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Darkness at High Noon: the UnAmericanism of an American Icon

posted at 9:02 pm on September 22, 2009 by

A comment to the previous blogpost, That Big Ol’ NEA Scandal… Just Déjà Vu-Du, has taken issue with my characterization of the seminal film High Noon as a deeply unAmerican, even anti-American movie that slanders the American character… at a time when the only form of unAmericanism that was acceptable to the intelligensia in the United States was Communism — meaning Stalinism, as Josef “Uncle Joe” Stalin didn’t die until 1953, at the ripe old age of 74 (evidently, somebody down there liked him).

I noted to the commenter that this was a deep enough question that it couldn’t be answered in the comments section but required a follow-up blogpost. In the process, I hope to demonstrate how to “read” the moral character of a movie… which is a completely different process than simply deciding if it was well crafted.

Like nearly everybody else, I like the movie High Noon. I’ve seen it maybe half a dozen times. It’s well written, well acted, lots of tension. But we must distinguish between liking a movie and approving its message (something neocon Michael Medved never seems able to do). By the same criteria above, I like Triumph of the Will; but I’m repelled by its cosmically evil Nazi message.

This is how I feel about the much subtler, but nevertheless morally corrupted and evil movie High Noon: I admire its artistry but am appalled by its vicious anti-American message.

There is a two-pronged test for art that I read somewhere; it boils down to asking two questions:

  1. What was the artist trying to do?
  2. Did he do it?

But I’ve always believed that a third question must be asked, one that is more important than the other two:

  1. Was it worth doing?

There is no question that all the films I mentioned in the previous post pass the two-prong test: They all set about doing something and actually pull it off. They are all artistic successes — unless you apply the third test as well; that’s where they break down.

One final caveat: In deference to one of the most famous penitents of Communism, Arthur Koestler, I titled this post Darkness at High Noon.

Before publishing, however, I discovered that CNN had already used that title… but in an Orwellian (or perhaps Dickensian) twist of fate, they used it for a documentary defending Carl Foreman, who wrote the screenplay to High Noon! Indeed, the love-letter to Foreman draws the same parallels to High Noon that I draw myself: that Marshal Will Kane represents Foreman himself and all others who continued to spit defiance at the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) until the bitter end; and that Frank Miller and his mob represent HUAC. (Foreman himself maintained this was what he had in mind.)

The irony, of course, is that Koestler wrote his novel Darkness at Noon two years after quitting the Party (even before the Hitler-Stalin Pact); and the novel is a powerful attack on Communism. It dramatizes the last days of an architect of the 1917 revolution, now imprisoned under sentence of death in a Communist country. To hijack that title for a hagiography of Carl Foreman takes chutzpah indeed.

Thus, in order to reclaim the moral clarity of Arthur Koestler (and also because you can’t copyright titles), I shall maintain my title for this blogpost. So there. Now let’s dive into the toughest movie position to defend: The case against High Noon for the crime of anti-Americanism. I won’t bother footnoting; all of this information is readily available and uncontested: Google it. (Heh, I’ve always wanted to say that.)

Background

High Noon was always meant to be a parable against “McCarthyism” — rather, the left-liberal vision of McCarthyism. It was written by Communist Carl Foreman, who was called before HUAC sometime in 1951, while he was actually writing High Noon. In his testimony, he defied the Committee; he admitted to having been a Communist for many years, but he claimed he had become “disillusioned” with it some ten or so years earlier (1942? 1941?). He claimed to have quit, but I don’t recall him offering any evidence for this other than his bare claim.

He also refused to name names.

It actually makes a difference when exactly he left the Party, if indeed he ever did; because if he stuck around from 1939 to 1941, then that means he maintained Party discipline even during the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when his beloved Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. I consider anyone who remained in the Party through those two flip-flops — or who actually joined while the Commies and the Nazis were allied, like Dalton Trumbo — to be a hard-core Stalinist. It required very nimble mental and moral gymnastics: Before the Pact, Hitler was the devil incarnate; then in 1939, he became the great patriotic ally against decadent Capitalism; and then in 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, he went back to being the focus of all evil.

If a man (or woman) can do that, then he has no moral principles and the conscience of a hyena.

At the time Foreman was writing the screenplay, the “Hollywood Party” was reeling; hearings by HUAC had been in full swing since the late 1940s, and the public was waking up to the viper in its bed.

The Party line during this period was that witnesses before the Committee who had always opposed Communism, such as Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, and George Murphy (who fought against Communist influence in Hollywood when he was president of SAG, as did his protégé Reagan), and who “named names” of Communist ringleaders in Hollywood, were just sniveling cowards who had been threatened and intimidated by the Committee and by its allies who created an informal blacklist of Reds.

