For English Language Arts Classes
SUBJECTS — Literature/Myths of the Western genre; Literary devices: symbol; motif; foil; and expository phase;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Marriage; Leadership; Courage;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Citizenship.
AGE: 11+; No MPAA Rating;
Drama; 1952; 85 minutes; B & W. Available from Amazon.com.
In this Western classic, an outlaw recently released from prison is on his way back to the town he had once terrorized. He intends to seek revenge against the marshal who had sent him to prison. His gang has reassembled and awaits his arrival on the noon train. The marshal, newly married and scheduled to leave town to begin a new life, must decide between staying to face his old adversary or keeping to his plans to leave town thereby relinquishing lifelong principles of standing up for what is right. But he cannot fight the outlaws alone. One by one people whom he had helped in the past, turn him away when he requests their assistance.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1953 Academy Awards: Best Actor(Cooper); Best Editing; Best Music; Best Song; 1953 Golden Globe Awards: Best Actor (Cooper); Best Supporting Actress (Jurado); Best Score; Best Cinematography; 1953 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Zinneman); Best Screenplay. “High Noon” is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. This film is ranked #33 on the American Film Institute’s List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006).
Featured Actors: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, and Grace Kelly.
Director: Fred Zinneman.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This movie is an allegory criticizing the political and business leaders who did not resist the excesses of the Red-baiters and the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is one of the few American movies in which the filmmakers had to disguise the political implications of their film in order to get it made. As such, the film itself is an artifact of American History. See TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
Reading the Enriched Student Handout provided with the Guide and responding to the questions contained in the handout will provide background and context to any study of American history during the post-World War II period and will lead students to think about the issues raised by the Red Scare.
The charcter of Will Kane is a symbol for those Americans who stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy and to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is also a criticism by contrast of American political and business leaders, and every day Americans, who failed to support people who were targets of the Red-Baiters. Like the townspeople in “High Noon” most of the country stood by and kept silent, permitting McCarthyism to flourish, and demonstrating once again that all that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men and women to do nothing.
After the Second World War, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union took hold, Senator Joseph McCarthy, the HUAC and those associated with them used tactics of guilt by association and character assassination to persecute Americans who had left-wing political beliefs. Since that time, political tactics by which people attack their opponents using unfounded accusation and innuendo have gone by the name “McCarthyism”.
The McCarthyites said that they were trying to remove Communists and their sympathizers from positions of influence in society and government. However, the charges were usually undocumented and the assertions that the targets of the investigations lacked patriotism were almost always false. In reality, the Red-baiters, as they came to be called, were using the fear of Communism for their own political and economic gain by grossly exaggerating the influence of Communists in the U.S. In the process they ruined the careers and damaged the lives of many innocent Americans whose only offense was to disagree with the politics of the Red-baiters. (There were a few cases in which the charges turned out to be true. Perhaps the most celebrated example was Alger Hiss, a State Department official. When the records of the Soviet KGB were opened in the 1990s it was revealed that Hiss had actually been a Soviet spy.)
McCarthyism worked in the following manner. People who held left wing political beliefs were accused of being disloyal to the country. They were investigated and questioned about their past political associations. Some were required to appear before Congressional investigating committees. The investigations didn’t focus on what a person may or may not have done, but only on their political associations. The HUAC and McCarthy’s senate investigating subcommittee would require witnesses to identify people who belonged to various legal political organizations and name those who had attended left wing political meetings. Witnesses who gave names and disowned their former political associations would be deemed “rehabilitated.” Those who did not cooperate would be labeled as “Communist sympathizers” who were disloyal to the United States. Often the names of people who did not cooperate would be placed on a blacklist. They would lose their jobs and would not be able to find other work in their chosen occupation. It was not only membership in the Communist Party (which has never been illegal in the U.S.) but also association with certain labor unions, political organizations seeking better conditions for the poor or for immigrants, Civil Rights organizations, and fraternal and social organizations, that could result in a person being investigated and blacklisted.
Some people refused to testify before the HUAC, citing the right to free speech and political association guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The government prosecuted many for contempt of Congress. A few people went to prison. Some Red-baiters started charging companies a fee for investigating their employees. In this way, they came to have an economic as well as a political interest in keeping the Red Scare going.
