Movie Review: High Noon (1952)

Quintessential (and timely) story of moral courage __ 10/10

High NoonHelen (to Harvey): You’re a good-looking
boy: you have big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.

Helen: I don’t understand you. No matter what you say. If Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this. I’d get a gun. I’d fight.
Amy: Why don’t you?
Helen: He is not my man. He’s yours.

Helen: Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody’s going to do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too. I can feel it. I am all alone in the world. I have to make a living. So I’m going someplace else. That’s all.

Magazine Story John W. Cunningham
Screenplay by Carl Foreman
Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Gary Cooper … Marshal Will Kane
Thomas Mitchell … Mayor Jonas Henderson
Lloyd Bridges … Deputy Harvey Pell
Katy Jurado … Helen Ramírez
Grace Kelly … Amy Fowler Kane
Otto Kruger … Judge Percy Mettrick
Lon Chaney Jr. … Martin Howe
Harry Morgan … Sam Fuller
Ian MacDonald … Frank Miller

This is a good time in human history to bring up the classic Western that’s all about facing up to the need for taking care of business (TCB). We’re back in a late-1800s budding town in the West, that wants to shed its reputation as a backwater haven for gunslinging goons and ignorant hillbillies… and become a town where “decent women” feel they can walk down the street. Hadleyville is becoming respectable mainly because Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) ran the slimeballs out of town.

Frank Miller and his gang used to run things here, but thanks to Kane, Frank has been sent to prison—presumably for a crime involving gunplay, and likely murder. Well, Frank, after several years in the state slammer, is pissed, and he’s coming back to Hadleyville to get revenge on the marshal. Three of his men are going to meet Frank on the noon train, then march into town and TCB in their own way. It’s obvious the Miller intentions are deadly to Kane… not to mention destructive in varying degrees to anyone Miller feels has wronged him.[1]

So what’s a self-respecting marshal to do?

“Well, let’s see, why don’t I get married to my young Quaker-girlfriend Amy (Grace Kelly) on the same day Miller and his fellow killers are to bound to arrive!” Yikes! Then inform my new bride that I can’t leave town to go on the honeymoon, because I have this unfinished business with these guys. Okay, maybe you can fault Marshal Kane for bad planning, but it seems for some reason he doesn’t know about Frank Miller getting out of prison until the very day Frank’s going to be coming in on the train gunning for him!

…poetic license, I guess

However unlikely the setup may be, the fact remains the bad guys are rolling into respectable Hadleyville this very day, at high noon, so Marshal Kane needs to deputy up and face the bad guys down. This presents some issues: in fact people are coming up with every reason under the sun for not stepping up:

  • “It doesn’t make any sense, Kane. Just leave town and the problem will go away. We’ll be all right. These killers are obviously reformed now.” — the mayor and the preacher man
  • “I’m young and I’m fast, but I sure don’t want to go up against the Miller Gang. Too much reality for me.” — Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges)
  • “Kane’s coming to ask me to be a deputy, I know. I’m just an ordinary guy, don’t know jack about guns. When Kane gets here, Honey, tell him I’m not in.” — Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan)
  • “Using guns is so primitive. Yechhh!” — the liberals in town
  • “Well, Marshall, we need to hit them with massive force. A hundred deputies ought to do it. And while we’re at it, let’s clean up the saloons in town… what, you say there’s only you and me?! No way, José. ” — the conservatives in town
  • “Let me help, Marshal, I’m old for my age.” — 14-year-old kid
  • “I always eat my lunch at noon.” — Union Man

And we’re not even talking about the women and old men. In the older -man category is former marshal Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.); he makes a good point. With his crippled hands and old limbs, he would be a hazard to Will Kane… because Kane would have to look after him. Kane would more readily be killed if it were just the two of them. Chaney has some of the best lines regarding the people’s lack of fortitude… and re: cops:

Martin: You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you’re honest, you’re poor your whole life, and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.

This is a movie about moral and physical courage. Think Straw Dogs meets High Plains Drifter. It causes you to think about how you yourself would behave in similar circumstances. Most of us prefer not to have to deal with a 900# gorilla or even to acknowledge its existence.

Let’s consider the situations we all sometimes face in life. Kane’s behavior, by refusing to ignore the harsh reality thrust upon him, and by standing up for what is right regardless of the consequences—don’t forget the blond society girl he just married is leaving him in his hour of need, too—sets an example we can all emulate. That’s another moral of the movie: if more than a handful of people stand up for what is right (regardless of consequences) they almost always win.

And now I can’t help but draw the allegory of High Noon to anyone in the freedom movement who is facing reality, who draws our attention to the 900# gorilla by doing what Will Kane did: simply deciding to stand up and refuse to give in to criminal assault… regardless of what others may do. Like Gandhi, these men and women say, “That’s it, I will not comply, I will not run, I will make a stand here, if this has to be ‘my Alamo,’ bring it on… bitch.”[2]

So the movie works for me on a personal level, it inspires me to stand up for what I believe in—Constitutional liberty and the nonaggression principle—and not back down. Everyone knows that liberty is right and liberty is legal… and that for liberty and decent human life to prosper in our society, decent human beings must be prepared to go to the mat for it. At least hitch your pony to the liberty wagon, and give your physical and moral support to those who lead us down the path of righteousness.


[1] But my favorite character in the whole movie outside of Kane is the fiery, independent, morally righteous Helen Ramirez (played by Mexican beauty Katy Jurado). Helen years ago had been intimate with Marshal Kane, and she knows that what he stands for is the choice we all must make between right and wrong. It’s black and white, buster, and if you’re not going to help the white, then you’re black as coal. I love how she launches into Amy, and into Deputy Pell. And more, I love her with the Marshal, where we see the tenderness and passion with which she still loves him. She is the ultimate “stand by your man” kind of woman in my book.

[2] High Noon came on Turner Classic Movies this week, at the exact period when Pete Hendrickson, author of Cracking the Code: The fascinating truth about taxation in America, was convicted in a kangaroo court for filing truthful income tax returns. Pete is my special hero: a man of principle who is also a man of action. His brilliantly conceived and masterfully written book will liberate thousands of us imminently, and millions of us eventually. I’m dedicating this review and my upcoming column to him… and sending him money.

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