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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

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 Iraq. 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.

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 Wayne, 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.

But what makes Will Kane representative of America 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:

“You carry a badge and a gun, Marshall. There ain’t no call for that…”

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.

This is America.

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 America and its place in the world – even if this was not the original intention of the author (although Fred Zinnemann, as a refugee from Europe probably had perspective on that.)

High Noon should definitely be required viewing for every American high school.

Will Kane - exemplar to the world...


At Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 10:32:00 PM EDT, Blogger Elisson said...

A brilliant post...and a thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

At Thursday, June 12, 2008 at 11:50:00 AM EDT, Blogger GUYK said...


At Thursday, June 12, 2008 at 3:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Claudia in Canada said...

Thank you! It's so exactly as I see USA.
Not wanting to be in Iraq, but having to. And willing to do the job, even if you stand alone. And more than ready to return home when the world is safe.

In this hour of danger, who else could defend the free world?

I thank USA from the bottom of my heart for being in Iraq. I'm glad that we're in Afghanistan with you. I wish we would do more.

At Thursday, June 12, 2008 at 4:20:00 PM EDT, Blogger kerrcarto said...

Bravo! Best post I have read from anywhere in awhile.

At Monday, June 16, 2008 at 7:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger Dash said...

Great post!

At Saturday, July 25, 2009 at 3:19:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post really stinks. You have more in common with the McCarthist scumbags and their cowardly centrist liberal apologists, against which this film was directed, than the original makers of the film, most of whom had to flee to Europe because of the likes of you ever so wonderful imperialists. Get a backbone.

At Saturday, July 25, 2009 at 3:31:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Iraq came over here ostensibly to "free" us from our Republican tyrants by "shocking and awing" us with tons of white phosphorus raining down on our cities, killing hundreds of thousands, and then occupying those cities, taking our oil for their corporations while assuring us that it was all in our interest--well, I wonder, Claudia if you would feel the same way.

If the shoe was on the other foot, in other words.

At Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 8:48:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who's really alone, fighting the good fight against tyranny and injustice right now, begging for a much deserved solidarity, just like Will Kane? Is it the imperialists and their silly flag waving dupes? Or is it the antiwar activists and socialists, bedeviled once again by quisling liberals who paralyze the movement in order to get out the vote for corporate lackey Obama?

From "Monster," by Steppenwolf: Words and music by John Kay, Jerry Edmonton, Nick St. Nicholas and Larry Byrom:

Our cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is stranglin' the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can't understand
We don't know how to mind our own business
'Cause the whole worlds got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who's the winner
We can't pay the cost
'Cause there's a monster on the loose
It's got our heads into a noose
And it just sits there watching...
America where are you now?
Don't you care about your sons and daughters?
Don't you know we need you now


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