The McCarthyites paid special attention to the movie industry. Their intimidating tactics caused the creation of a particularly notorious blacklist that prevented many talented people from working for decades. The movie studios caved into the demands of the Red-baiters by enforcing the blacklist. The rancor caused by the McCarthyite investigations lasted for decades. In 1999, some 45 years after the Red Scare was over, there were angry protests when the Academy of Motion Picture Artists gave an award to the talented director, Elia Kazan. During the Red Scare Mr. Kazan had saved his job by giving testimony against his friends and former political associates. For more on Mr. Kazan and this dispute and on the Red Scare generally, see TWM’s Learning Guides to “The Crucible” and “On the Waterfront“.
President Truman, most members of Congress, and the heads of both political parties did not condemn the overreaching and oppressive tactics of McCarthy, the HUAC, and their associates. President Eisenhower didn’t do much better after he was elected in 1952. In 1954, McCarthy attacked the loyalty of soldiers in the U.S. Army, again using innuendo and unsubstantiated charges. In nationally televised hearings, McCarthy’s brutal, irresponsible and dishonest tactics were exposed to the nation. The American people turned against him; McCarthy was later censured by the U.S. Senate and died in disgrace.
Martin Niemoeller, a German Lutheran pastor who lived during the Second World War gave a famous quote about the importance of protecting the rights of others.
“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
See Actor Gary Cooper: Testimony to House Un-American Activities Committee. 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.
This movie was inspired by a short story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham. The story is much different than the film. The story is currently published in A Century of Great Western Stories: An Anthology of Western Fiction edited by John Jakes. Many of the stories in this anthology are excellent.
There are many documentaries on the Red Scare and Senator Joseph McCarthy. They include: “The Edward R. Murrow: The McCarthy Years” and “Point of Order”. “Good Night and Good Luck!” is an excellent fictional treatment.
USING IN THE CLASSROOM
In this story, the marshal represents the righteous man who is willing to stand up to wrongdoers. The criminals represent the McCarthyite Red-baiters who persecuted people with left-wing political beliefs. 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.
The name of the marshal, “Will Kane” is symbolic on several levels. “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. “Kane” is an ironic reference to one of the characters in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed his brother out of jealousy, because God valued Abel’s sacrifice above Cain’s. When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain famously replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In this story, Will Kane is the only person in town who feels any responsibility to his brothers, his fellow townspeople.
In addition, each of the townspeople represents a type of rationale supporting a decision to do nothing in the face of evil.
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.
Kane’s friend, Herb, 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. What Herb should do is to round up some of the other townspeople to help Kane.
Kane’s wife, before she gets off the train and goes to help her husband, insists on moral purity. In the situation of this story this is simply not practical. Fortunately, for Kane and for the town, Amy realizes that she must help her husband and goes to his assistance.
The old marshal, Kane’s mentor, claims that his hands are crippled by arthritis and Kane will worry about him in a fight. Perhaps, but Kane obviously thinks that the old man will be helpful. There is no other reason for Kane to go and see the old man and ask for his help.
Some of the people in the church claim that the fight is a personal matter between Kane and Miller, the head of the outlaw band. It is, but the argument doesn’t stand up to analysis because Miller’s hatred of Kane arose out of Kane’s efforts to enforce the law for the benefit of the town. The town should support a man who put himself on the line for its betterment and it should act to protect itself against Miller’s evil, regardless of any personal dispute between Miller and Kane.
Other townspeople, exemplified by the selectman in the church, use erroneous, selfish, and shortsighted rationalizations to avoid confronting the outlaws.
Mrs. Ramirez does help Kane by encouraging Amy to stand by her new husband. However, Mrs. Ramirez refuses to help Kane directly. Perhaps it’s because she was still angry with Kane for leaving her. But that’s no reason to let the man die. Mrs. Ramirez claims that she owes nothing to the Hadleyville community because it never did anything for her. That is only partially true because she has made money on her business interests in the town, even if she has had to disguise some of them. And who will stop Miller from coming after Mrs. Ramirez if Kane is killed?
Theme in “High Noon”
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, it is the characteristic used by the protagonist to triumph over adversity that leads the viewer to a life lesson. Will Kane stays true to his principles even though it means that he must face adversity alone, outnumbered and risking death in the process. Despite the betrayals of the townspeople, he succeeds. Another theme is based on the character of Amy Kane. This story tells us that one should not sacrifice love for mere principle, even as important a principle as nonviolence. This idea has its limits. What if Amy had been married to Frank Miller, the outlaw, and had interceded in the gunfight to kill the marshal? But Amy certainly did the right thing in this situation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this story illustrates the principle that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing. The outlaw 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.
