High noon for Europe.

Feb. 27 2002 3:02 PM

High Noon for Europe

In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, former CIA Director James Woolsey argued that if the war on the axis of evil made Europeans queasy, they should "go on home to their kids" while the Unites States fought it alone. Woolsey was alluding to Fred Zinnemann's 1952 Western High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. As the film opens, Tex Ritter sings, of Cooper's character Will Kane, the marshal of Hadleyville: "If I'm a man, I must be brave/ I must meet that deadly killer/ Or lie a coward in my grave." Kane cannot convince the men of the town to take on a vengeful gang, the Miller brothers, who have recently been released from jail and are on their way back to Hadleyville, intending to kill him and resume their reign of terror. When even the most high-minded of the town's citizens, Kane's former deputy, refuses to help, Kane turns to him and says, witheringly, "Go on home to your kids, Herb."

Advertisement

High noon arrives, the gang comes to town, and the fight begins. Cooper doesn't kill them all. His wife, Grace Kelly, kills the penultimate man (and saves Cooper's life). The citizens come out of their houses to thank their hero, but Kane turns in disgust and rides out of town forever after dropping his marshal's badge in the dust. In Woolsey's analogy, the townsfolk are the cowardly Europeans, while America is the virtuous and handsome Kane. Woolsey pre-empts probable European assertions that cowboys are impulsive and unsophisticated, just as the United States is in world affairs. "Cowboys are normal people—some are impulsive, some are loners, some are neither. But what [the Europeans] are rejecting is not a modern-day cowboy, but rather a modern-day marshal, and marshals are different. They and their equivalents, such as GIs, have chosen to live a life of protecting others, whatever it takes. That's not being impulsive—it's deciding to be a shepherd instead of a sheep."

Woolsey's choice of High Noon to characterise George Bush's war on terror is an odd one, however, when one considers the reaction to the film when it first appeared. The movie was admired by American liberals but loathed by conservatives. John Wayne, a ferocious conservative, was disgusted by Zinnemann's film. "It's the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ole Coop[er] putting the United States marshal's badge under his foot and stepping on it." The director Howard Hawk agreed: "I didn't like the picture. I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and, finally, his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn't my idea of a good Western sheriff." Seven years later, Hawks and Wayne made Rio Bravo, a conservative answer to High Noon.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wayne was head of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals—the Hollywood group that blacklisted suspected Communists sympathizers. More treacherously, the alliance gave the names of such people to the FBI, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). One of the many people blacklisted was High Noon's writer, Carl Foreman, who went to live in Europe. "I'll never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country," Wayne told Michael Parkinson in 1974. For Foreman, High Noon "was about Hollywood, and no other place other than Hollywood." The people of Hadleyville represented the actors who had thrown in their lot with McCarthy, while McCarthy and his henchmen were the Miller gang. Kane and his wife represented the Hollywood people prepared to stand up to the thugs at HUAC. They would refuse to hand over the names of friends and colleagues suspected of once being Communists and hoped that American common sense and decency would prevail over the madness of the anti-Communist crusade.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?