(In a twist of wonderful irony, one of the most steadfast anti-Communists in Hollywood was Gary Cooper, who starred as Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead; then just three years later, he played the lead in High Noon! Truly, Coop the Dupe was the man for whom the phrase “useful idiot” was coined.)

Those who fought the Committee had nothing but contempt for the “friendly witnesses;” the Left simply could never accept that courageous people of good will could see Communism as an evil that must be rooted out. But this contempt was nothing compared to the rage against the traitors — those witnesses who had actually been in the Party, had perhaps defied the Committee by refusing to cooperate once, but had since recanted, returned to testify again and name names. Some former fellow travelers also wrote public repudiations of their earlier position.

Humphrey Bogart is the most conspicuous example. He traveled to Washington in 1947 to protest HUAC, as part of the newly formed Committee for the First Amendment, which also included Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, John Huston, and others. There, Bogart railed against the investigations and defended the Hollywood Ten (who were then still eleven, as Bertolt Brecht had not yet fled the country). Bogart insisted the Ten were completely innocent… which is what he and the other liberals in that group had been told by the Left.

But after meeting the Ten (and being harrangued by one of them, doctrinaire Communist John Howard Lawson), Bogie recanted; evidence had by then emerged that the Ten were indeed Stalinists, and that they really did have an ongoing program to insert Communist propaganda into their movies and plays. In his article in Photoplay magazine, “I’m No Communist,” Humphrey Bogart admitted he was duped by the Hollywood Left. It was a serious blow to the cause, as were similar articles by John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, and others.

This must have been much on Foreman’s mind while writing High Noon; he later claimed that he saw himself as Marshal Will Kane, the lone man of integrity standing up to both the sin of commission — the investigations — and the sin of omission, those who, in Foreman’s view, stood idly by out of fear and did nothing to stop HUAC.

This is what was happening on the national stage when Foreman sat down to adapt the short story “the Tin Star,” by John W. Cunningham. I haven’t been able to find the text of Cunningham’s original; I’d love to read it to see how much of the anti-Americanism was his and how much was Foreman’s. My guess is they shared the same low opinion of frontier Americans.

Internal evidence of anti-Americanism

The plot of the movie clearly is an allegory on what a (current or former) Party member would imagine McCarthyism to be like; both Left and Right have agreed on that from the beginning. Villain Frank Miller is coming to town (metaphorically Joseph McCarthy; in practice, the members of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, as McCarthy was a senator, not a member of the House of Reps), having inexplicably been pardoned just before his hanging; he has sworn vengeance on Will Kane (Carl Foreman). Kane tries to rally the townspeople; they agree to help stop Miller (refuse to cooperate with the Committee), but then one by one they chicken out (recant, name names): They’re all too afraid to take a stand against him.

The townsfolk all agree with the marshal (Foreman) that Miller must be stopped; but they’re all worried what might happen to them and their families if they stand up to the bully. Those despicable, cowardly friendly witnesses! Eventually, Kane must take on all the bad guys alone, while the townspeople (our American ancestors) quake in their boots and hide under the bed (from the “nonexistent” Red Menace).

One reason it has always seemed so clearly an allegory, which nearly all political critics accept, is that the plot is historically false to the period in which it’s set. 1900 was the high point of vigilantism in America; it was commonplace for citizens to band together to hunt down criminal suspects. There were not enough lawmen to act as a “police force,” which by then some big cities in the East were hiring; frontiersmen had to take matters into their own hands.

Most middle-aged town citizens in the West in 1900 would have been veterans of the various Indian wars that swept the country after the Civil War, either as regular Army, private scouts working for the Army, local militias, or as members of an ad-hoc posse comitatus that would fight against Indian raiders or raid Indian tribes themselves. Everybody had guns; they were as necessary in that part of the country as water, beef, and coffee. And everybody knew how to use them (hunting probably supplemented nearly everyone’s food supply).

So how in the world could a whole town of such hard-bitten survivors be so afraid of four measley guys? Why wouldn’t they just take care of the problem, one way or another, as they’d been doing all their lives, against both man and beast?

No, it doesn’t fit its time period at all; nor does it fit previous Westerns, where the hero could always round up a posse to help him. But it certainly does fit what liberals and lefties imagined to be the “cowardice” of people during the late forties and early fifties, who refused to stand up to the bully investigators hunting for Communist infiltration of both government and key industries, very much including Hollywood.

Aside from the personal factor, there is also a larger thrust of the movie: It’s a direct frontal assault upon one of the central organizing myths of American culture. In this case, “myth” does not mean an incorrect or invalid belief; it means a belief that underlies Americans’ “sense of self.” The belief in question is that of the rugged individualist.

