“What ever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type.”
So asks Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, as he laments the state of masculinity at the end of the American Century. The ubiquity of that quote in the years since suggests many a viewer took it at face value, which is funny, since the specific Cooper role that Tony is referencing comes from the western classic High Noon. While Cooper portrays besieged small-town sheriff Will Kane as a man of few words, he’s far from the American ideal of strength. In fact, his increasingly nervy, desperate performance is often cited as helping move the western from its already dark, neurotic, ‘psychological’ era into the full-on revisionism that would define the genre during the second half of the 20th century.
Whether or not Tony’s misread was intentional on the part Sopranos creator David Chase, it’s actually quite fitting. Ever since its release 70 years ago, High Noon has proven one of the slipperiest of films when it comes to squaring what it’s attempting to say about the world with what it actually shows. Things get even more slippery when you look at the numerous films it inspired, both directly and indirectly.
High Noon is one of those movies that, even if you’ve never seen it, you probably know exactly what its about, being that it set the template for so many films that followed. The set-up is as neat and gripping as they come: on the day of his wedding and his retirement, Sheriff Will Kane leans that an outlaw he previously sent to prison has been pardoned and is headed back to town on the noon train, where he’ll be met by three members of his gang and seek to make good on his threats of vengeance. Over the course of the next hour and a half (presented in real time), Kane attempts to round up a posse of townsfolk to meet the threat head-on, only to be rejected by his fellow lawmen, his supposed friends, the town leadership and even his new bride (Grace Kelly). While he does eventually vanquish the threat on his own (with the help of his wife, who eventually comes around to his side), his idealism is fatally wounded, and he rides off only after throwing his badge into the dirt in disgust.
Penned by Carl Foreman, a one-time member of the Communist Party who was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee during production, and who was subsequently blacklisted and forced to move to Britain to find work following his refusal to testify and name names, the film was an obvious statement on the times, not so much the tenets of McCarthyism, but rather the craven cowardice of the American public in the face of it. Despite the controversy surrounding the film—which extended beyond its politics, with many a viewer and critic voicing their ire at the lack of expected action set pieces in favor of dialog-driven emotional drama—it would go on to rack up seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for Cooper, which he won.
Cooper—a staunch conservative who testified before HUAC as a “friendly witness” (although he would later come out against blacklisting)—couldn’t attend the ceremonies due to a scheduling conflict, so he asked his good buddy, John Wayne, to accept the award on his behalf. Wayne gave a very loving tribute to Cooper in his acceptance speech, joking that he was going to give his own agent hell for not getting him the part. But in fact, Wayne—a staunch red baiter and gleeful participant in the HUAC hearings—had been offered the role, turning it down because he recognized its anti-McCarthyite themes. Ever the two-face, Wayne would later declaim it as “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life” and publicly boast about how proud he was to have driven Foreman out of the country.
Wayne’s campaign against High Noon didn’t stop there. Still stewing about it seven years later, he, reteamed with his Red River (1948) director Howard Hawks, whose own antipathy towards Zimmerman’s film stemmed from his disapproval over how it subverted the tropes of the western–”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”–to make a feature-length rebuttal.
Looking back on it all, it was odd stance for both men to take, given that Red River, along with various other of Wayne’s movies–including and especially his magnum opus of three years prior, The Searchers–work just as hard to subvert the figure of the western hero and the American myth of manifest destiny.
Regardless, Rio Bravo does stand in stark contrast to High Noon, the cinematic equivalent of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to Neil Young’s “Alabama”. In it, Wayne plays a small town sheriff who, along with a ragtag group of allies—including Dean Martin’s heartsick drunk, Ricky Nelson’s cocky young sharp shooter, Walter Brenan’s hobbled old coot, and Angie Dickinson’s woman of ill repute (with a heart of gold)—defends the local jailhouse from a wealthy land baron seeking to free his murderous brother from incarceration with the help of dozens of hired guns.
In place of High Noon’s noose-tight narrative, shot in stark black and white and clocking in at 85 minutes, Rio Bravo is a shaggy, baggy ensemble piece painted in technicolor and wrapping up in just under two-and-a-half hours. Unlike Cooper’s Kane, Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance is never in doubt as to the moral or strategic rightness of his choices, and rather than going around begging for help, he’s constantly turning it down when volunteered from his friends, colleagues and civic-minded townsfolk (although he ultimately ends up accepting it). In place of any existentialist drama about man’s utter loneliness in the universe and the failure of societal institutions, Rio Bravo spends its time watching friends vibe out with one another (Quentin Tarantino called it the first “hangout movie”) while simultaneously defending a literal institution.