Myths of the Western Genre
For an introduction to the myths of the Western genre, see TWM’s Handout Myths of the Western Genre — Are American Men Just a Bunch of Cowboys? The following section will analyze the myths of the Western genre as they appear in “High Noon”.
Will Kane and the Myth of the Western Hero
In most Westerns, the hero takes on the bad guys without ever experiencing fear or self-doubt. “High Noon” is not most Westerns. Will Kane admits to being afraid and his actions are constantly being called into question by his wife, the townspeople, and his friends. “High Noon” is not just an action adventure set in the Wild West; it’s also a study in character.
The film’s sophistication is evident in its portrayal of the Western hero. Will Kane has resigned as town marshal and married Amy, a beautiful Quaker woman. She has convinced him to build a new life as a shopkeeper in another town. Kane is going to become the antitheses of the Western hero. Word reaches the wedding party that the town’s pariah, Frank Miller, will arrive on the noon train. He is looking for revenge; the primary target is Marshal Kane who brought him to trial and sent him to jail. Kane and his wife hurriedly pack their belongings into a buckboard and head out of town. Clearly this cannot be our fearless hero. No Western hero would run away and leave a town undefended against the savagery of the outlaws, least of all for a wife.
As Kane and Amy ride out of town, the audience sees the pull of dueling values on Kane’s face; he just cannot run from trouble and leave the town he has served so long undefended. Kane reins in the galloping horses, returns to town, goes to the marshal’s office, and puts on his badge. He stays to fight it out with Miller and his gang, even though his new wife tells him that she will not be there when he finishes his so-called duty. The marriage is over in less than an hour.
Upon his return to town, Kane regains his status as a Western hero. He is single again, ungoverned by a domesticating woman; he is acting on his principals and being courageous. He is willing to fight the outlaws and willing to do it alone if no one will help him; he is intelligent and experienced; he is physically fit, strong enough to beat his young deputy in a fist fight, though just barely; and he is a member of mainstream culture. Kane is an outsider by virtue of the fact that he intends to leave town as soon as the fight with the Miller gang is finished. His outsider status is confirmed when none of the townspeople will help him.
However, the character of Will Kane is more than just a classic Western hero and this story, even without its political implications, has more complexity than the usual Western. In many ways the character of Will Kane embodies the exemplary exception to the hero of the Western genre. Kane doubts whether he has made the right decision. The Western hero is usually immune from doubt. Years before, Kane had been in a relationship with a Mexican woman. We know that he still has some regard for her because he takes the time to warn her that Miller, who bears her a grudge, is coming to town. The 1950s, when this movie was made, was a time of racial and ethnic prejudice. A Western hero of that period wouldn’t usually consort with a Mexican woman; it is inconsistent with his membership in the mainstream culture. In addition, Kane is older than most Western heroes. Moreover, his attempts to convince the townspeople to band together and resist the Miller gang are an exercise in frustration. The Western hero seldom has to try over and over again, meeting failure after failure. The male camaraderie which usually supports the Western hero is completely missing from this story. Finally, when Kane wins the big gun fight, he does so only because a woman intervenes at the crucial moment. Western heroes are not usually saved by a mere woman.
Kane’s relationship with authority is also complex. The hero of the Western genre usually has a disdain for authority. However, as marshal, Kane is the authority. But as the story progresses he is abandoned by the other authority figures in the town: the judge, the selectmen, the minister, and even his own deputy. In addition, Kane’s authority is suspect because he has already resigned. Fundamentally, this marshal is an outsider, upholding the right and protecting the town on his own even when the town doesn’t want to be protected.
At the end of the film, Kane rejects the corruption of the town and his status as the traditional Western hero by throwing his badge into the dirt and riding away with his wife. He is leaving to become a modern married man who will not live by the gun. He’ll probably put on an apron as he waits on people at his store. Kane is paving the way for a new American hero, moving outside of the Western genre and into the reality of modern life.
Westerns usually don’t concern themselves with the struggles of their female characters. In the Western genre the single requirement for the primary female character is beauty. It’s an understatement to say that Amy Kane, played by Grace Kelly, is a pretty woman. However, unlike most leading ladies of the Western genre, Amy Kane is a powerful force in the story. When the movie opens she has prevailed upon her man to abandon the role of the Western hero and become a shopkeeper. The female principle of domestication has triumphed over the hero of the Western genre. Her power is shown in the titanic struggle that Kane has with himself before he turns the buckboard around and goes back to town. Later in the story, Amy’s power is confirmed as she intervenes in the gun fight to save her man and attacks Miller even as he holds her at gun point. Her power is reasserted at the end of the film as Kane resumes his role as the modern man, the shopkeeper antithesis of the Western hero. It is no coincidence that when Will and Amy leave town the second time, it is Amy who is driving the buckboard. This female character is more than just a pretty face.
