JULY / AUG 2017: BY RACHEL SEXTON
More than any other genre of film, the aspect that defines the Western the most is setting. It’s right there in the name—western. The open, often arid vistas of the western United States in the mid- and late-1800s provided the backdrop for a distinctly American type of story, where men instilled justice and order in a lawless land. Many films have filled in this genre and made a lasting impression. One is High Noon. Every element reflects the story’s themes of time, loyalty, and cowardice.
High Noon came to theaters in 1952, with a script by Carl Foreman and directed by Fred Zinneman. It stars Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, who has just married Amy (played by Grace Kelly) and is about to leave town and retire. However, after the ceremony, he gets the news that Frank Miller is arriving in town on the noon train. A criminal who terrorized the town until Kane arrested him and sent him to prison, Miller received a pardon and is coming back for revenge. Kane’s replacement as Marshal is not due for another day, so Kane feels he has no choice but to stay and face Miller and his three lackeys. When Kane tries to rally men to help face down the gang, he’s shocked to find that no one will support him.
Loyalty is an idea strongly woven into the story of High Noon. Whether one person will stand beside another no matter what is the narrative’s clear and definite concern. The marriage sets the theme since wedding vows contain words about this quality. Later, Amy must put those vows into action. At first, she intends to leave as they planned, even if she has to go alone. Amy is a Quaker and lost family to violence. She struggles to accept what Will feels he has to do. Helen Ramirez, played by Katy Jurado, changes her mind. Helen tells Amy she should fight with Will, and it takes until the end of the film, but when Kane faces Miller and his men, Amy helps at a decisive moment.
The notion of cowardice pervades the script. Following his decision to face the looming threat, Will finds person after person whose bravery fails them, and therefore Will, leaving him alone. First, Kane’s deputy, Harvey (played by Lloyd Bridges), quits. Then Kane visits the former Marshal, who refuses to help. Another man pretends not to be at home when Will arrives to ask for assistance. In one of the most memorable scenes, Will enters the town church during a service to enlist aid. The congregation discuss the situation. Some of the people, the Mayor included, advocate for helping Will. They argue it is their town and their responsibility, not to mention Will can’t do it alone. Others argue the higher-ups who released Miller should fix the situation. Despite all the talk, it resolves nothing, and no one stands up beside Kane. They are all too scared. Will is the only one brave enough to face his enemies.
Perhaps most of all, the theme of time is a presence in the script, and expressed in shots of clocks. The first shows the time of 10:35 a.m., and in an innovative use of real time, the film lasts for the next 1 hour and 25 minutes—the exact amount of time until noon. Other films have since used this technique but the strength of the direction and editing to engage the audience and enhance the suspense as the clock ticks down to the appointed time is a special part of viewing this film. Every time a clock is shown, the viewer’s tension builds in anticipation of what will happen at 12 o’clock. This is effective and impactful.
High Noon is more than a typical Western due to the story’s exploration of time, loyalty, and cowardice. These themes fit in with the genre of a Western because they tie in with the issue of what it is to be a man, and the Western is a masculine type of tale. Male characters are often at the forefront of the narrative, both as hero and villain. Marshal Will Kane illustrates what the Western evinces the best of a man can be as he faces trouble and survives. When Kane throws his star in the dirt in front of the townspeople and rides off with his new wife in the last shot, you know you’ve seen a great Western.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.