SUGGESTIONS FOR USING HIGH NOON IN THE CLASSROOM
Note to Teachers: The following handout includes questions for students to answer before viewing the film. Some of the questions may require Internet research skills should the students be unaware of the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood blacklisters.
Enriched Student Handout — High Noon as an Artifact of History
High Noon was made in 1951 and 1952 when the Red Scare was at its peak. The power of the Red-baiters became so great that in the early 1950s anyone who dared criticize their methods became a target for investigation. As a result, the Hollywood studio owners would not permit any criticism of McCarthy, the HUAC or their associates. Any challenge to the tactics of the Red-baiters through the medium of film was driven underground. The few movies, such as High Noon, which raised issues relating to the Red-scare were disguised as being about other subjects. The technique of a masked protest was used more frequently by artists living under dictatorships, both Communist and fascist. However, the late 1940s and early 1950s were a uniquely unfortunate time in U.S. history.
To get the movie past the studio executives, the filmmakers used the genre of the Western, which was not known for political themes and which was displaced in time from the targets of their criticism. Their efforts were successful and the movie was made. When the film was shown to the public, many people saw the political message in the movie. Those on the right denounced it, while many others praised it. Very few films produced by Hollywood have had to disguise their meaning to ensure that the films would be made. High Noon is the best known example and, as such, has a special place in the history of cinema and of artistic expression in the United States.
Question 1: In what way does the threat of censorship in film raise issues of First Amendment freedoms?
During the filming of High Noon Carl Foreman, the screenwriter and associate producer, was required to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He testified that he had been a member of the Communist Party but had quit many years before because he disagreed with its policies. However, he refused to identify other people who had been members of the Communist Party or associated with left-wing political organizations or meetings because he believed that they had a First Amendment right of freedom of speech and association. Mr. Foreman was promptly blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and he was no longer permitted to work on the movie. His associate producer credit was taken away but his screenwriter credit remained. Because of the blacklist, Mr. Foreman could not find work in the U.S. and moved to London where he wrote scripts that were submitted to Hollywood studios under pseudonyms. With Michael Wilson, another blacklisted screenwriter, Mr. Foreman wrote the 1957 Academy award-winning screenplay for the movie The Bridge On the River Kwai. The script was submitted under the name of a Frenchman, Pierre Boulle, who was the author of the book from which the story was taken. Mr. Boulle did not write a word of the script.
In his own name, Mr. Foreman had a distinguished career in the film industry in England and was honored by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Mr. Foreman was "rehabilitated" and his screen credits restored in 1997. Unfortunately it was too late for Mr. Foreman. He had died in 1984.
Question 2: Why would the British film industry allow Mr. Foreman to work but the American film industry would not?
The man who played the deputy, Lloyd Bridges, was also blacklisted and had trouble getting work in Hollywood for many years. Eventually, as the Red Scare abated, Mr. Bridges was able to overcome this problem and was featured in many television shows and movies.
Gary Cooper, the actor who played Will Kane, had very conservative political beliefs and had cooperated willingly with the HUAC in 1947. He is reported to have testified, "I have turned down quite a number of scripts because I thought they were tinged with Communistic ideas. It is hard to believe that Mr. Cooper was unaware of the political implications of the film. Most likely, by 1952, like many other Americans, Mr. Cooper realized that the Red-baiters had gone too far and needed to be stopped.
As in the worst days of the McCarthy period, some individuals behaved in a principled manner and refused to cooperate with the scare tactics of HUAC. In this story, the marshal represents such an individual; he is willing to stand up to wrongdoers. The criminals represent the McCarthyites who persecuted people whose beliefs are left of center, commonly referred to as liberal. The selectmen, the minister, and the judge stand for the leaders of U.S. society who failed to stop the excesses of the Red-baiters. Kane's friends, who would not help him in the fight against the outlaws, represent people who deserted their friends when the persecutions came.
Question 3: Can you find any similarities between the Red Scare of 1946 to 1954 and the reaction of the United States and its citizens to the destruction of the World Trade Center by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001?
In terms of symbols used in the film to help illustrate theme, the name of the marshal, "Will Kane" is important. "Will" is short for William which means "resolute protector". It may also be that using the shortened form of the name, rather than Bill, which is a more frequently used nickname for William, was meant to stress the fact that Will Kane is a man who makes his own destiny; he is a man of unshakeable will.
In the film, the judge and the deputy marshal simply abandon their posts. As public officials, they have a duty to stay and help the town resist the outlaws. The Judge could have organized townspeople to help Kane. The deputy's obligation is to be with Kane in the fight. In the allegorical aspect of the story in terms of the Red Scare, the suggestion is that important political and governmental leaders abandon the principles of free thought and association that the U.S. purports to represent; they should have stood with those persecuted by HUAC and the red-baiters.
Moreover, Kane's friend, Herb, who clearly represents those associates of the accused during the McCarthy hearings, will stand with the marshal only if others do as well. Thinking about his responsibility to his family, Herb is willing to take some risk, but not a lot. This understandable argument has a fallacy: if Kane is killed, the whole town, including Herb and his family, will be at the mercy of the outlaws. Herb's problem is that if he is the only one to stand with Kane, he becomes a target for the outlaws and increases his personal risk. Out of fear, he abandons Kane just as many of the individuals unwilling to risk their income and their standing in the community abandoned those brought before HUAC.
