Written by Rudolph Lambert Fernandez
Gary Cooper’s pioneering Western deserves its place in the sun
The year 2021 marks the 120th birth and 60th death anniversary of Gary Cooper who, after some 100 films over four decades, is most remembered for one.
First let’s get the quiz out of the way.
The starring role in a Western was once offered in turn to John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Charlton Heston. All turned it down. Which movie was it?
The movie that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four?
The movie that won four Golden Globes? The same movie that marked Lee Van Cleef’s Hollywood debut, in which he didn’t deliver a single line?
High Noon (1952).
The very utterance conjures up images of the Old West but with a theme that’s as alive today as when it was released.
The story’s been told and re-told a hundred times. If you’re interested in the Cold War theatrics backstory you could do worse than read Glenn Frankel’s book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (Bloomsbury). But you’d do better to watch the movie – without distraction, start to finish.
It may be fun for 21st century audiences to insist ‘tell us the story’.
A more fascinating question though is: what does the story tell us?
High Noon is (it seems sacrilegious to use past tense) about the mother of all confrontations. The greatest of all showdowns. Not between Marshall and outlaw. Not between Sheriff and Indian. Not, as many critics have us believe, an allegorical political fight between communism and democracy. Not a metaphorical fight between civilization and chaos. Not a fight at all.
High Noon is, more than anything else, about a man confronting himself, his fears, his weaknesses, his utter desolation. His discovery that defiant strength sometimes hides beneath seemingly debilitating weakness. That the sensible thing (saving your skin), is seldom the right thing. That the only kind of respect worth fighting for, is self-respect. That respect comes not only from what you did ‘back then’ but also from what you’re doing ‘right here, right now’.
High Noon is also about a woman confronting herself. Her realisation that love is nothing if it isn’t tested. It earns its stripes not amidst the swirl of success but amidst the ruin of rejection. Courage and conviction are central to love – a love that flees both, isn’t love in the first place.
That’s what makes High Noon endure beyond its age, rise above its genre.
Contemporary audiences spoiled by colour, hi-def, high-octane direction, high-tech cinematography, editing, sound and polished acting may well wince at the movie’s relatively bare look and feel. But it struggled with the tools of its day to tell a story that would outlive it. We must approach it with the patience and understanding it deserves. The way we’d approach a 92-year old lady or a two-year old boy. We must make the effort to learn from it, to look beyond its apparent dribbling.
High Noon remains the first of the major Westerns to turn its back on scripts preoccupied with guns, girls and gold. Some of the most memorable 1950s and 60s Westerns – The Searchers, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 3:10 to Yuma, Last Train from Gun Hill, Magnificent Seven, True Grit – merely followed High Noon’s anthem of defending the defenceless, sacrificing self-interest for a greater good.
High Noon spoke compellingly to that generation then. It speaks as hauntingly to ours now. It will speak as eloquently to generations to come. Its lead actor – man’s man Gary Cooper – plays the fearful, conflicted, needy protagonist Will Kane. Four decades before Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny (Unforgiven). Like Cooper, Eastwood would play macho-lead for years before he played more flawed protagonists – heroes for their moral, not physical feats.
Critics may still pan the casting of 50-year old Cooper opposite 23-year old Grace Kelly but as the odds stack up against him, their age differential is the least of his worries. The 5’6” petite Quaker bride looks up at her 6’3” gangly groom and snaps: ‘You don’t have to be a hero, not for me’. He barks back ‘I’m not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you’re crazy!’
In those closing scenes with Cooper left alone to face near-certain death before vengeful outlaws, the camera rises to brood upon a town that’s washed its hands off his predicament. The soaring lens at once mocking his alienation and willing him to rise above himself. In one of Hollywood’s most poignant moments a forlorn Cooper nervously tugs at his belt, wipes the sweat off his brow and with one last despairingly hopeful look at the deserted streets, trudges toward his fate – an armed gang riding in on the noon train.
In one of the most courageous script-twists for that era the town’s lawman is rescued not by archetypal hired-guns, powerful ranchers or strongmen but by a woman. A deeply spiritual woman, who abhors violence. As he battles alone, his bride who first deserts him, turns back, then defends him in that final gunfight.
Producer Stanley Kramer, Director Fred Zinnemann, Screenwriter Carl Foreman and Music composer-conductor Dmitri Tiomkin, in their own way, stamped their identities on a film that shines even after repeated viewing. 2021 also marks Kramer’s 20th death anniversary. He produced and directed some of the best movies of that era – The Defiant Ones, Judgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and produced The Wild One and Death of a Salesman.
Katy Jurado, the first Latin American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress in Broken Lance) won her Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for High Noon. Fittingly, Jurado as Helen Ramirez, one-time lover of both villain and hero has some of the best lines.
It’s Helen who says with clarity: You’re a good-looking boy, you’ve big broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.
It’s Helen who talks courage into a fleeing Amy: I don’t understand you. If Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this. I’d get a gun. I’d fight!
Amy taunts her: Why don’t you?
Helen taunts her right back: He’s not my man. He’s yours!
And it’s Helen who warns: Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody’s gonna do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too.
Of the hundred or so movies he acted in, over four decades from the 1920s to the 1960s, Gary Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor on five occasions and won twice – one for High Noon. He beat some heavies that year – Marlon Brando (for Viva Zapata!), Kirk Douglas (for The Bad and the Beautiful) and Alec Guinness (for The Lavender Hill Mob).
The 25th Academy Awards 1953 saw some pretty sharp 1952 contenders for Best Picture alongside High Noon: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Pandro S. Berman’s Ivanhoe, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, John Ford’s The Quiet Man. DeMille’s movie won but High Noon should have. It isn’t merely a ‘Western’. It isn’t merely an American movie about American stories. It’s a universal movie about universal values and choices. It isn’t even a 1950s movie but a movie for all ages.
Gary Cooper’s filmography is overwhelmingly black-and-white. High Noon was no different. As if by extension, his character Will Kane demonstrates that when it comes to choosing between good and bad, life isn’t technicolour. It isn’t even grey. It’s, well, simpler. Cooper seems to say that the greatest victory is one in which we stubbornly choose what’s doing what’s right over self-preservation or meek submission to overwhelming power. Each age, Cooper seems to say, will make that choice harder by trying to redefine ‘what’s right’. It’s up to us to see through that.
Cooper carried that rather simple black-and-white moral compass late into his “colour” career – Man of the West, The Wreck of the Mary Deare, They Came to Cordura, The Hanging Tree. But in no other other movie is his morality as utterly convincing as in High Noon. There’s a point when you no longer see Will Kane but Cooper himself. And he seems to say, courage isn’t the absence of self-doubt but the refusal to stop wrestling with that same self-doubt. So he wrestles, with no more certainty than the fact that he must wrestle. He isn’t so much standing his ground as refusing to flee. He isn’t scared about giving up or giving in because his new bride and the whole damn town are watching him. He’s terrified because he’s watching himself.
In one scene Judge Percy laments: This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.
Few characters in movie history have been more wrong.
High Noon (1952) Trailer
High Noon is currently streaming on Prime Video
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.