When I hear the title High Noon, I immediately conjure up an iconic image: the camera drifts down behind the town sheriff, his hand curled over his six-shooter with the cool ease of an unblinking expert. Down the barren road glares our villain, his ammo-belt sashed confidently around his waist and his eyes transfixed on his prey. Two loners, ready to deal death. One seeking justice and the preservation of peace, the other wishing to sow chaos into a quiet Western town. How could there possibly be a more American movie?
And yet, to John Wayne, High Noon was “The most Un-American thing,” he had “ever seen in my entire life.” In a wide-ranging Playboy interview, Wayne made a number of controversial statements, but this one, while hardly the most offensive, seems especially bizarre. Sure, Wayne didn’t like the author of the screenplay, Carl Foreman who, when brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, refused to hand over fellow Communist Party members. But was this enough to prompt Wayne’s hysterical hyperbole?
But there is something deeply subversive about the film. High Noon takes place in a town beset by fear, as four villains threaten the town with violence. Throughout, the sheriff seeks to rally the townsfolk to fight off this threat, but to no avail. The circuit judge skidaddles; others excuse themselves as fathers or husbands. It’s the collective action problem writ large. In the end, the sheriff has no one but himself to fend off the threat.
In a way, this seems blandly similar to any number of other Westerns, like Shane or True Grit, which serve to demonstrate the lawlessness of the frontier and the heroic characters who are civilizations’ only hope. But High Noon ends with a twist. Unlike Shane‘s nostalgic close, with its hero riding off into the sunset, resigned to bringing vigilante justice across the open West, High Noon ends with the sheriff’s rejection of civilization. In disgust at the town’s facade of cooperation and solidarity, he throws his badge of office into the blistering dust. The frontier town does not represent, as it did to Frederick Jackson Turner, the bursting edge of civilization. Rather, it shows civilization’s ultimate frailty: the frontier, rather than demonstrating the fruits of modernity, reveals how little civilization had deviated from savagery.
But this message is only Un-American insofar as one lives in John Wayne’s America, an America which believes that “Our so-called stealing of this country from [American Indians] was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves,” an America which aggrandizes authority figures and bows its head when witch hunts seize the land. Beyond the bounds of this possessed, paranoid America, High Noon can confidently take its place as a sharp critique of Cold War fears, and an endorsement of the ultimate power of the individual.