Question 4: How might an informed public have worked to protect those individuals called before HUAC?
Another interesting aspect of the story deals with Kane's wife who, before she gets off the train and goes to help her husband, insists on moral absolutes. She discovers that something more important than her long-held principle of nonviolence and, fortunately for Kane and for the town, Amy realizes that she must help her husband. One could argue that she is free to abandon principle for the sake of love because she is a woman; had a man made this decision he would lose his hero status. In the name of love, especially after the pleading of Amy, Will could have abandoned the town and moved on with his life; instead he stood on principle. More than any other character in the story, Amy develops and changes as the film's climactic shoot-out approaches. At first, she is willing to give up her husband for her Quaker belief in nonviolence. At the end, she has chosen her husband over her beliefs, participated in a gun fight, killed a man and set up Kane's fatal shot at Miller by clawing at Miller's face. Amy's change is not only a matter of character development, it's an important part of the plot and a major contribution to the symbolic structure of the story and its theme. Amy is the only person to come to her husband's assistance and her intervention turns the tide in the gunfight.
Question 5: When women have been candidates for high office, they have often been asked if they would be willing to send their own sons to war. Men are not asked this question. How do you think Amy would answer this question?
Aside from its thematic comparison to the McCarthy era, there are several lessons to be drawn from this story. One is best accessed by looking closely at Will Kane and how his problem is solved. Often, a specific aspect of character propels the protagonist to triumph over adversity and leads the viewer to a life lesson. Will Kane stays true to his principles even though it means that he will lose his wife and that he must face adversity alone and outnumbered and that he will probably be killed in the process. Despite the betrayals of the townspeople, he succeeds. Another theme is based on the character of Amy Kane who essentially suggests an opposing point of view. Her character first holds to the idea that an important principle such as nonviolence should not be sacrificed for love. However, by the end of the film, she is willing to abandon her principles in the name of love. Since the man she killed represented violence and had been terrorizing the town prior to Kane's having arrested the gang's leader, her shift in values is tolerable. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this story illustrates the idea that for evil to triumph, good men and women need only look the other way and do nothing to resist the evil. The gang in this story was defeated through luck. The town had the good fortune to have a marshal with the integrity of Will Kane. Everyone was lucky that Kane's wife came through to help him at the crucial moment. However, it could easily have gone the other way. When this movie was made, in the depths of the Red Scare with people losing their jobs for their political beliefs and the country's leaders doing nothing to stop the excesses of the Red-baiters, it looked as if the American people could permanently lose important freedoms. Thus, standing up for what is right and for those who are willing to risk so much in the name of what is right, was a vital commentary made by the film industry on the state of politics in the middle of the last century and is still an essential value to hold today.
Question 6. What movies have you seen that have been critical of a position taken by the U.S. government and that show important characters coming forward to protect the principles upon which the country is based?
[End of Worksheet]
Click here for additional Helpful Background.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. This movie takes the position that the townspeople were wrong in failing to stand up with Kane to face down the Miller gang despite the fact that they would have been putting their lives in danger in order to help the marshal? What did the Townspeople owe to Will Kane? Suggested Response: In addition, the townspeople had an obligation of loyalty to Kane as their friend and a man who put himself at risk to clean up the town. As to the public officials such as the judge, the selectmen and the deputy marshal, the responsibilities of their office required that they oppose the Miller gang. In addition, if the townspeople had stood together, the risk to any one of them would have been greatly reduced.
2. Edmund Burke, a British statesman and philosopher, said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." How does this concept apply to the story told by this movie? Suggested Response: High Noon is a clear example of this. It was only through Kane's strength of character, luck and the intervention of his wife that the town did not suffer. The happy ending is fortuitous. The Miller gang should have made short work of Kane and then they would have been free to terrorize the town. In the real world of politics and government, lucky endings are rare. People need to be politically active to retain their rights.
3. Kane said, "I'm the same person, with or without this badge." What do you think about this statement and how does it relate to the theme of the film? Suggested Response: One doesn't resist evil only if he or she is a public official charged with that duty. A person resists evil because, in the words of Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".
4. Before Miller arrives, his gang is at the railway station waiting for him. Kane is encouraged by one of the townspeople to lock them up before Miller arrives. Kane responds that they hadn't done anything wrong as of that point and he had no power to arrest them. How does this response from Kane fit into the values he holds? Suggested Response: Kane was clearly right. People cannot be arrested and imprisoned without due process of law. If the police act lawlessly, then no one will be safe. In addition, to follow this suggestion, Kane would be betraying his own ethics.
For more discussion questions, click here.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Research the individuals and organizations, both political and artistic, who stood up against the excesses of the Red-baiters and HUAC. In an expository essay, explain the role of these people and groups in bringing a close to the threats to freedom from the anti-communist hysteria.
2. Research and prepare a power point presentation on the loss of jobs, artistic freedom and film merit that occurred during the Red Scare. Look deeply into the film industry and in other outlets for artists, such as music and painting, for evidence of conformity and resistance to the McCarthy years.
3. Write an opinion essay on the concept of limits to freedom of expression that may be found in film, music, writing or other art forms. Relate the problems certain artists have faced that may have restrained freedom of expression.
Become a TWM Fan on
Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!
Parenting Points: Your child will have no problem understanding the ideas and conflicts in the story and may be interested in some of the background information that opens the film to another level of understanding in terms of its social criticism. Click here for additional suggestions for parents.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.