If You Don't know, I Can't Tell You
Pajamas Media had a good article yesterday on the re-issue of High Noon on DVD and how, over the years, it has morphed from an allegory about McCarthyism to a story about the importance of standing up to evil.
Mr. Democracy, currently living in Iraq, sent a message concerning how he feels that High Noon has become an allegory for American motivations in foreign policy.
I end up screening High Noon several times a year for people here in
. By coincidence I was showing it yesterday during some downtime at the Governance center. Working in various places across the globe, you run across a lot of non-Americans who think they know what’s what when it comes to Americans and American foreign policy. Iraq
I have always told them that they cannot understand American foreign policy until they watch High Noon.
High Noon is essential for understanding the American psyche and how we see ourselves in the world.
Will Kane is, literally, the Hass-ean “reluctant sheriff.” He stands up to evil because a) he knows that if you run from evil it will only follow you and b) it is what he is sworn to do. Kane has a responsibility that he cannot delegate or discharge to anyone else, and he must live up to it – even when no one else expects him to or frankly, wants him to.
He is surrounded by the talkers, the shirkers, the back stabbers, the fair weather friends and the people of good will who are simply to paralyzed by fear to act or refuse to out of principle (Grace Kelly as Kane’s Quaker wife.) But despite being abandoned by the townspeople he is sworn to protect, Kane still has that responsibility, to stand up to the evil that is coming, with allies if possible, alone if necessary – even in the face of near certain death.
But Kane is not the supremely confident swaggering image of the sheriff projected by figures like John Wayne. Wayne famously hated High Noon because he thought Kane was weak. To
, the true American icon of the old west was the supremely confident, competent and stoic character like Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Wayne
But what makes Will Kane representative of
in the world of talkers, shirkers, back stabbers, et al is precisely the fact that he is insecure. He is frightened. He is frustrated by his inability to recruit anyone to help him. He makes mistakes. One of the great sequences in the movie is when Kane walks through the saloon doors and overhears the bartender taking bets on how long he’ll live after Frank Miller gets into town. Kane walks over to the bartender and cold cocks him. At which point the bartender looks at up him from the floor, holding his jaw and says: America
“You carry a badge and a gun,
. There ain’t no call for that…” Marshall
To which Kane looks at him ruefully, knowing that he has let his anger tarnish him as an upholder of the law and admits:
“You’re right…” and offers the bartender his hand to help him up.
At the climax of the film, there is this magnificent shot of Kane in the middle of the street, looking around, wringing his hands as the noon train’s whistle blows in the distance. The camera cranes upwards from a close up on the frightened Kane to reveal the whole town – totally empty. He is totally alone.
And yet, he must go meet Miller and his gang to defend the town. It is his responsibility. He cannot escape it.
And to my friends who don’t understand, mostly Europeans and Iraqis, I find myself resorting to the words of Kane when his wife asks him why he is doing this.
“If you don’t know, I can’t explain it to you.”
Because to them, there always has to be some ulterior motive, some occulted reason for our actions – some way in which our actions are secretly profiting big business, private individuals, or working towards some grand strategic end on the global chess board. Because that’s the world they live in.
We live in the world of High Noon. We believe that in order to protect the magnificent gains of Enlightenment civilization, evil must be confronted. And for good or for ill, history has placed that heavy burden on us – with allies if possible, alone if necessary.
The defining moment in High Noon is at the very end, after Kane has killed Frank Miller and his gang, after he has saved the town, the townspeople come out and surround him. Kane unpins the tin star from his chest, throws it down into the dirt, and rides off with Grace Kelly.
It is beyond their understanding that, as Americans, our fondest wish is simply to throw our star down into the dirt. If we could, we would simply say “Good luck to you all. We wish you the best. Please don’t bother us.”
But we cannot. Because history has given us the responsibility.
As such, High Noon, which originally was a veiled allegory concerning McCarthyism has completely, in the ensuing years, become a much more “conservative” film. As that article you sent notes, people watching High Noon for the first time today would never make the McCarthy connection. The film works much better as an allegory for
Americaand its place in the world – even if this was not the original intention of the author (although Fred Zinnemann, as a refugee from Europeprobably had perspective on that.)
High Noon should definitely be required viewing for every American high school.