"Don't try to be a hero! You don't have to be a hero, not for me!"
In 2011, there is nothing particularly controversial about Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, but it caused a major stir in the midst of the red scare. To most people, this is just an ordinary western film about a group of outlaws heading into town and the marshal who is forced to ride them out of town. Everyone fits the typical look of the western genre, and the climax features an ordinary ol' West shootout. There is one moment that is different than anything you would ever see in a western at that time. It is the final seconds of the film that caused all of the controversy.
High Noon follows the story of a newly married marshal named Will Kane. Played by the Academy Award winning Gary Cooper, Kane and his wife(Grace Kelly) are on their way to celebrate their honeymoon when the news of a returning group of bandits comes his way. He is forced to protect the town that he loves, but he knows that he will need some help. He runs around the town trying to find deputies, but nobody will work with him. There may be some 1950s American isolation themes going on here as people were more likely to cheer for a lone heroic figure in the time period. The townspeople are displayed as cowards and hooligans who are afraid to stand up against the group of bandits.
Though Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for his portrayal of Kane, this is not the performance that I have taken away from the film. Grace Kelly plays Kane's new wife, Amy. She is a Quaker and seems to be madly in love with her new husband. Personally, I believe that her side plot with the voluptuous Helen Ramírez helps to carry the picture. Without this additional dramatic material, High Noon would be very bland. It does not hurt that Grace Kelly is breathtakingly beautiful. She is pretty fun to watch in any movie, but her character plays an underrated significance here.
Like most westerns, the marshal wins in the end and shoots the bandits in the street of his beloved town. He, all by himself, is able to keep his town remaining a clean and safe place to raise a child. After the battle is over, the cowardly townspeople come out to thank the man that they refused to help. Without saying a word, Kane removes his tin star badge and throws it into the dirt. He then rides out of town with his wife - happily ever after.
It is the throwing of the badge and the cowardliness of the townspeople that made High Noon so controversial. John Wayne famously criticized the movie for its supposed anti-blacklisting stance. He called the whole production "the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life". He went on to call the badge throwing "communistic" and bragged about helping to get the screenwriter, Carl Forman, blacklisted from Hollywood.
Howard Hawks then teamed with Wayne to make the "anti-High Noon", a film called Rio Bravo (1959). Hawks said "I made Rio Bravo because I didn't like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western."
In their defense, Rio Bravo is a pretty good movie. It may be more interesting than High Noon. But that does not make this Best Picture nominee a bad movie. In my humble opinion, High Noon is a little ordinary. It isn't boring...just ordinary.
High Noon: B-