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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.”

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.