At the time of its release, HIGH NOON was reviled both by chauvinist nationalists who thought it (rightly) to be allegory against McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Hollywood leftists, a story of a lone lawman sticking to his guns despite the rejection of his peers, as well as by actual Soviet communists who saw the film as a celebration of the individual over community. The film was decried by critics, filmmakers, and John Wayne himself as antithetical to the American ideals of classical westerns, yet nonetheless won numerous awards and set the template for the cynical post-Westerns that would follow. In the decades that followed, it was a favorite of politicians as ostensibly diverse as Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, the movie most often screened in the White House, an outline of stoic morality, of staunch heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, of personal sacrifice and social obligation, but devoid enough of any explicit principle that the film could be appropriated by diverse ideologies across the political spectrum—even today, Cooper might just as easily stand in for Robert Mueller as he could Donald Trump, depending on how insane of an ideologue you might be.
In a deeply uncanny way, then, HIGH NOON is both of its time and utterly timeless. It is a clear allegory for the political paranoia and cowardice of its era, a reflection of and on the dominant genre(s) of classical Hollywood—shot like a noir, set as a Western—straddling the star system of silent films (Cooper) and the new icons to come (Kelly). Yet there is nonetheless something that remains modern about the film, its diverse heroines far better suited to today than to the 1950s, its moral standpoint as true for Athens (which the movie makes explicit) as it is for America, set at the start of the Civil War, at the intersection of America’s temporal disjuncture, speaking to a divide between neighbor and self at the crux of our national soul. This is all without even mentioning the ingenious temporal mechanic of the film, a tense and daring constraint that few films have tried to repeat, and none with as much skill.
Crafted in the starkest black and white, its score pulsating and cool, its climax practically a callback to Cooper’s silent origins, the movie is engaging and challenging in equal measure. And at heart, HIGH NOON is less a western than it is a formalist morality play, less about standing up to oppression than standing up for what one believes in, because standing up is what it means to be (a bipedal) human. Even Kelly’s Quaker pacifist, who takes her own turn behind the barrel of a gun, makes this point clear, not because she abandons her convictions, but because she keeps her vow, her promise to stand by the other, which is precisely what Cooper does and the cowardly townfolk fail to do. This is hardly a Western about machismo—Bridges’ character is resolutely rejected on that front, and the women characters are stronger than almost any man—nor about the moral purity of the American soul, Cooper family tossing his badge to the ground at the film’s conclusion, the rejected rejecting those he protected, wondering if it was worth it in the end; nor does this slip so easily in to simple cynicism, painting the hero instead in the most Kantian of colors of non-pathological and self-sacrificing duty.
Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.