High Noon: John Wayne Hated Cooper’s Film

Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo” originated in opposition to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which was nominated for several awards, winning Gary Cooper his second Best Actor Oscar. Neither Hawks nor John Wayne liked that Western, which was embraced by film critics. Both director and star felt that the film’s defeatist spirit severely deviated from their idea of what the “Real West” was all about.

Hawks did not think “a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help.” Instead, he claimed, “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 than Hawks’s. He described scenarist Carl Foreman’s plot with great contempt: “In that picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to the church and asks for help and the guys go, ‘Oh well, Oh. gee.’ And the women stand up and say, ‘You’re rats. You’re rats. You’re rats.’ So Cooper goes out alone.”

“It’s the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life,” charged the actor, for the rugged men of the frontier, who had battled the Indians as well as nature, would not be afraid of four villains. Instead, they would have united, as they had united “to make the land habitable.”

Wayne was humiliated by the movie’s last scene, showing Cooper “putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it.” Walking away from his job, as Cooper did, was inconceivable to Wayne’s commitment to responsibility and public office.

Hence, in the revisionist “Rio Bravo,” Wayne’s sheriff refuses all but selected help, and he gets more assistance than he expects. Offered help, he characteristically says, “If they are really good, I’ll take them. If not, I’ll just take care of them.” Another major difference is that Cooper’s marshal was scared and faced a severe inner conflict before deciding to handle the crisis by himself, whereas Wayne’s sheriff is independent and unwaveringly courageous. In contrast to Cooper, Wayne plays a superior and self-assured sheriff, one who could easily inspire and rally the men around his leadership.

See Reviews of High Noon and Rio Bravo