The character of Amy Kane goes beyond the usual female character in a Western in another way. More than any other character in the story, Amy develops and changes as the noon train 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 the development of her character, it’s also an important part of the plot and a major contribution to the theme of the story. Amy is the only person to come to her husband’s assistance and her intervention turns the tide in the gunfight. Her character presents a powerful argument that principle cannot stand against love. As described above, this concept has its limits, but Amy did the right thing in the context of this story.
The Absence of Male Camaraderie
Interestingly, the story in “High Noon” emphasizes the Western genre’s myth of male camaraderie in its absence through the lack of support that Kane is able to muster from the town. This is the central conflict in the film; where there should be bonded and loyal males coming to assist Kane, there are none. In the several arguments presented by various characters to justify their failure to back Kane against Frank Miller, the reasoning is most often seeped in self-interest. Emphasizing the statement the movie is making about the demise of the atavistic myth that men can only relate to other men, the only help Kane receives is from his Quaker wife who shoots one of the outlaws and fights against another. Kane is saved by a woman rather than his male friends and it is with her that he rides out of town.
The Edenic Myth in “High Noon”
The Edenic myth, the idea that nature is a perfect place, is turned on its head in this story. As a psychological story, “High Noon” is concerned with how the individual hero can maintain his integrity while corrupt values begin to close in on the West. As such, the Edenic myth begins to fade and nature becomes an antagonist. “High Noon” is set in a dismal town with a lonesome railway station. The surrounding landscape is dry, slightly wasted, hinting that the Edenic Myth is in decline. If Eden exists at all, perhaps it is located where Kane and his wife intend to go, away from the corrupt town, to the great Somewhere Else.
“High Noon” and the Child Savior
Although not integral to the storyline, the young boy who tries to help Kane, embodies some aspects of the child savior. He doesn’t save Kane, but he is the only hope for the town. At first, the boy serves as a messenger as Kane tries to summon his friends. Later, when everyone else has abandoned Kane, the boy begs to be allowed to take up a gun and stand with the marshal in the gunfight to come. Kane lightly scolds the boy for his temerity. After the gunfight, the boy drives the buckboard up to the crowd in the thoroughfare so that Kane and his wife can leave town and effectively ride off into the sunset. Kane pats him affectionately. This child has been the single source of help from the citizenry and he is the only person who receives an affectionate farewell from Kane. If the town is ever to develop people of character and integrity, like Will Kane and unlike the current adult population, it will be through this boy and the children he represents. They are the only hope for the future of this town. In that way the boy will be the child savior of the town.
In terms of motif, the clock dominates the film. The camera focuses on its movements as the hour for the showdown nears. The image of the clock grows larger and the sound of ticking grows louder as the film progresses. As a result, viewers cannot help but be concerned with the passage of time. Another important motif is the shot down the railroad tracks in the direction from which Miller will come. The camera looks down the tracks which reach a vanishing point far into the distance. This shot offers the viewers an example of infinite regress, implying that the impending confrontation is eternal. Forever there will be opposing forces which arrive from elsewhere and threaten the harmony in any particular situation. Eventually, a force will come to challenge the peace established in any setting.
See TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan for the Expository Phase Using “High Noon”.
Cinematic and Dramatic Techniques of Note
“High Noon” is an example of writing in “real time.” The action of the film takes place in the hour and a half before Frank Miller arrives in town on the noon train. The frequent references to time and shots of the clock serve to heighten tension and build suspense.
Gary Cooper received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in this movie. The audience can read his face and understand what he is thinking.
There are occasions when there is simply no music in the movie. The silence highlights the moment, more than any music could do.
See questions 3 and 4 above, relating to the use of this movie in U.S. History and Government classes.
2. In the symbolic system of this story, what does the town stand for?
[The following question is appropriate for students who have studied Animal Farm or some other allegorical story with a political theme. If students have studied a politically themed allegorical story other than Animal Farm, substitute the name of that work.]
