Discover more from The Freemen News-Letter
Is it Morning in America, or High Noon?
The question we need to ask ourselves isn’t so much what we choose to do, it’s what we choose to believe about ourselves.
While now considered a classic, the western film High Noon was among the first “revisionist” westerns, a western that played with traditional themes of the “cowboy flick,” subverted crowd expectations, and offered a more jaded, cynical plot narrative. In fact, while most contemporary viewers familiar with, say, Yellowstone would be hard-pressed to understand what makes High Noon different as a western, the film itself was quite controversial when it was released. John Wayne even went so far as to call High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life." Several of Wayne’s later movies, such as Rio Bravo or Big Jake, were made in direct refutation of the themes presented in High Noon.
To understand the controversy of High Noon, you have to first understand the typical themes of the old-style western. There were “white hats” and “black hats.” Strong and unerring morals clearly partitioned the heroes and villains on the one hand and a total abandonment of everything good and decent on the other. Good guys could be rough and tumble, but they always had a heart of gold. The bad guys were always dastardly and were written to be derided by the audience and defeated by the hero. On top of this, there is usually a theme of strong American community in traditional western films, of people coming together to protect themselves and to build civilization against the powers of lawlessness and disorder. In old-style westerns, the good guy only stood alone if the bad guy had tricked him and cornered him. Often, the good guy was saved at the last moment by the townspeople, the posse, or the cavalry coming to his aid.
In contrast, High Noon tells the story of veteran marshal Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper), about to put down his badge and retire with his newlywed wife. His plans change when he finds out Frank Miller, a vicious outlaw he had put behind bars, has been released from prison and is reportedly on his way to town to seek revenge. The town has changed a lot from the old days of bank robberies and saloon fights. It’s a settled town now, a place of civilization. This is largely due to the efforts of Marshal Kane. He doesn’t want to see everything he’s worked for fall apart, so he saddles up for one last showdown.
But he discovers no one wants to stand with him. No one wants to fight. His wife argues with him and angrily asks why she’s not good enough, why they can’t just leave. None of the townspeople are willing to stand up and fight, believing they have too much to lose. The outlaws just want the marshal anyway, they say. They think the outlaws will leave them alone if the marshal would just go away. Even the marshal’s deputies abandon him, wondering why they should risk their lives in a fight they can’t win. Eventually, at high noon, Marshal Kane finds himself standing truly alone as his opponents ride into town. In the final fight, he survives and kills the outlaws through a combination of skill, luck, and the timely intervention of his pacifist wife, the only person to come to his aid. After the fight is over, he angrily throws down his badge and walks away.
This narrative presents a certain cynicism, what some would call realism, about human nature. The cavalry does not always ride to the rescue, a posse isn’t always just moments away if the hero can only hold out a little longer, and the townspeople are just as likely to cower in fear and cowardice as they are to rise to the occasion and aid the hero.
Contrary to the very forceful and negative responses of people like John Wayne, I enjoy High Noon and find value in the realist approach. I recognize the foibles and failings of fallen man and understand that human nature often fails to live up to its potential. I think High Noon demonstrates one of the cycles we often see in the history of human society. People blessed with peace and prosperity, thanks to the sweat, blood, and tears of those who came before, often demonstrate a distinct lack of gratitude for what they have and a cowardly unwillingness to defend the things they take for granted. I don’t think every story we tell has to be one where everyone does the right thing and all’s well that ends well. The extraordinary must be contrasted with the common, the ordinary, and the indifferent if it’s to be valued.
But, just like the cycle evident in the film, popular culture and society go through these cycles of gratitude and ingratitude, hopefulness and cynicism, bravery and cowardice. High Noon's darker theme was a big deal when it was released. But its narrative does not stand out much in contemporary society. Indeed, we are so awash with cynicism and nihilism in cinema, in anti-heroes and villains who are “just misunderstood,” that what stands out are those rare moments of stark black and white (derided as campy or too uncomplicated by critics). And in our broader culture, in things like politics and how we interact with each other on social media, we have gotten ugly, petty, and cruel. We don’t just disagree. We hate. We don’t just dismiss. We cancel and hound. It would be very easy to conclude that it’s High Noon in America, and those few who try to stand for values and their principles are going to stand alone.
And maybe it is. But in such times, it’s important to remember these are natural cycles in the course of human history, not unstoppable forces descending forever into the abyss. America has been lost before. It’s given up on itself and wondered, “are the good times really over?” plenty of times in the past. Our most recent era of identity crisis was in the years following the end of the Vietnam War, when the nation’s indomitable nature came into question, when Americans had lost faith in the goodness of its government, and people had begun feeling that America was past its prime.
But morning came. It always comes. While High Noon is an enjoyable and intriguing cautionary tale, John Wayne was correct in stating that such a story does not fundamentally reflect America's ideals nor its people's inherent goodness. We always learn to hope again and find the timeless things we can cling to and believe in.
It can still be morning in America, if we want it to be. Cynicism is a choice. Cowardice is a choice. Anger, hatred, disunion…these are all choices. Cycles ebb and flow. The downward slopes are not of inevitable length and descent. There is no hopeless chasm too deep to return from. America and its people are still capable of accomplishing all the things that those who came before us accomplished. The question we need to ask ourselves isn’t so much what we choose to do, it’s what we choose to believe about ourselves. That will be what determines whether it’s going to be morning in America, or High Noon.