It’s a truism, believed by and large on both sides of our northern border, that the fundamental difference between America and Canada is this: The American frontier was tamed by cantankerous, antisocial, extremely self-reliant individuals who went west to escape the clutches of the “big government” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — which wouldn’t look very big to us today but loomed large in the eyes of pioneers from Daniel Boone to Davy Crockett to the classic Western period of about 1870 through 1900.

The Canadian frontier was tamed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties.

Far from being a false myth, rugged individualism is a historically accurate depiction of most settlers of the West in that time: They fended for themselves because they had to; they solved their own problems, scratched for their own seed, raised their own food, and defended themselves. They didn’t “call the cops,” because by and large, there were none. (Even today, America is woefully under-policed — by the standards of Europe.)

When one man could not handle a task, he banded together with the smallest number of friends and neighbors to get the job done. Settlers regularly “lit out” from a settlement when they decided it had become “too citified fer fit livin’.” There were always those who welcomed the encroach of civilization, of course; they were the majority. But they came by train, long after those who first walked across the Great Plains, even after those who drove Conestoga wagons.

The Law mosied in later and chased out the remaining rugged individualists.

By 1900, such a sense of self-reliance was firmly established as a critical part of the American character, a major reason it was the age of vigilantism: Locals took care of their own problems, for good or ill. They didn’t yell for the cops to come rescue them.

High Noon depicts weasley, knee-knocking townsmen pleading with one man, Will Kane, to save them; the movie utterly slanders the American character as no other Western had ever done. It caricatures our ancestors as not the self-reliant individualists with a deep sense of honor we have always thought them, but as whiny, hypocritical, cowardly vermin who were too afraid to confront evil — even at odds of twenty-five to one! For Pete’s sake, there must have been at least 100 adult males in Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory, and only four bad guys.

This is character assassination of the entire United States of America, since the Old West is such an integral part of our national heritage.

A big picture’s big picture

This mockery serves not only the narrow agenda of Foreman — in a snit because the country was turning decisively against Communism in 1951-52, which he probably believed could only be explained by cowardice — and the cause of dissing our ancestors, but also the larger agenda of the ComIntern (Communist International front). At the very time Foreman was writing the movie, America was engaged in our first true war against Communism, the first real campaign of the Cold War: defending South Korea from invasion by the Communist North.

In 1951-52, victory was still very much uncertain. North Korea had originally been “communized” by the Soviets towards the end of World War II, just like Eastern Europe; by the early 50s, they were allied with Red China as well.

In January 1951, we — United Nations forces, mostly American — were nearly driven off the Chosen peninsula; but we rallied and battled our way back north of Seoul. By the end of May, we and the North Korean and Chinese forces were stalemated, neither side being able to oust the other and achieve total control of Korea. (We did, however, ultimately achieve our victory conditions of protecting South Korea.)

Foreman must have intensely followed the back and forth, which occured either during or immediately before he began writing the screenplay. Given his extreme political ideology, he probably was rooting for America to lose… as American lefties have done almost ritualistically ever since the end of the last “good war,” when we were allied with the Motherland of Communism. And what could better help “the cause” in Korea than to demoralize the American citizenry and delegitimize the American government?

Some reds from the 1930s used to call themselves “premature anti-fascists;” I maintain that Carl Foreman was a premature Yippie: He unsuccessfully used tactics that would be used to far greater effect just a few years later by the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and other members of the loose leftist coalition of anti-Vietnam War activists.

The final cut

But the consequences of what Foreman tried to bring about in High Noon were dire; in 1952, fascism had already been thoroughly discredited in the United States… which left Communism as the only viable form of anti-Americanism that was acceptable to the intellectual elite. And Communism then still meant Josef Stalin, who had killed tens of millions and was obsessed with infiltrating and overthrowing democracies around the world, including the United States.

By a direct and logical chain of reason then, High Noon was intended to achieve the following:

  • Vindicate its screenwriter’s (Foreman was also associate producer) stand against HUAC;
  • Brand as cowards all those who thwarted the Party’s radical agenda;
  • Undercut Americans’ sense of themselves as exceptional and different from the corrupt and decadent democracies of Europe, which were toppling to Communism one by one;
  • Fatally damage the morale of American citizens while we were at war with an expansionist Communist dictatorship backed by both the Soviet Union and Red China;
  • Delegitimize our government, which was steadfastly waging that war;
  • And ultimately bring about a Red victory in Korea that would be a stepping stone to the communization of all of Asia.

Draw a loop from Eastern Europe, down around Turkey, the Arab states, around India, south of Indonesia, hooking around the Philippines, encompassing Japan, around Siberia, and back across the north to Eastern Europe; that would likely have been the Communist sphere of influence, had we lost the Korean War.