3. Is “High Noon” an allegory or simply a work with powerful symbols?
An allegory is an artistic device in which the characters and events of the story closely represent something else. The literal content of an allegorical work is less important than its symbolic meaning. Many commentators describe this film as an allegory with the marshal representing the courageous people who stood up to the Red Baiters while the townspeople are symbols for the political and business leaders, as well as ordinary Americans, particularly the business leaders and workers in Hollywood, who kept silent, allowing the professional anti-communists to persecute people because of their political beliefs. The Miller gang represents the Red-Baiters who persecuted people for their political beliefs. However, other commentators point out that the characters don’t stand for specific people as in the case of many allegories and that there are important differences between the people and forces being symbolized and the characters in the story. They contrast the movie to George Orwell’s Animal Farm in which one character represents Lenin, another Stalin and another Trotsky; the pigs are the communists, other animals are the peasants, etc. However, to make the movie an allegory, there would have to be a figure who was attacking people for their beliefs rather than simply seeking revenge. The character of the wife would have to relate to an important historical figure or force, but it does not appear to do so. The question seeks an opinion and there is no one correct answer. Strong responses will note that any work of fiction that contains powerful symbols can be said to contain elements of allegory, but the key to the concept of allegory is that the symbols are closely related to specific people or to specific groups. If “High Noon” is allegory, it is of the most general, least specific, kind. In the end, the important point is that the symbols in “High Noon” are very strong and help communicate the theme of the work.
4. Give some examples of the use of the literary device of the foil in this film. How do the foils highlight traits of Kane or of Amy and how do they help the audience discover the theme of the film?
See Helpful Background section on Foils for a full description of the use of opposition in this film.
The questions set out above for U.S. History and Government classes also relate to theme.
5. Are Mrs. Kane’s actions in abandoning her pacifist beliefs and joining her husband in the fight against the Miller gang, an argument against pacifism as a moral and political philosophy?
There is no one right answer to this question. The purpose of asking it is to start a debate.
6. Will Kane said, “This is my town. I’ve got friends here.” What does this tell you about the meaning of community? What did Kane find out about his community?
A sense of community is based on relationships of trust, cooperation and loyalty among people who live in the community. Kane learned that the people in Hadleyville didn’t understand the true meaning of community.
7. Is there a feminist sub-text to this movie? Justify your response.
A strong argument can be made that there is. See the discussion about Amy Kane in the Helpful Background section and note the economic power, independence, intelligence, and wisdom of Helen Ramirez
More questions relating to theme can be found in the Social-Emotional Learning section and in the Ethical Emphasis sections below.
MYTHS OF THE WESTERN GENRE
8. How does Will Kane regain the attributes of the Western hero when he turns the buckboard around and goes back into town?
At the beginning of the film, Kane has resigned as town marshal and married Amy, a beautiful Quaker woman. She has convinced him to build a new life as a shopkeeper in another town. What made Kane a successful Western hero, being experienced and willing to fight with his gun, willing to do it alone, and being physically fit will not be needed in Kane’s new environment. In addition, he is no longer single. In many ways, Kane is on his way to a life in which he will become the antitheses of the Western hero. However, by returning to Hadleyville to fight the Miller gang, Kane regains his status as a hero of the Western genre. His wife has said that she will leave him if he stays in town for a violent face-off with the outlaws. He is therefore single again, ungoverned by a domesticating woman. He is acting on his principles and being courageous. He is willing to fight the outlaws with a gun and willing to do it alone if no one will help him. He is intelligent and his experience in gun fighting will be important in this conflict. He is physically fit, strong enough to best his young deputy in a fist fight, though just barely. Kane is an outsider by virtue of the fact that he intends to leave the town as soon as the fight with the Miller gang is finished. His outsider status is confirmed when no one in town will help him.
9. How is Will Kane, even after he returns to town, different than most Western heroes?
In many ways the character of Will Kane embodies the exemplary exception to the hero usually found in the Western genre. In most Westerns, the hero takes on the bad guys without experiencing fear and without doubting himself. Will Kane admits to being afraid and his actions are constantly being called into question by his wife, the townspeople, and his friends. Years before, Kane had been in a relationship with a Mexican woman. We know that he still has some regard for her because he takes precious minutes to warn her that Miller, who bears her a grudge, is coming to town. In the 1950s, times of strong racial and ethnic prejudice, the Western hero wouldn’t usually be shown consorting with a Mexican woman. It is inconsistent with his membership in the mainstream culture. In addition, Kane is older than most Western heros. His attempts to rally the town behind him are an exercise in frustration. The Western hero seldom has to try over and over again, meeting failure after failure. Finally, when Kane wins the big gun fight, he does so only because a woman intervenes at the crucial moment. Western heroes do not usually need to be saved by a mere woman.
