Every so often I get it into my head to watch some of the classic Westerns that I've never seen, of which there are a multitude.
The latest instance took the form of High Noon arriving from Netflix the other day. (I wrote this entry on May 13, but somehow didn't post it until now.) It was shorter than the other Netflix movies I had out, and I was in the mood for a movie, so I figured why not.
Here's the plot of High Noon as I believed it to be before I watched the movie:
There's a good guy (played by John Wayne) and a bad guy (played by some unknown with a scar or otherwise damaged face). They probably wear a white hat and a black hat, respectively. Various generic Westerny incidents occur, leading the white hat to decide he needs to keep the black hat from doing any more harm. On a dusty and otherwise deserted street in a small town in the Old West, the climax of the movie occurs: white hat and black hat stand facing each other, each waiting for the other to draw. The clock on the church steeple tolls out twelve mournful bongs. (
That's the stoner version of a classic courtroom drama.) At the stroke of noon, the black hat's hand drops to his gun; in one smooth motion, he draws and fires, but the white hat is too fast for him; he, too, has drawn and fired. The black hat falls dead to the ground. The white hat mounts his horse and moseys away, to the grateful cheers of the townsfolk.
I have no idea where I picked up the notion that that was this movie's plot, but I was pretty sure of it; most especially of the part about the two-man gun duel at the stroke of noon.
But it turns out that I was wrong in almost every particular.
First of all, it's Gary Cooper who plays the sheriff, not John Wayne. This is actually more significant an error than it initially seemed: Wayne was apparently strongly opposed to the movie, on the grounds that it was un-American. Wayne, you see, was in favor of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the movie can be seen as an allegory; it was written by Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted for refusing to give HUAC the names of any Communists.
Anyway: Cooper, not Wayne. (There are some other pretty big names in the cast, too: Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Morgan (Col. Potter from MASH), et alia.)
My second-biggest error is that the high noon gun duel I'd envisioned does not in fact take place in this movie. The train with the bad guy on it arrives at noon; it's thus after noon when the shooting starts, and there is no stand-facing-each-other slow duel, just a messy running gun battle (which starts out as four against one) through the streets.
There was plenty else that I didn't expect in this movie. For example, I had no idea that a Quaker would figure prominently in it.
In fact, that Quaker, Amy (Sheriff Will Kane's new wife), plays a fascinating part in the movie. She has several spirited arguments with Will over the fact that he's refusing to give up his violent life, despite having promised her he would:
Will: Sure I know how you feel.
Amy: But you're doing it just the same.
And her struggle—deciding whether to leave, deciding whether her principles and her religion outweigh her husband's survival—is a compelling one; in some ways, it seems to me, the movie is at least as much about her story as about his, even though we see much less of her onscreen and we learn much less about her backstory and character.
To me, the center around which much the movie revolves is the great scene between Amy and Helen Ramirez (Will's ex-lover!), especially this exchange:
Helen: What kind of woman are you? How can you leave him like this? Does the sound of guns frighten you that much?
Amy: No, Mrs. Ramirez. I've heard guns. My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side, but that didn't help them any when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That's when I became a Quaker. I don't care who's right or who's wrong—there's got to be some better way for people to live!
And in some ways, this movie (like a lot of Westerns, I think) is about the tension between civilization and the frontier; about the end of the reign of lawless gunslingers, and the beginning of the reign of peace and law, and about what has to be sacrificed to make that transition, and whether it's worth it.
At the same time, the movie is also about fear. The townsfolk are more scared of death than they are of the lawless reign that they know is coming. They're too frightened to help their sheriff even though they know in their hearts that he's right. And he stays to get the job done even though he's afraid.
I had a hard time with that aspect of the movie, actually. Usually I'm a sucker for that “keep going despite your fear” thing in fiction; but in this case, it seemed to be tied up in the usual Western business about What It Is To Be A Man, which is something I just can't sympathize with. I've never had much interest in being the kind of Man that a lot of Westerns seem to insist all men should be. So instead of seeing Will's attitude as noble but doomed, I saw it as kind of inexplicable. They did try to justify it in practical terms in various ways; I agree that constantly looking over your shoulder in fear that your enemy will find you and kill you is no way to live. But I think at the core of it, Will's actions were predicated on his belief that running away is cowardly no matter how justified it is; that Being A Man requires one to stand and face one's enemies, even if they outnumber you and intend to kill you and aren't playing by the same rules you are. There are contexts in which I might see that as nobly tragic, but this wasn't one of them.
Anyway, so all that made me particularly happy that Amy's part of the story was so interesting, because I found her nobly doomed character arc more compelling than Will's. I guessed ahead of time more or less where she was headed, and my sympathies lay with her. She's so devastated by the climax that I'm not convinced that she and Will are going to live happily ever after; they ride out of town silently, and I'm not sure their marriage can survive what they've just been through. I kind of feel like we were supposed to feel at least a little bit triumphant at the end, but I felt more defeated.
Interesting bit I came across in an online article after I watched the movie:
[In a Western, if] there is a woman [the hero] loves... he finds it impossible to explain to her that there is no point in being “against” [killing and being killed]: they belong to his world... In Western movies, men have the deeper wisdom and the women are children.
—Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: the Westerner,” in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974, p. 403
Which is kind of the model that this movie follows, except that Amy has a solid moral reason behind her objections, and it's only through her betrayal of her beliefs that Will survives.
Speaking of women, the main other thing I wanted to say about this movie is that I was totally not expecting a character like Helen Ramirez, played by Katy Jurado, who, for this role, became the first Latina to be nominated for an Oscar. Mrs. Ramirez apparently owns the local saloon. She's had three lovers that we know of, including both the hero and the villain. She's a Latina. The movie doesn't quite pass the Bechdel test, as Helen and Amy's discussion is primarily about Will, but it comes surprisingly close.
I like this comment about her from Meir Ribalow of Fordham University, apparently from a documentary about High Noon:
In most westerns, the Mexican woman, the so-called dark lady, takes a bullet at the end so the hero can ride off with the blond-haired virgin. Not in High Noon. Katy Jurado's Helen Ramirez is always in charge. She even has a boy-toy, talk about being ahead of its time. Helen Ramirez doesn't die. In the end, she rides off!
Anyway. For a variety of reasons, I can't say I loved this movie. But I liked it rather more than I was expecting to, and it surprised me in several ways.