That would have been significantly larger and more powerful than what historically happened; if Korea were a unified “people’s republic,” I don’t see how Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines could have survived as independent countries, not to mention the British city-state of Hong Kong. Such a military defeat might even have emboldened the ChiComs enough to endanger Australia and New Zealand.

Reds would have given virtually anything to have achieved all that. While I assail Carl Foreman’s vile anti-Americanism, it’s tough not to admire his nerve.

Foreman came close on many of those points, just as his political co-conspirators today try to degrade and smear America anent the war against the Iran/al-Qaeda axis. Fortunately, as strong as was the Hollywood Party in the mid-twentieth century — and the Hollywood Ummah today — its enemies are stronger… but only because we remain vigilant.

That’s my story; the prosecution rests. If anyone wants to mount a defense for the movie’s moral corruption, be my guest.

Cross-posted on Big Lizards

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Comments

A wide-ranging topic, for sure. I don’t see how any film with Grace Kelly in it could be considered a straight “Western” to begin with.

The theme of the lone individual doing what’s right, even when people won’t support him, is always a powerful one. High Noon narrates a tale with that compelling human theme, and the simple story itself is likely to far outlast the political drama that surrounded its production and release.

The joke is really on Foreman, if he was trying to subvert American iconography to make an anti-American point with the script. Americans who treasure the film put their own construction on its moral, and none of them see it as pulling the chain of the HUAC, parlor revolutionaries in Hollywood, or any part of “the establishment.” They see it as an enduring type of moral dilemma for a group of individuals, set against the most familiar landscape in our “tribal” consciousness.

The subversion of Foreman’s own intentions would seem to be complete in the movie’s Hollywood ending. The couple whose marriage is threatened end up alive, together, with the menace to them dispatched through gunfire. It don’t git more ‘Murrican than that.

J.E. Dyer on September 22, 2009 at 10:06 PM

So, who’s going to clear the communists out of Hollywood now? The Marxists have taken over.

NNtrancer on September 22, 2009 at 10:32 PM

I remember as a child our community gathered to watch fireworks and as the throng of families streamed to their wagons a rather impatient driver was pushing through the crowd at an alarming pace, but the fathers joined my own in forming a posse right there and then to put an end to it. I have never understood this movie’s acclaim. It was not worth doing.

FeFe on September 23, 2009 at 3:47 AM

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post. Like everyone I’ve watched High Noon a couple of times because of it’s reputation, but I’ve always found it vaguely disturbing and it left me with a feeling of annoyance more than anything else.

And I had always thought it was because half the time I could never tell if they were using a painted cardboard cutout of Gary Cooper or the real thing.

WWS on September 23, 2009 at 7:36 AM

I never understood the acclaim of High Noon. As westerns go it was dull in a whiny sort of way. It’s another of thoase “critically acclaimed” movies which usually mean it’s a snoozer.

Westerns for me meant the Duke, like El Dorado or Rio Lobo,or any of a dozen more. A non-Duke western I really liked was the Magnificent Seven, although that was a direct stealing from a Japanese movie, and a very good one at that called the Seven Samurai. I liked the modern westerns of Silverado and one of my all time favorite movies is Tombstone.

Jeff from WI on September 23, 2009 at 8:09 AM

the movie utterly slanders the American character as no other Western had ever done.

Uh, no. In most serious situations, when push comes to shove, people will bail, including Americans. However, it only takes one to make a difference.

Blake on September 23, 2009 at 10:10 AM

Westerns for me meant the Duke, like El Dorado or Rio Lobo,or any of a dozen more.

Amen.

Some years ago in USA Today, a movie critic put together his personal “10 best” list of movies by genre, including Westerns. In a follow-up article, he said that leaving El Dorado off his list generated more mail than anything else he had ever written.

Owen Glendower on September 23, 2009 at 11:07 AM

Westerns for me meant the Duke, like El Dorado or Rio Lobo,or any of a dozen more.

Amen.

Some years ago in USA Today, a movie critic put together his personal “10 best” list of movies by genre, including Westerns. In a follow-up article, he said that leaving El Dorado off his list generated more mail than anything else he had ever written.

Owen Glendower on September 23, 2009 at 11:07 AM

It’s my number one favorite Duke flick. I’d guess Rio Lobo, made earlier and much like El Dorado would be second.

Jeff from WI on September 23, 2009 at 3:17 PM

Rio Lobo was not a western, it was burlesque. El Dorado sucked less but it was still simpleminded.

I suppose that if duty, honor, and courage contrasted against cowardice, comfort and self-interest are un-American, then High Noon was un-American. (Or maybe the townspeople were the only Americans and Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, and Katy Jurado played Russians?)

nk on September 23, 2009 at 7:43 PM