The Old-School Macho of ‘High Noon’

Back in the day when Westerns meant something

The disappointment that critics have expressed with Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho may spur some viewers to take a look back at films where the same kind of material felt incomparably fresher and more powerful. Movies that raise profound questions about right and wrong and what it means to have courage in a world rife with perfidy and cruelty shouldn’t feel stale or boring. It’s possible that the underwhelming qualities of Cry Macho will help rekindle interest in the far more dynamic and gripping Dirty Harry movies, but those films were really the reiteration, in a San Francisco milieu, of themes found in westerns, and one in particular, 1952’s High Noon.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

High Noon is the story of Will Kane, the marshal of a small New Mexico Territory town who is getting married to a younger woman at virtually the same time that his tenure as marshal comes to an end. The people of the town are sorry to see him go, but the feeling is that his retirement is well earned. He’s the best damn marshal the town has had. It used to be unsafe for women to walk the streets, but Kane sure cleaned it up.

Kane should be on the threshold of a joyous new phase of his life, but in a Faulknerian universe where the past is not dead or even past, of course things aren’t so simple. Frank Miller, a violent outlaw whom Kane took off the streets years before, has just gotten out of jail, and he plans to take the noon train to the town’s depot, where three louts, one of whom has a drinking problem, are eager to fit him with a belt, holster, and gun and help him terrorize the town anew.

Much of the beauty of High Noon lies in its pacing. The camera often cuts to a clock on the wall, ticking off the minutes and seconds until noon, when the universe will do such a crazy somersault that nothing and no one will ever be as before. The viewer may break out in a sweat when taking in, scene after scene after scene, the desperation and fear on the faces of the citizens, who know full well that Frank Miller’s return to their streets portends and, almost without exception, say no to Kane’s call to form a posse.

The people of the town do not just refuse to help Kane. They voice a range of excuses and rationalizations for their lack of spine. I’ve got a wife and kids to think about. There’s no point in trying to be a hero. A lawman puts himself at risk for nothing and ends up dead. Or as Judge Percy Mettrick says just before leaving town, “This is a just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.”

That last excuse gives things an explicitly philosophical cast. Everything is a matter of perspective, of course. Any human settlement on the planet, population twelve or twelve million, is a dirty little dump of a place in the middle of nowhere. You might well ask what it is about High Noon’s desolate and easily overlooked town that merits a blood sacrifice. If you pursue this line of thought, you may come to reflect on the brevity of human existence and of the earth and matter themselves and whether what we do is of any consequence at all in the context of eternity. There’s something about the vastness of open spaces on the frontier that makes the western an inimitable vehicle for the kind of metaphysical questions that High Noon poses.

But unlike some westerns—think of Eastwood’s Unforgiven, with the lines, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have”—this one is unambiguous in its answers. Kane persists in his call for others to join him in the defense of the town and resolutely goes it alone when the cowardice of others precludes any help. He beats the crap out of the town’s deputy marshal over the latter’s insistence that Kane give up the game and leave town. At the climax, he faces the four villains on the nearly empty streets.

Some people these days may roll their eyes at the philosophical, even metaphysical, message here about courage and the imperative of opposing evil when there is nothing to gain. We can do the easy thing or we can do the right thing, and all that. The simplicity of the message is not amenable to everyone in a progressive political culture soaked in moral relativism, but the effectiveness and power of High Noon derive precisely from its presentation of these themes in a narrative whose economy perfectly complements the starkness of the wide bare spaces captured in Floyd Crosby’s elegant black-and-white cinematography. It’s a film about courage, pure and simple, even if (spoiler alert) someone does end up shooting one of the four bad guys in the back.

Even as we appreciate the achievement of High Noon, it’s truly depressing to reflect on the absence today of moral courage in academia, in the media, and in so many raging controversies where the woke have taken offense with or without justification. Today the willingness to take an unpopular stand is virtually as rare as in the town Gary Cooper set out all alone to protect and defend in his most resonant onscreen role.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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