Saturday, May 29, 2010

The dilemma of High Noon

The story seems to mean different things to different people . . . [Producer Stanley] Kramer, who had worked closely with [Carl] Foreman on the script, said it was about a town that died because no one there had the guts to defend it. Somehow this seemed to be an incomplete explanation . . . I vaguely sensed deeper meanings in it; but only later did it dawn on me that this was not a regular Western myth.1
- Fred Zinnemann, Director

I first watched High Noon in my early twenties. I had just received my degree in Film Studies and was accustomed to looking for "against the grain" readings of popular movies, or, at the very least, to looking at westerns like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence as essays on the diminishing relevance of the traditional Western hero. So I was well prepared to do the following: First, to assume that High Noon had one established popular reading, and Second, to find one counter to it.

It was my preconceived supposition (based upon the bits and pieces I had heard about it already) that High Noon was probably a conservative film, one which advocated confrontation and machismo over reason and an intellectual society. What I saw instead was a refutation of that; I saw the townspeople — many of whom did not seem to object to convict Frank Miller's pending return — letting their marshal know that his outdated code of honor must not interfere with the continuing development of the town. In marshal Will Kane I saw a man who refused to put the safety of the town in front of his own personal grudge with Miller. I agreed, essentially, with the plea made by Hadleyville's mayor (played by Thomas Mitchell), that gunfighting would damage the growing town's reputation, and that Kane should leave at once and take his problems with him. To me, the treatment of Kane was in line with the door shutting on Ethan Edwards or the coffin lid being closed on Tom Doniphon.

Cut to twenty years later.

I recently watched High Noon for the second (then third, fourth, and fifth) time, and my thoughts were very different. This time I felt more sympathy for Kane. He became the target of Miller's revenge while in the service of the town, after all, so why shouldn't the town stand up for him later (much in the same way our government offers secret service protection to former presidents)? And despite the fact that Miller and his gang had been arrested or run out of town, the handful of years since then did not seem sufficient for the people to be able to consider their nascent town free of the troubles of the lawless West. Surely they needed to contribute more than taxes to establishing and preserving a peaceful society.

I also learned, thanks to DVD special features that were not available on the VHS copy I had originally watched, that screenwriter Carl Foreman had meant for High Noon to reflect the oppression of blacklisting in the era of McCarthyism, something he was experiencing at the time. In my subsequent viewings, I could easily see how Kane could represent a blacklisted professional whose friends and colleagues no longer want to have anything to do with him for fear of the consequences (the death of one's Hollywood career being represented by the possibility of physical death in a gunfight). I was pleased to know that such a liberal message could exist in a Western — indeed, be one of its stronger readings.

At the same time, I could very easily see how the movie could be appropriated by the Right. The townspeople could certainly represent stereotypical liberals — intellectuals who would rather debate the issue than take real action (as they do in the church scene), and who feel their problems should be solved by government (one of the citizens feels the politicians "up north" are responsible for Miller's parole, so they should somehow take care of things; another says that Kane is paid to take care of such matters himself).

I was therefore not surprised to learn that the movie has been revered and condemned by conservatives and liberals alike (see High Noon's Wikipedia entry for some interesting examples), nor that among its fans are political leaders of opposing parties, for many of the questions asked by the film concern the relationship between government and citizens:
  1. Who is directly responsible for the welfare of society — the people or its appointed officials?
  2. Do people need to take direct action in society, or is it enough to vote and pay taxes?
  3. How much responsibility does the citizenry have toward its appointed officials?
  4. Where is the line between an appointed official's professional and personal duties?
High Noon endures in part because these questions endure, and because it does not offer definitive answers to any of them.

1Zinnemann, Fred: A Life in the Movies: An Autobiography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992), 96.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Great showdowns: The Tin Star

Early in The Tin Star (1957), bounty hunter Morg Hickman gives some advice to inexperienced sheriff Ben Owens after Owens' near-disastrous attempt to arrest town tough Bart Bogardus: "You walk right up to a man, chances are he won't gun fight. 'Cause at three feet he knows he'll get hurt, maybe killed, even if he draws first." Hickman becomes a reluctant mentor to Owens, teaching him some of the things he learned in his own time as a sheriff and preparing Owens for the inevitable showdown with Bogardus at film's end. "It's that time you wait," he tells Owens, "that split second, that means the difference between missing a man and killing him."

The showdown comes at night, when Bogardus leads a mob to Owens' office to demand the release of two outlaws so they can be hung without trial. Wielding a shotgun, Owens refuses to give up his prisoners and challenges Bogardus. "You're a brave man when you've got 100 better men to back you up," he says. "Why don't you come on and get them by yourself?"

"Put down that gun," replies Bogardus. "I'll tear you apart."

But the dismantling is done instead by Owens, who calls Bogardus on his bluster: "You fight with your mouth and hat." The mob parts, leaving Bogardus standing alone. Owens approaches him, first handing the shotgun to Hickman. "All right, I put down the shotgun, Bogardus. Now tear me apart." Bogardus stares, dumbfounded. Owens slaps him twice in the face. A stunned Bogardus turns, looking for help among the retreating mob but finding none. As Bogardus walks away, ostensibly in humiliation, we know that he is really removing himself to safe gunfighting distance. But we also see that Owens knows this as well — he stands still, hands at the ready, watching Bogardus' every move. As Bogardus turns and fires, Owens waits the split second and shoots — Bogardus falls dead.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Robin Hood, Richard II, and divine appointment

Oscar Isaac as Prince John in Robin Hood (2010)
I was expecting my favorite part of the new Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe Robin Hood to be an opening battle, showing me a new way to imagine medieval warfare, much in the same way Gladiator gave me new thoughts about what a Roman battle may have been like. Instead, what I found most interesting came at the end (spoiler alert), when King John reneges on his promise to sign a bill of equality, citing his divine appointment and claiming that no man should be able to impose limits on his God-given power. This causes an uproar among the attending citizenry, who as far as we know are as God-fearing as any under 12th-century Christendom.

While I am no proper student of theology or English history, I find the relationship between God and king fascinating, particularly when it is at odds with the desires of the king or the people. It is at such moments when this relationship is thrown into doubt, and what is revealed can at best be described as a letting go of tradition for the common good, and at worst as religious or political hypocrisy. Shakespeare examined this problem in Richard II, in which Richard, a seemingly incapable ruler, is deposed by Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. The Bishop of Carlisle objects:

And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judg'd by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not be present?

Among other things, Richard II makes us consider if the notion of divine appointment should be upheld even in times of incompetent leadership. Is Bolingbroke a necessary adjustment to the royal lineage, or is he nothing more than a blasphemous usurper? The answer hinges on one's view of divine appointment, and of how closely Church can be associated with State. As history and fiction have often shown, this can be a very difficult relationship to maintain.