High Noon (1952): Senator McCarthy’s Witch-hunting, Hollywood in 1950s, and Politics

Though heralded at the time as a classic in the Western genre, “High Noon” looks today more schematic and self-conscious than such vintage Westerns as “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers,” or “Rio Bravo.” With the McCarthy era over, the tensions and vital undercurrents in the movie are diminished. Indeed, “High Noon” used its hero as a mouthpiece for liberal pieties and civic sermons, which reflected the politics of its filmmakers: producer Stanley Kramer, screenwriter Carl Foreman, and director Zinnemann. Known for his Republican leanings, Cooper was probably unaware at the time of the film’s political message.

Over the years, “High Noon” has been subjected to various ideological interpretations. Some critics see the film as a symbolic allegory about American foreign policy during the Korean War, propagating the idea that war, under certain circumstances, is both moral and inevitable. Marshal Kane wants to maintain peace, after cleaning up the town five years before (the Second World War), but, reluctantly, he has to face a new aggression (the Korean War). According to this reading, the Quaker wife stands in for American pacifists and isolationists, though she too later realizes the importance of supporting her husband.

The critic Philip French regards the film as a liberal statement, the archetypal Kennedy Western, standing in contrast to Rio Bravo, which is the archetypal Barry Goldwater Western. High Noon is thus seen as a parable about a Marshal, who stands alone to defend his moral principles in the McCarthy era. The townsfolk, who refuse to help Kane and desert him, are viewed as the masses, afraid to stand for their civil rights. The only members willing to help Kane are an old crippled man, wearing an eye patch, and an excitable teenager.

No matter what perspective one takes, there’s no doubt that High Noon deals with such issues as civic responsibility, active involvement in social causes, and heroic behavior during crises–all problems loaded with political overtones in the early 1950s. Its cynical commentary on the masses’ fear of involvement in controversial issues proved to be prophetic during McCarthy’s political witch hunting. Arguing that people should have nothing but contempt for the cowardice of ordinary folks, the film also spoke for the necessity of joint action, if enemies are to be defeated.

As mentioned, “Rio Bravo” originated in opposition to “High Noon,” which neither John Wayne nor Hawks liked, feeling that its spirit deviated from the “Real West” and the simplicity of the Western format. Hawks didn’t think “a good sheriff was going to run around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help.” Instead, “a good sheriff would turn around and say, ‘How good are you Are you good enough to take the best they’ve got'”

Wayne’s objections to the film were even stronger, describing its plot as “defeatist” and “the most un-American thing.” According to the star, the rugged men of the frontier, who had battled the Indians and nature, would not be afraid of four villains. Instead, they would unite “to make the land habitable.” Wayne was particularly offended by the last scene, which shows Cooper putting the marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it, an image later borrowed by Don Siegel for the ending of Dirty Harry. Wayne never regretted having forced Foreman into exile in England, where he worked underground using a pseudonym. Asked, what gave him the right to do so Wayne said, “I thought he’d hurt Coop’s reputation a great deal.”

Wayne’s motto, “I am not a man of words or nuances,” summed up his objection to High Noon, which stressed “psychological insights” and “introverted and sensitive” heroes. “Real cowboys,” claimed Wayne, “didn’t have mental problems, and didn’t have time for this couch-work.” In the older Westerns, sheriffs were men of action and few words: They didn’t ponder or subject their tortured souls to self-examination the way Kane did.

But in the 1950s, the heroic, idealized John Ford-John Wayne Western were gradually usurped by “adult” (mature is the word then used) Westerns. “High Noon” followed in the footsteps of Henry King’s “The Gunfighter,” promoting a sub-genre that was concerned with the psychology of characters, their inner conflicts and moral dilemmas.

And “High Noon” itself led to a cycle of socially-conscious Westerns and contemporary dramas, such as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” a modern yarn that was actually Western in-disguise, subordinating the traditional action elements to the development of “serious” themes, specifically, the tension between strong individual protagonists and the mass-oriented and impersonal American society. All of a sudden Westerns discovered Freudian psychology, quickly adopting such concepts as libido, superego, and social conscience.

“High Noon” also indicated the vast changes in Hollywood’s conception of the law and its representatives. Marshals and sheriffs underwent a transformation that both humanized and weakened them. Psychological, issue-oriented movies such as High Noon slowed down Westerns not only in their plot, but also in their pacing.