10. Will Kane is the marshal. Doesn’t that mean that he is the authority figure in the town and isn’t that inconsistent with the outsider status usually required of the Western hero?
As the story progresses Kane is abandoned by the other authority figures in the town: the selectman, the judge, the minister and even his own deputy. In addition, Kane’s authority as marshal is suspect because he has already resigned. This marshal is an outsider, upholding the right and protecting the town on his own even when the town won’t act to protect itself.
11. How is Amy Kane different from the usual leading female character of the Western genre?
Westerns usually don’t concern themselves with the struggles of their leading ladies, who usually have only a marginal role in the story. In the Western genre the single requirement for the leading female character is beauty. Certainly, Amy Kane, played by Grace Kelly, is a pretty woman. However, she is also a powerful force in the story. When the movie opens she has prevailed upon her husband to abandon the role of the Western hero and become a shopkeeper. The female principle of domestication has triumphed over the hero of the Western genre. Her power is shown in the titanic struggle that Will Kane has with himself before he turns the buckboard around and goes back to town. Later in the story, Amy’s power is confirmed again as she intervenes in the gun fight, not once, but twice, to save her man. Her power is reasserted at the end of the film as Will Kane resumes his role as the modern man, the shopkeeper antithesis of the hero of the Western genre. It is no coincidence that when Will and Amy leave town the second time, it is Amy who is driving the buckboard. This leading lady is more than just a pretty face.
The character of Amy Kane goes beyond the usual leading lady in the Western genre in another way. More than anyone else in the film, Amy develops and changes as the noon train approaches. At first, she is willing to give up her man for her Quaker belief in nonviolence. By the end of the film, she has killed a man, choosing her husband over her beliefs. Amy’s change is not only a matter of the development of her character, it’s also an important part of the plot and a major contribution to the theme of the story. Amy is the only person in the town to come to her husband’s assistance and her intervention turns the tide in the gunfight. Her character presents a powerful argument that principle cannot stand against love. As described above, this concept has its limits, but in the context of this story Amy did the right thing.
12. What is the role of the young boy who tries to help Kane?
Although not integral to the storyline, the concept of adults learning from an uncorrupted child, sometimes called the Child Savior Myth, is evident in the appearance of a young boy who tries to help Kane. At first, he serves as a messenger for Kane. Later, when everyone else has abandoned Kane, the boy begs to be allowed to take up a gun and stand with Kane in the gunfight. Kane lightly scolds the boy for his temerity with a few gentle words. After the gunfight, the boy drives the buckboard up to the crowd in the thoroughfare so that Kane and his wife can leave town and effectively ride off into the sunset. The boy has been the single source of help from the citizenry. If the town is ever to develop people of character and integrity, like Will Kane and unlike the current adult population, it will be through this boy. He is the only hope for the future of Hadleyville.
13. Name the two most important motifs in this movie.
Shots of clocks and the shot of the railroad tracks showing infinite regress.
14. Take three important characters and describe them in a few words.
There is no one correct set of words that describe each character. Here are a few examples: Will Kane: resolute; protector; ethical; upright, a policeman through and through, brave; courageous, strong; incorruptible; loyal, smart; Harvey Pell, the Deputy: envious, ambitious, amoral, cocky, disloyal, unsuited to be a law enforcement officer; immature; pompous, foolish; Helen Ramirez: passionate, intelligent; wise; bitter; dignified; capable businesswoman; Amy Kane (before she decided to help her husband): beloved of her husband, brittle, unbending, uncompromising; determined, uncaring, disloyal; Frank Miller: cruel, unpredictable. These are just samples.
15. This film is an example of writing in “real time.” The action of the film takes place in the short period of time before Frank Miller arrives on the noon train. How does writing in “real time” affect the film?
It builds tension and suspense. Writing in “real time” also requires that most of the background for the story is introduced through dialog. As a result the audience often has to wait to get the information necessary to understand the motivations behind the actions of various characters. See also TWM’s Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
Additional Discussion Questions for U.S. History and Government Classes.