(About the only thing the two movies have in common are surprisingly progressive—for the time, at least—depictions of Mexican characters, although Katy Jurado’s performance as a local entrepreneur and Kane’s former flame in High Noon is far more interesting than the loyal and likeable Mexican hoteliers in Rio Bravo, who are mostly there for comic relief.)
Yet, for as different as the movies are on the surface, and for as sucessful as Rio Bravo is in and of itself—today it is largely (and rightly) considered the better of the two films—it doesn’t really succeed as a rebuttal to High Noon, at least not politically.
If you were to watch High Noon ignorant of its origins and production history, you couldn’t be blamed for reading it as a staunchly rightwing work, one which feels much more in line with Wayne and especially Hawks’ brand of conservative pessimism. Take away the thematic parallels to McCarthyism and what you’re left with is a testament to the triumph of the individual over the collective, one which depicts human nature as so majorly flawed—inherently weak, craven and greedy—that society requires a strong authoritarian hand to protect it. It repudiates non-violence and pacifism (as represented by Kelly’s Quaker character, who saves the day by killing a man) and makes it clear that the entire ordeal at center is the result of “Northern” judges and politicians being bought off. A speech from Kane’s former mentor on the life of a lawman would feel right at home in any reactionary action movie from the decades that followed:
“It’s a great life. You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again…People got to talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care. They just don’t care.”
Few films have proven as obviously influential as High Noon. The image of Cooper, alone and outnumbered, walking tall on his way towards certain (or so it would seem) doom has been recreated in countless movies, many of them iconic in their own right—everything from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo to Segio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and especially the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (which features the great western character actor Jack Elam, who also has a tiny role in High Noon), to George Miller’s Mad Max—while the basics of its plot and/or real-time mechanics have been recalibrated in the likes of The Border, One False Move, Speed, Cop Land, Nick of Time and many, many more. The film itself is also referenced in everything from Die Hard to Belfast. There are also a number of movies that stand as full-on reimaginings of High Noon–and that’s not even counting the 1980, Elmore Leonard-scripted TV movie sequel High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane.
Don Seigel and Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster police procedural from 1971, Dirty Harry, is an updated version of the story, in which a lone San Francisco police detective has to make a stand against a vicious killer after the effete, ineffectual bureaucracy he serves fails to back him up. That film ends on the same exact note as High Noon, with Harry discarding his badge in disgust after getting the job done. (Fittingly, the politics of the larger Dirty Harry franchise are as muddled as those of High Noon.)
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, you have Peter Hyams’ sci-fi remake Outland (1981), a nakedly leftist critique on capitalist exploitation of labor, which sees Sean Connery step into Cooper’s cowboy (now space) boots, playing an earth marshal assigned to a colony on one of Jupiter’s moons, where a major corporation has leased the rights to a profitable mining operation. When he uncovers a deadly narcotics ring responsible for a number of grisly deaths in the name of worker productivity, he makes a one man stand against the company and their gun thugs.
High Noon would undergo another loose, but obvious, update 5 years after Outland by way Three O’Clock High, which swaps a shootout in the town square for a fist fight in a high school parking lot. Arguably the best of the bunch—and it truly is one of the great underrated teen comedies—it doesn’t really posit any philosophy beyond ‘Don’t be a pussy.’
Given that there would be no Rio Bravo without High Noon, we can also count the various reimaginings of that picture–including two more collaborations between Hawks and Wayne that used pretty much the exact same template, El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1971), as well as John Carpenter’s gnarly exploitation spin, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), its own 2005 remake of the same name, and the even more extreme VFW from 2019—amongst its progeny.
The fact that High Noon could beget films of such disparate political bents is mirrored by the reactions it inspired in individuals and organizations. Despite the script’s Red bonafides, the USSR hated it as much hardline anti-communists Wayne and Hawks, denouncing it for its “glorification of the individual.” Meanwhile, once the second Red Scare died down (but with the Cold War still raging), Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower screened the film several times at the White House during his tenure as President, although not as much as Democrat Bill Clinton. Clinton, who holds High Noon up as his favorite film, screened it 20 times during his eight years in office. Following him, George W. Bush watched it only once, although he did present the movie’s poster to the Japanese prime minister.
Speaking of the movie’s poster, it was reworked by the Polish trade union Solidarity and used, to great success, during that still- communist nation’s reform elections, which took place on the precipice of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
That High Noon could mean so many different things to so many different people speaks to the resonance of the film 70 years on. But it also goes a long way in highlighting how narrow most arguments over the supposedly inherent political nature of art. High Noon is an undeniably political film, but ultimately its ideology is ephemeral, proving no match for its emotive and aesthetic power.
Like Cooper in the film itself, those elements stand alone.
“High Noon” is available for digital rental or purchase.