High Noon

It’s not news that High Noon (1952)high-noon-1
was really about Hollywood’s cowardice during the McCarthy era. John Wayne knew it. He turned down the Gary Cooper role when it was offered to him. The movie was “un-American,” he said in a Playboy interview, bragging about having helped run its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, out of the country.

All of this can be found in an old book by Anthony Holden, Behind the Oscar: Secret History of the Academy Awards (1992) and in Glenn Frankel’s new one, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. You can learn a lot from the Wikipedia entry on the film, too, including the fact that, blacklist parable or not, High Noon was a favorite of presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton.

Gary Cooper’s principled marshal may have originated as a stand-in for the blacklisted Carl Foreman.”There are scenes in the film that are taken from life. The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers,” the screenwriter said. “And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and comes back with his gun and asks, ‘Where are the others?’ And Cooper says, ‘There are no others.’ I became the Cooper character.”

But High Noon has been co-opted by the Right. A recent article in the Conservative Tribune explicitly invoked the film in regard to Trump’s confrontational stance toward Iran. “If Iran wants a showdown with Trump at high noon, he is willing to give them one, and they aren’t going to be too happy once they see what type of six-shooter he’s packing.”

I think Iran is kidding itself if they don’t think there’s a new president in town, Spicer said, sounding just like a classic line from an old Western.

This wouldn’t have surprised James Baldwin. He had a thing about Gary Cooper, going back to his boyhood days watching Westerns. In a clip from a 1965 Cambridge University debate included in the marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin said, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”

Cooper was a foil for him, a symbol devilfindsworkof white innocence (as was Doris Day, and Grace Kelly in High Noon). Interviewed by educator and civil rights activist Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1963, he spoke about the anger of young black college students (they were still called Negroes), who had reached the breaking point.

“You can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises, before something gives,” Baldwin explained. “Those children had to pay a terrible price in discipline, in moral discipline—an interior effort of courage which the country cannot imagine, because it still thinks Gary Cooper, for example, was a man—I mean his image, I have nothing against him, you know, him. . .”

Baldwin may have had nothing personal against Cooper, but he could not stomach the heroic myths that Americans liked to tell about themselves in Westerns like this one.

Shane

Like all the best mythical heroes, Shane has only one name, and it’s no coincidence that Jack Schaefer, the author of the novel Shane, studied Greek and Latin literature in college.Shane3 I’ve read that the movie is routinely used in classics courses, to make the lessons of great epics such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid accessible to undergraduates. Achilles, the hero archetype of Homeric legend, is isolated, set apart by his divine origins. Too perfect for the ordinary world.

“It turns out to be the same for Shane as for Achilles,” Carl A. Rubino tells his students at Hamilton College. “Just as the Greeks need Achilles, Shane’s potent presence and help are necessary if his newfound comrades are to survive the deadly violence represented by the ranchers, whose unbounded and increasingly obsolete way of life they threaten.” Shane too is a loner, unfit by his very nature to rejoin the society of the Wyoming homesteaders after he has killed. “A man is what he is, Bob (the name of the kid in the novel), and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost.”

Schaefer originally published Shane in 1946 as a three-part serial (originally titled “Rider from Nowhere”) in Argosy, a pulp magazine that specialized in tales of adventure: crime, science fiction, Westerns, and, in its early days, romance. Tarzan, Zorro, Fu Manchu and even Dr. Kildare first appeared in its pages.

1946. The year is significant. American GIs have returned from the war and are doing their best to reenter civilian life. The Good War is over, the Allies have won, and the world is once again safe for democracy. But demobilization has brought its own share of problems. The same postwar malaise that was revealed in noir films of the era has crept into the Western. Shane (1953) is not as dark as The Searchers (1956), but its moral message is more ambiguous than the pre-war Western’s. Jack Palance’s hired gun may be truly bad, but Shane is complicated, unknowable.

He cannot get beyond his violent past, the reflexes that make him jumpy, mistrustful. We wait for the final confrontation, when he can kill righteously, save the town. Then we watch him leave. Sure, he’s a legend, but his type is not suited to the day-to-day. Watch him ride off alone.

Shane, Shane. Don’t come back.

Shane still2

The Searchers

For Chris, Peter, Jim, and Max

Watching my dog forge her way through chest-high (to her) snow in our driveway this morning, I was reminded of the scene in The Searchers where John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, forces his horse down a snowy slope in New Mexico (actually Canada, I believe). searchers snowEthan’s adopted nephew, Martin, follows closely behind with the pack horse. He’s narrating this sequence, and we are soon made to share his horror as the pristine snow gives way to trampled ground and a scene of utter devastation.

The two men have come upon the aftermath of a U.S. calvary raid on a Comanche encampment. Dead horses, dead braves, burning teepees. Among the bodies they find is that of “Look,” a Comanche woman who’d taken a liking to Martin and offered herself to him in exchange for a hat. “What did those soldiers have to go and kill her for, Ethan? She never done nobody any harm.”

In fact, we were given the answer to this question just a few scenes earlier. Ethan goes berserk and starts killing buffalo—more meat than he and Martin need for themselves—knocking the younger man to the ground and stealing his rifle when his own ammunition runs out. “Least they won’t feed any Comanche this winter!” he says savagely.

We understand Ethan’s rage. His brother’s family was slaughtered by the Comanche, one niece raped and murdered, the other taken captive. He has no hope, really, of saving the girl: “They’ll keep her to raise as one of their own until . . . till she’s of an age to . . .”  And yet he and Martin will devote five years of their lives to finding her, sheerly for revenge. Ethan has nothing else to live for but vengeance.

Dealing with “savages” has reduced the Texas pioneers to their most primitive elements.  In the strong sun that bakes this barren landscape dry, only a strong hate like Ethan’s survives. Time and time again, his style of frontier justice wins out over the more civilized morality upheld by the settlers. Ethan’s brother’s family gathers around the dining room table, eating supper off of blue willow china. There he sits among them, tightly coiled, venting his racist fury on poor Martin, the baby he rescued after his (white) parents had been massacred by Indians.

“Hell, I could mistake you for a half-breed,” he says, and seems displeased when Martin confirms that he is an eighth Cherokee. One drop of Indian blood is all it takes to taint a white man, and any white woman of an age to . . .  is as good as dead.

The trailer for The Searchers plays up Wayne’s character’s courage, passion, tenderness, and love. This seems to be trading on Wayne’s reputation from earlier pictures. The decency of the character he played in Stagecoach, or his gentlemanly conduct in Sands of Iwo Jima toward a women forced by circumstances to sell her body after her baby’s father was killed.

searchers final shotI’d say John Ford was trading on Wayne’s reputation to encourage audiences in 1950s America to examine their own racial attitudes. In an often-imitated shot at the end of  the picture, Ethan is framed in a doorway, excluded from the warm domestic scene inside a settler’s home. His style of frontier justice is no longer needed and his values are revealed for the anachronism they are.