1. Just as many townspeople in Hadleyville thought that they could live with the Miller gang, many people in the U.S., during the late 1940s and early 1950s, believed that they could live with the Red-baiters. After all, most people were not targets of the investigations. In addition, people were afraid to speak out against the false accusations and guilt by association used by the McCarthyites; objecting to the tactics of the Red-baiters was a quick way to get on a blacklist. Could the United States have kept the civil liberties of its citizens if people had learned to “live with” McCarthy and the Red-baiters? Justify your conclusion.
If the civil liberties of one person are compromised, it is easier to take away the civil liberties of the next person and eventually the liberties of everyone. This is expressed forcefully in the famous quote from Martin Niemoeller.
3. Why isn’t guilt by association a valid way to make judgments about people?
Guilt by association is a logical fallacy which states that if, in a particular group of things or people, some of them have an attribute, then everyone in the group must have the same attribute. In the context of the Red Scares, the argument went that because some Communists were not patriotic then anyone who was a Communist or who associated with Communists in any political endeavor, such as supporting a minimum wage for workers or universal health care for all citizens, was also unpatriotic. This is patently untrue, but it is what McCarthy and the redbaiters had convinced many people. Note that a person’s associations may be reason for some suspicion and may give an investigator an lead that needs to be followed up, but no conclusion can logically be drawn from mere association. But it is never proof of anything.
Now, it is true that there may be particular groups of things or people which all have the same attribute. However, that is not because of the mere fact of association. It must be due to some other factor.
4. In the movie, each of the townspeople has a reason for doing nothing to help Kane. Describe some of the reasons. Are any of them valid? Suggested Response:
- One of the selectman argues that a gunfight between Kane and the Miller gang would spoil the town’s reputation as a peaceful place in which to live and do business. This is short term thinking. Of course, there will be conflict as the town resists an invasion by criminals, but in the long run the town will be more peaceful without the criminals than with them.
- The deputy marshal allows his anger at Kane to govern his conduct, rather than fulfilling his duties as a public servant. The deputy as been paid to protect the town in good times and in bad. Turning in his badge just before the fight with the Miller gang is an evasion of responsibility.
- The judge allows fear to overcome his obligations. His situation is the same as that of the deputy; he is paid to be the judge in the good time and in the bad as well. In addition, if Miller had killed Kane, the judge would have lived in fear the rest of his life, worried that Miller would come after him.
- Some of the people in the church claim that Kane’s fight with Miller is a personal dispute and that Kane is worried that Miller will pursue him into his new life Their point begs the question. People who do the right thing can do it for a number of reasons. Just because they gain an advantage for doing the right thing doesn’t mean that it is the wrong thing to do. The important point is that the town will be better off if Miller and his gang are stopped. These people are just evading responsibility with a specious argument.
- Then there is the friend who states that he will help Kane only if others stand with the marshal, but that he will not be the only one to be at Kane’s side. He states that he has a responsibility to his family. There is some force to his point, but just about everyone has someone for whom they are responsible. By this logic, no one would ever agree to be the first to stand with anyone else in a difficult situation. In addition, this friend and his family would not be safe in a town run by outlaws. What this friend should do is find others to help Kane.
- Kane’s mentor, the former marshal, claims that his arthritis would make him a liability in a gun fight. It may be true that his arthritis would hamper his effectiveness, but Kane asks for his support for a reason. The old man’s support might rally others and his lack of support may be seen as a signal to others that they can remain on the sidelines.
- Mrs. Ramirez does help Kane by encouraging Amy to stand by her new husband. However, Mrs. Ramirez refuses to help Kane directly. Perhaps it’s because she was still angry with Kane for leaving her. But that’s no reason to let the man die. Mrs. Ramirez claims that she owes nothing to the Hadleyville community because it never did anything for her. That is only partially true, because she has made money on her business interests in the town, even if she has had to disguise some of them. But who will stop Miller from coming after Mrs. Ramirez if Kane is killed?
All of the excuses that people in Hadleyville used to avoid helping Kane are in one way or another self-serving and short-sighted. All of them evade one type or responsibility or another. See the quotation from Martin Niemoeller.
5. Was Kane popular with everyone in town? What does this tell us about the Red Scare?
Remember that there were friends of the outlaws in the bar and the hotel clerk didn’t like Kane at all. He remarked to Mrs. Kane that it was time for Kane to get his comeuppance. There was a lot of support in the country for the Red-baiters and many people didn’t understand the problems with the tactics of guilt by association and smear by innuendo.
6. Kane’s mentor, the former sheriff said, “People have to talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it.” What did he mean by this?
