Premiere of Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The release of High Noon marked a turning point in the history of the Western, as it shattered established conventions of the genre in order to redefine them. The movie—a high point in the career of leading man Gary Cooper—also served as a commentary on the McCarthy-era climate of Hollywood in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Summary of Event

High Noon (1952) is one of the most popular films in the history of American cinema. It has been shown in the screening room at the White House more than any other film. Furthermore, the term “high noon” has become a part of American lexicon, representing the moment of confrontation in which one faces down an enemy. If the Western is among the most indigenous types of American film, then High Noon is certainly one of the most well-known examples of this genre. High Noon (Zinnemann) Westerns (cinema) Hollywood studio system;Westerns [kw]Premier of High Noon (July 24, 1952) [kw]High Noon, Premier of (July 24, 1952) High Noon (Zinnemann) Westerns (cinema) Hollywood studio system;Westerns [g]North America;July 24, 1952: Premier of High Noon[03830] [g]United States;July 24, 1952: Premier of High Noon[03830] [c]Motion pictures and video;July 24, 1952: Premier of High Noon[03830] Zinnemann, Fred Cooper, Gary Kelly, Grace Foreman, Carl Wayne, John

The film was popular from its premiere on July 24, 1952. Some reviewers even declared then that it was the best Western ever made. It revived the career of Western icon Gary Cooper and earned $18 million worldwide within six months of its release. Though High Noon was nominated for seven Oscars and was widely predicted to win the coveted Best Picture Award, it would win in only four categories: Best Film Editing, Academy Awards;Best Film Editing Best Song, Academy Awards;Best Song Best Score, Academy Awards;Best Score and Best Actor Academy Awards;Best Actor (for Gary Cooper as Will Kane). The Academy Award for Best Picture Academy Awards;Best Picture that year went to The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), which was also Hollywood’s biggest moneymaker of the year. High Noon was eighth in revenue.

Despite its success, High Noon had many critics from the start. Most of these critics fell into two groups: those who objected to the way in which the film altered the classic Western formula and those who objected to its politics. In one form or another, Westerns began as soon as westward migration began changing the shape and experience of the United States. West of the thirteen original American colonies were wild animals, unknown tribes of Native Americans, and little or no law. It was no wonder that tales about these territories began to fascinate those in the east. However, as the country expanded and what had been the West became the East and then the Midwest, the Western genre matured and moved from the dime novel format to become a staple in early cinema. It developed certain recognizable characteristics. In most cases, the Western was a story of civilization marching westward, taming lawlessness and chaos as it went.

The cinematic Western often focused on law-and-order issues. One of the most familiar patterns was the “town tamer.” Derived in many respects from participants in the historical shootout at the O.K. Corral O.K. Corral[OK Corral] in 1881, the lawman in the classic Western always faced down the outlaw to keep his town from descending into chaos. Usually the shoot-out between the two was public, with the lawman (sometimes with the help of his deputies) confronting the enemy, and usually the lawman worked with the town’s support. He supported the interests of the community.

In reality, the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral was not so neat and clean as the Westerns that descended from it. When Wyatt Earp Earp, Wyatt , his brothers, and Doc Holliday Holliday, Doc faced down the Cowboy gang Cowboy gang in the vacant lot next to the O.K. Corral, roughly half the town of Tombstone was on the side of the Cowboys. In fact, there was so much controversy over the manner in which the Earps and Holliday opened fire that they were all tried for murder. Their acquittal was a national news item.

In High Noon, director Fred Zinnemann and screenwriter Carl Foreman altered the classic pattern of the Western in several notable ways. First, Marshall Will Kane’s confrontation with the outlaws is hardly face-to-face. A newly married man who has given up his badge to move away and become a storekeeper, Kane has no legal responsibility to stay and face the group that has promised to kill him and make trouble for the town. A new marshal will be coming to town in a day, and the mayor and others at his wedding simply tell Kane to leave rather than face the outlaws. Kane follows their advice and that of his Quaker bride (a pacifist), riding away before the killers arrive.

When he turns around and comes back to confront the outlaws, Kane is acting on what he believes to be his moral responsibility to face trouble and protect a town that is clearly a part of his past. Furthermore, when Kane gets back to town, he is rattled. Sweat covers his face, he has fear in his eyes, and he even writes his last will and testament in anticipation of being killed in the approaching gunfight. All of these elements of the plot diverge from the classic “town tamer” pattern, which features a lawman with clear responsibilities and no hesitation in facing those who threaten civilization. Furthermore, reflecting the unstoppable force of civilization, the “town tamer” has no doubt that he will succeed. He does not sweat, nor does he waver.

In addition to their protagonist, Zinnermann and Foreman created a town that also altered the pattern of the classic Western. The people of Hadleyville do not stand behind their marshal, despite his request for help. The judge gives up and leaves, telling Kane that Hadleyville is hardly worth saving. He takes with him the American flag that decorates the wall of the makeshift courthouse. The church’s parishioners ultimately decide to let Marshal Kane go it alone. The minister objects to violence, and other members of the parish, though initially supportive, eventually back down. The mayor, who is one of Kane’s staunch defenders, fears the bad publicity a gunfight will bring. He is disappointed that Kane has insisted on doing his moral duty and is returning to Hadleyville. Even Kane’s deputy refuses to help. He has tried and failed to be Kane’s successor, and the price he exacts for what he perceives to be Kane’s lack of support is the total abandonment of his responsibility.

