Released for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK this week via the Eureka label, 1952’s High Noon is, as the tagline has it, ‘The story of a man who was too proud to run’. That man is Will Kane, the marshal of Hadleyville, a small town in New Mexico. Played by Gary Cooper, Will Kane learns that Frank Miller, vicious and notorious outlaw he had previously put behind bars, has been released from jail. Along with a gang that includes a young Lee Van Cleef, Miller (Ian MacDonald) is revealed to be heading into town on the midday train with the intention to exact bloody revenge upon the diligent and unimpeachable marshal. For Kane, the timing is particularly poor as it’s his wedding day to Amy, a beautiful and devout Quaker played by Grace Kelly, with whom he plans to start a new life with away from Hadleyville. Hearing of Miller’s impending arrival, Will Kane is determined to stand his ground even in the face of an ultimatum from his new bride; that she’ll leave the town with or without him. As Kane sets out to round up a posse he begins to face the awful truth that the friends and neighbours who make up the town that he has long since served are less willing to stand with him now.
The beauty of High Noon is that its themes are universal. On the surface it may be a western, but its themes of conscience, fearlessness and a sense of both what is right and of duty – not just to the law, a cause, or even to others; but to yourself and how you wish to live and be perceived – transcends the trappings of the genre to connect with audiences who perhaps would never consider themselves as horse opera aficionados. That High Noon has been uprooted from its old west setting time and again to effectively be remade or paid homage to in everything from the 1981 sci-fi actioner Outland to a 2010 episode of the Jimmy McGovern Manchester-set drama The Street starring Bob Hoskins, serves as a testimony to the strength and continuing relevance of the film’s human story of a man who feels compelled to fight rather than flee.
The film’s screenwriter Carl Foreman intended High Noon to be an allegory of the McCarthy witch hunts that plagued Hollywood and destroyed the lives and careers of many involved in the entertainment business at that time. The House Un-American Activities Committee sought to investigate ‘Communist propaganda and influence’ in the film industry and declared Foreman, a former Communist Party member who declined to identify any of his colleagues and contemporaries as fellow members, to be an ‘unreliable witness’. He was subsequently blacklisted and moved to the UK. HUAC poster boy John Wayne would later remark in a 1971 Playboy interview that he would “never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country”. Hollywood’s most famous cowboy had actually been offered the role of Kane, but he turned it down flat because of its topical, allegorical nature.
Adding Fred Zinnemann to the mix as the film director, means that there is a further resonance to the metaphorical aspect of High Noon and one that supports the theory that the film is one that just so happens to be set in the west, rather than being a western. As Zinnemann said; “High Noon is not a Western, as far as I’m concerned; it just happens to be set in the Old West”. His shooting style certainly supports this too; out goes the traditional landscapes and painterly panoramas of John Ford, in favour of tight close-ups and crisp newsreel style footage that is in keeping with the social realist approach the director worked in. This directorial style reaches its zenith here, with a real time setting that makes the tense atmosphere really palpable and all long before 24 pitted its star Kiefer Sutherland against the clock.
The critic Stephen Price believes that the Polish-born Zinnemann progressed the anti-McCarthy allegory by allying himself to the core values of Gary Cooper’s character, seeing what he represented as being the physical embodiment of his greatest wish for all his films to be about “trying to preserve our civilisation”. Price argues that it is easy to see the outlaws who arrive to wreak terror and revenge upon the town as just as much of a threat to their way of life as the fascism of the Nazis who, it’s important to recall, killed Zinnemann’s parents in the Holocaust in the previous decade. Such contemporary resonance has continued to run throughout the intervening years and rightly does so to this day, as Zinnemann himself said in his autobiography “In the end, he must meet his chosen fate all by himself, his town’s doors and windows firmly locked against him. It is a story that still happens everywhere, every day“. This was certainly proved in 1989 when the then 22-year-old Polish graphic designer Tomasz Sarnecki adapted the original Polish language poster for the film by Marian Stachurski as part of the campaign for Solidarity in the first partially free elections in Communist Poland. Referring to his very own ‘High Noon’ on 4th June, 1989 Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa discussed the metaphor the film presents and its relevance to his politics; “Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom, both physical and spiritual”. Call me an idealistic Corbynista if you will (I mean, that’s exactly what I am anyway), but Labour wouldn’t go far wrong if they ever adopted it for their electoral campaigning; just like Gary Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn often seems to stand alone, shunned by a soft and self-serving, blissfully and blithely ignorant society that he is nevertheless compelled to protect from the encroach of a dangerously fascistic menace on the horizon.
Rightly regarded as a classic film, not just a classic western, John Wayne hated it, calling it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” (what, even more than not doing your bit for America in the war?) and went off to make Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks as a direct result, but not before – irony of ironies – he found himself collecting an indisposed Gary Cooper’s Best Actor Oscar on his friend’s behalf. Incidentally, Howard Hawks also detested High Noon, disparagingly believing that no marshal worth his salt would ever “run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help”, only to be saved by his ‘Quaker wife‘ in the final reel. To Wayne and Hawks, High Noon wasn’t representing their idea of what a man ought to be. But if you ask me, if your film is hated and deemed unpatriotic by John Wayne then you’ve made something that is really very good indeed. Equally good is Eureka’s package which includes an audio commentary, interviews, three ‘making of’ extras and a collector’s booklet.