Law and order is an abstraction and people have to have some imagination to understand that it will yield benefits in the future. Very often people wait until someone is hurt or there is some tragedy before they are motivated to act.
1. Did Amy Kane do the right thing in abandoning her belief in nonviolence to help her husband?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Clearly, the movie takes this position, but a strong answer will note that marriage should be a partnership, a give and take, in which the principles of each partners should be respected. One partner should not be required to sacrifice core beliefs. Then again, married people need to support one another. Perhaps these people shouldn’t have gotten married.
2. What do you think of Will Kane’s leadership skills?
They were pretty poor. He didn’t understand the townspeople well enough to know how to motivate them.
3. What does a good leader do when there is a job that needs to be done and the troops will not follow?
He must find a way to motivate them. This is perhaps the hardest part of leadership. Sometimes, if he can’t motivate his people, he must go on alone, as did Will Kane.
4. Will Kane was afraid. Did this mean he lacked courage?
No. Courage is doing something dangerous when you are afraid. Doing something just because it is dangerous is simply stupid. People who are about to enter into a dangerous course of action need to make sure that the values served by the course of action outweigh the values that will be sacrificed by undergoing the danger. Kane made the decision that the risk of death (i.e. the risk of sacrificing the value of life) was outweighed by the importance of the value of upholding the law and protecting what he had fought for years to create, a town safe from this band of criminals. In addition, Kane doubted that leaving town was a practical solution. He thought that the criminals would come after him wherever he went and facing them in town, as he thought at the time, the backing of the townspeople, was the safer course of action. This leads to the next question.
5. Was Will Kane acting courageously in staying in town and facing the gang? Answer this question in light of the following facts: Miller had a grudge against Kane and would have probably tried to catch up with Kane had Kane tried to leave town. In that event, Miller and his gang would have had the advantage of surprise. When he decided to fight the outlaws in the town, Kane thought he would improve his chances of surviving, especially since, initially, he expected the townspeople to stand by him.
It always takes courage to face death directly. Kane was courageous to return to fight Miller and Kane acted courageously when he didn’t leave after he found out that the townspeople wouldn’t stand by him. The fact that Will Kane benefited from his decision to stay and fight Miller in the town, didn’t make his decision any less courageous.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See questions 1, 2 and 4 above, relating to the use of this movie in U.S. History and Government classes.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
See questions relating to the use of this movie in U.S. History and Government classes. Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
- Take four large pieces of paper and write the name of one of the four major characters (Will Kane, Amy Kane, Helen Ramirez and Harvey Pell) at the top of each one. Divide the class into four groups and have each student in each group write a word on the poster that describes one trait of the character on the poster. The group assigned to Amy Kane should describe her character before she went to help Kane. Post the papers around the room. Then distribute index cards to each student. Have then write their name and period number on the card. After that, have students do a gallery walk to each of the four posters. Students should note one word that describes an important aspect of each of the main characters. It doesn’t need to be a word on the poster. They should return to their seats and write two paragraphs describing how that word describes the character and how that characteristic relates to the theme or to the plot of the film. Teachers can change the scope of the assignment depending on the time available and the abilities of the class. The paragraphs should be graded according to the writing rubric used in the class.
- Have students write an essay on the feminist subtext of “High Noon”. [A good response would make the points set out above concerning the power of Amy Kane in this story and refer to the economic power, independence, intelligence, and wisdom of Helen Ramirez.]
- Students can write an essay relating to any of the Discussion Questions.
- Students can write an essay comparing this film to “Good Night and Good Luck” or any of the other films about the Red Scare.
- Students can research and write an essay about the Red Scare, about the effect of the Red Scare on Carl Foreman, about the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy or about the legacy of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
BRIDGES TO READING
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Article on High Noon from “Greatest Films”;
- High Noon from Decent Films Guide; and
- The Real Political Message of High Noon by Kyle Smith, film critic of the New York Post, taking the position that the film is not about McCarthyism but about isolationism and the failure of pacifism in the face of violent evil.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.
Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- The American Western by Stephen McVeigh, 2007, Edinburgh University Press; note TWM disagrees with much of the analysis of “High Noon” in this book;
- Encyclopædia Britannica articles on “Joseph R. McCarthy,” “United States” [Accessed May 27, 2002]; and
- CNN Profile on Senator Joseph McCarthy. This is Learning Guide was written by Mary Red Clay and James Frieden. This Guide was first published on August 6, 2012