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Allegory for America

Like a show jumper cantering toward a fence, Glenn Frankel finds himself wrongfooted at the beginning of his new book about the movie High Noon. As he began his work, he so wanted the movie to be an allegory about the House Un-American Activities Committee, the hunt for communists, and the Hollywood blacklist. His own research, however, showed him it just wasn’t true, whatever screenwriter Carl Foreman, director Fred Zinnemann, and producer Stanley Kramer would later claim. The movie began as a fairly simple Western, and only the warping of memory and the insistence of critics would turn it into Hollywood’s version of, say, The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials as allegory for anti-communism.

He clears the fence anyway, like a horse getting a lucky push off a back hoof. And that’s mostly because all Westerns are allegories for America, by their very nature. In the decades after Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” no one could think of the Wild West without imagining that it spoke to the deep stuff of the nation. It’s no coincidence that the modern popularity of the Western novel began with Owen Wister’s The Virginian in 1902 and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912. It's similarly no coincidence that the Western, Hollywood's most definitively American form, emerged in the earliest moments of film productions—and remained the most popular genre through the 1950s.

Though Foreman would come to see his screenplay as a story of struggle between conscience and compromise, High Noon was originally conceived as a tale of the failure of community—a sort of Kitty Genovese allegory, avant la lettre. Gary Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, tries to get help, form a posse, from the townsfolk in the two hours before the arrival of a train with murderous criminals aboard. He fails, of course, as the townspeople reveal their cowardice, weakness, and foolishness, leaving Kane to face the four outlaws alone.

Except he isn’t alone. At crucial moments, his new wife Amy (played by an impossibly beautiful Grace Kelly) back-shoots one of the bad men and claws the face of another, saving her husband. Of course, a devout Quaker pacifist, Amy has to betray her beliefs and self-image to help fight the Miller Gang—which means that the film does contain an element of struggle between conscience and compromise. It’s just that compromise wins, as Amy betrays her lifelong pacifism for the sake of newlywed love. And that’s not quite the lesson of triumphant conscience that Foreman later claimed for the film.

High Noon was a great success on its release in 1952, nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning four, including Best Actor for Gary Cooper. But as Frankel digs into the long and dusty record of interviews, letters, and memoirs to construct High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, he discovers that the film was generally derided as “a piece of crap” by Hollywood insiders while it was being made. Dimitri Tiomkin may have saved the movie’s reputation with his score, especially the Tex Ritter-sung “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'." (Tiomkin won two Oscars for his work on the film.)

So, for example, Gary Cooper was widely considered a has-been and too old for the part of the marshal. Grace Kelly was not yet the star she would later become, and she does seem too young to be Kane’s bride—particularly since Cooper was 28 years older than Kelly and played his part as an older man, deliberately showing the hesitations of age. Along the way, studio executives mocked the idea of the movie’s unfolding in near-real time, the almost two hours of implied time close to the film’s 85-minute running time. And neither Zinnemann’s directing nor Kramer’s producing were highly respected before High Noon.

For that matter, the film was “shot on a shoestring budget,” and the Red Scare of 1947 was still roiling Hollywood. But out of it all, a classic somehow came. Frankel’s book is a little odd, as he shifts perspective chapter by chapter, following the production and reception of the film as seen by first one participant and then another. Gary Cooper comes across well, a John Wayne-style political conservative who understood the film as a conservative celebration of the individual. (Interestingly, that’s how the Soviets saw the film, too, denouncing it as a capitalist fantasy that failed to celebrate the true communality of the heroic proletariat.)

As Frankel develops his shifting views, Grace Kelly emerges as more wily than one might have guessed, Dimitri Tiomkin more peculiar, and Stanley Kramer more ill-tempered. But the book’s real hero is Carl Foreman. In 1951, during the actual production of High Noon, Foreman was called to testify before the Un-American Activities committee. While admitting to Congress his own flirtation with communism in his youth, he refused to name other communists. As a result, he was labeled an “uncooperative witness,” and despite his screenplay's being nominated for an Oscar, he was effectively blacklisted for the next six years. Kramer and Zimmerman tried to force him to sell his share of the movie, John Wayne boasted of helping “run Foreman out of this country,” and the gossip columnists lambasted him.

All of this makes for great theater, and Frankel relates it with obvious enjoyment. Frankel was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post before turning to movies and authoring a first-rate book about John Ford’s film, The Searchers (starring John Wayne). His reporting skills show in the voluminous research and careful documentation he undertook to produce this new book on High Noon. The price of admission is covered just by the material on Tiomkin’s terrible English and the Russian accent with which he mangled his way through “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’.”

Frankel is surely right about the movie speaking to something deep in the American soul, since good Westerns always do. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance revolves around the clash of freedom and civilization, The Searchers shows the price of obsession in the Western landscape, and Shane is a tale of the costs of competence. In that sense, High Noon is about the truth that violence can be forced even on people who want to avoid violence, and civilization is maintained by those willing to fight—in a world in which too many duck away from the fight for civilization.

If Glenn Frankel’s book about High Noon starts out wrong and nonetheless clears the jump, it stumbles on its landing. And the reason is mostly that Frankel can’t bring himself to reject communism or believe that the Soviets truly constituted a threat. It’s not that he embraces the Soviet creed. It’s rather that—a good American liberal of an old-fashioned 1970s-sort of breed—he plugs away with an unreflective anti-anti-communism. For Frankel, the Venona intercepts seem never to have been revealed and the archives of the Soviet Union were never opened. For him, only in conservative fantasy were the communists plotting against America—even the America for which High Noon provides an allegory. At best, the author believes in moral equivalence: bad as the commies were, the anti-commies were just as bad. Probably worse.

As a way to understand the Red Scare now, that’s dated, jejune, and self-congratulatory. Which is a shame, for the material Frankel has gathered proves a treat and a hoot. Enough, anyway, to send the reader back to watch High Noon one more time.

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