town for assistance—and would have defeated them strongly and swiftly. Wayne was also disgusted by the movie’s final scene, in which he thought the retreating Kane represented a complete abandonment of ideals of responsibility and service. Along with friend and director Howard Hawks, Wayne swore to create a proper response to the weak-willed High Noon—and in 1959, he did just that with Rio Bravo.
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3. “House Un-American Activities Committee – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., 13 Nov. 2011. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee>.
4. “Interview: John Wayne.” Playboy May 1971. The New Effort. 6 May 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2011. <http://www.theneweffort.com/men-among-the-ruins-f6/topic2759.html>.
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6. “Wayne for Camels.” The Pop History Dig. N.p., 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. <http://www.pophistorydig.com/?tag=john-wayne-cigarette-ads>.