Westerns are a genre that I find it difficult to click with. I mean, as a genre, it has its patterns – heroic figure stands up in the face of overwhelming odds to defend himself or bring justice to those who can’t help themselves. After much hand wringing, wrangling, and a climactic chase on horseback or a gunfight on a deserted and dirty road, our great hero comes out on top, usually killing the bad guys. What bothers me though is not so much the constraints of the genre, but the simplicity of the conflict that’s often inherent to these films. Sometimes the simple conflict done well is something I’m looking for (think Alan Ladd as Shane).Which brings me to High Noon. The reason this film stands out for me from the rest in its genre is that it takes the basic form of the genre (the lone hero who sacrifices himself to save the day, a romantic connection, a menacing gang of evildoers, and a town in need of help fighting off the criminals) and it turns it on its head. This is a kind of subversive filmmaking. For while everything looks the part of the traditional Western, this is anything but.
Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, the soon-to-be former Marshall of Hadleyville. In the film’s first few moments, the basic tension is set up: Kane is getting married to Amy Fowler (the luminous Grace Kelly), a pacifist. He plans to turn in his badge, and move to another city where he will set up a store. However, just as their wedding ceremony is concluding, Kane gets a message that a dangerous criminal he put away some five years before, Frank Miller, has been pardoned and all signs point to he and his friends heading for town on the noon train. This compels the now former Marshall to ignore his new wife’s protestations, retake his badge, and prepare to defend the town against these criminals.
Thus far, all the basic elements are there for the traditional Western picture. However, even at this early stage, there have already been things to give us pause, to make us think this film might be doing something differently. For instance, at Kane’s wedding, he is clearly a reserved man, not wanting to kiss his new bride in front of everyone. This doesn’t fit the pattern of the big and brash hero that’s coming to save the day. Also, he seems to have a pained look on his face, even in these early scenes. That look only continues to get more grim and pained throughout. This conflicted hero has a wife who strongly tells warns him against such action, even to the point of preparing to leave him if he goes through with it. No one in the town comes to his aid in fighting these men. Kane admits that he is afraid, and we see him agonize over the impending gunfight that is quickly approaching.
And what of that gunfight? After all the buildup, it plays out pretty quickly. However, Kane ends up not doing it all himself – a woman (Amy) comes to his aid. And on top of that, not only does she kill a man, but we see her terribly pained reaction to this. She is frozen after the act, so much so that she allows herself to be taken easily by the remaining criminal. When Kane finally does away with Miller, this finale is palpably subdued. There is no celebration. The townsfolk, who had been standing by and watching, quickly come out and circle the body. Kane and his wife get on their rig and head out, not to cheers, but to silence in the streets. This is no celebration because there is nothing to celebrate. What should we celebrate that Kane went against his promise to his new wife, and involved himself in a gunfight? Or maybe we should celebrate the townspeople, none of whom saw fit to help Kane in his greatest hour of need?
Kane was a man who wanted, in a very real sense, to do things differently. He wasn’t interested in being the lone hero that stands up to the oncoming gang and take them out alone. No, he wanted to enlist his community to come to his aid, and he failed. Or maybe they failed him. Either way, while Miller is dead at the film’s conclusion, the end is something of a tragedy. It is the failure of a community to be communal. It is the sad portrayal of a man who is forced to stand up alone in the face of evil. The working men of the town weren’t of help to him. His friends weren’t of help to him. And maybe most damning of all, the church was of no help to him. Oh, they all had great reasons, or so they say. The question we are left to ponder in the subdued moments of the film’s conclusion is a version of what poor old Herb (the only man willing enough to come to the Marshall’s office) says to Kane just before the gunfight: Is it too much to ask a person to give their life in defense of others, even in the face of overwhelming odds? Or maybe to ask it in another way: Is it too much to ask to be completely devoted to one’s community, throwing all of one’s energies and efforts behind it in an effort to help it to be a successful and thriving place?