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Let's Reminisce: High Noon has political edge
By Jerry Lincecum
May 10, 2017
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Sometimes a classic movie is more than just an excellent example of its genre.  That is certainly the case for High Noon, the 1952 Western that will be screened and discussed by the Sherman Classic Movie Group on Wednesday evening at 6:00 p.m. in the Covenant Community Center, 322 W. Pecan (the public is invited).  The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won four, as well as four Golden Globe Awards.  It brought Gary Cooper his second Oscar and his first Golden Globe.

In a new book entitled High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, Glenn Frankel shows how the creation, production and release of this great Western movie was caught up in political controversy that deserves to be remembered and discussed.

As an indication of its high standing, High Noon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989, the NFR's very first year of existence.  Frankel’s book not only does a good job of telling us why the film is outstanding.  He also carried out the extensive research necessary to explain the complicated politics behind it.

As in many Westerns, the plot revolves around a town marshal, Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper), who must face a gang of killers.  His efforts to round up a posse are met with fear and hostility.  Ultimately he is torn between his sense of duty and personal integrity on the one hand and love for his new bride (a Quaker and a pacifist, played by Grace Kelly), who wants him to leave town and start a new life.  She gives him a deadline: “I am leaving on the noon train.”

While writing the screenplay for High Noon, Carl Foreman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), as part of its heavy-handed investigation into what it claimed was Communist propaganda and influence in the Hollywood film industry.  Ten years earlier a youthful Foreman was a member of the Communist Party, but he had grown disillusioned and quit.  HUAC pressed him to identify fellow members or anyone he suspected of current membership, but he refused. As a result, he was labeled an “uncooperative witness” by the committee and “blacklisted” by all of the studio bosses.  High Noon was his last Hollywood film and in order to keep working he had to move to Britain.

Foreman added an extra layer of meaning to High Noon, as an allegory about the dangers of the “Red Scare” and the blacklisting of innocent people.  He said, “I became the Gary Cooper character,” whose integrity made him stand alone against murderous gunmen (the HUAC), when those who should have backed him were afraid. 

John Wayne was offered the lead role in this movie but turned it down because he saw Foreman's script as an obvious parable against blacklisting, which he actively supported. Ironically, Gary Cooper was working in Europe at the time he was to receive the Academy Award for his performance as Will Kane, and he persuaded Wayne to accept the Oscar on his behalf.

Frankel’s book points out one more political kudo for this film. In Poland’s first democratic election in 1989, the Solidarity party used the image of Gary Cooper as Will Kane walking down the street to face his attackers in its main campaign poster, symbolizing courage in the face of overwhelming odds.  Foreman must have felt vindicated.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now leads discussions for the classic film group at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sherman on the second Wednesday of every month.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com.