Kane finds only two people who will support him, both of whom he turns down: the town drunk and a child. He ultimately succeeds, but with much more subtlety and circumlocution than the classic Western allows. He stalks his enemy, forcing him to shoot first. He has no legal grounds for shooting unless one of the stalkers shoots at him first. His pacifist wife shoots one of his four enemies. The complications of these plot elements are many. Not only is Kane’s life saved by a woman, but his situation forces his pacifist wife to become a killer, violating her own moral code in order to allow him to follow his.

After Kane wins the gun battle, the town comes out to congratulate him and celebrate his success, but Kane has learned too much about the reality of civilization’s workings. He throws his badge in the dirt as he and his wife leave Hadleyville once and for all. If the town of Hadleyville embodies civilization in its march westward, the film argues, people of virtue had better hope that civilization stays put. Ultimately, Kane learns that one can only trust in the virtue of the individual conscience and that the conquering of the frontier is largely a myth. Zinnemann and Foreman’s Western, then, breaks all of the conventions of the classical Western tradition and questions the myth of civilization bringing justice, law, and order to the frontier.

Foreman has admitted that his own personal history played a role in the conception of High Noon. A former member of the Communist Party, Foreman was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities];investigation of Hollywood HUAC;investigation of Hollywood McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] (HUAC) on September 24, 1951. Shooting for High Noon had begun in July of that year. It concluded in early October. Foreman was intimately involved in the film in many ways. First, he wrote the screenplay. Second, he was an associate producer, as well as a partner in Stanley Kramer Productions Stanley Kramer Productions , the company producing the film. His testimony before the committee had a profound impact on both the film and Foreman’s life.

Foreman admitted to the committee that he had been a member of the Communist Party, but what the committee wanted from him was the names of other people in Hollywood who had also been in the party. Foreman refused to provide these names, asserting a limited version of his protections under the Fifth Amendment called a “diminished fifth.” This action effectively ended Foreman’s career in Hollywood. Although Foreman was allowed to finish his work on High Noon, Stanley Kramer bought out his portion of the production company shortly after shooting for High Noon finished. Foreman went to England, hoping to revive his career there. Although he was able to live in England and write screenplays, any of his work that appeared in the United States bore a pseudonym. It was not until the 1970’s that he was again able to work in Hollywood, and according to many critics, his work never recovered its edge.

Significance

High Noon was a turning point for the American Western. It was the first Western to demonstrate the ambiguity and complexity available to the genre. As with all works that come to be considered masterpieces, it broke the rules that had hitherto defined the genre and it made new rules in their place. The box-office success of the film demonstrated that such genre redefinition would not necessarily stand in the way of marketability.

The movie rankled some of the most well-known figures in Hollywood Westerns. Staunch patriot and anticommunist John Wayne called the film “anti-American,” because it portrayed an American community that refused to stand up for law and order. He was particularly stunned that Gary Cooper, who had become a symbol of the cowboy actor, had agreed to play the part of Will Kane. Others who criticized High Noon objected to the idea of the Western as allegory or social criticism. To them, the Western was meant to be historical entertainment. This criticism is inherently flawed, because most Westerns have been historically inaccurate, and—as discussed above—many are social allegories of the struggle between law and lawlessness. Indeed, many of the most famous Westerns—including Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), both starring John Wayne—have been quite explicit in their embrace of such allegory.

The criticism did contain a germ of truth, however: High Noon was set in a town that was not clearly anywhere in particular. Furthermore, its cinematography was designed to resemble Civil War photography, giving to the film a documentary quality. To many, High Noon missed the spirit of the Western. Ironically, despite the story Foreman sought to tell, many Marxist critics objected to it. They did not like its celebration of an individual and denigration of the “people.”

High Noon was in some respects the end of the formulaic Western. Later Westerns, such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), would openly question the value of westward expansion and use the form to comment on the society that it brought into being. High Noon (Zinnemann) Westerns (cinema) Hollywood studio system;Westerns

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Byman, Jeremy. Showdown at High Noon: Witch-Hunts, Critics, and the End of the Western. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. The most complete study of High Noon. Explores not only the making of the film and the political context in which it developed, but also the film’s impact on the tradition of the Western.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corkin, Stanley. Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Explores the relationship between the Western and U.S. history. High Noon is one of a number of films in which the classic Old West confrontation between good and evil is emblematic of political dilemmas facing the country.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garfield, Brian. Western Films. New York: Rawson Associates, 1982. An exploration of the Western as a genre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neve, Brian. Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1992. Explores the relationship between film and politics in American filmmaking, giving readers a sense of the larger tradition encompassing not only High Noon but also American film in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nolletti, Arthur. The Films of Fred Zinnemann: Critical Perspectives. Albany: State University of New York, 1999. Examines the full sweep of Zinneman’s work, giving a reader a good perspective on how High Noon fits into the context of a lifetime of filmmaking.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roffman, Peter, and Jim Perdy. The Hollywood Social Problem Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Explores a narrower category than Neve’s work: The social problem film (of which High Noon is an example) is a particular type of film within the larger context of American film in general.

Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed

Westerns Dominate Postwar American Film

Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool

HUAC Investigates Hollywood

Sunset Boulevard Premieres

Shane Premieres

Premiere of The Searchers

Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre

Categories: History Content