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Telling History: High Noon

Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon, 1952, United Artists
Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon, 1952, United Artists

“I’m not trying to be a hero,” Sheriff Will Kane stoically resolved,” If you think I like this, you’re crazy…. I’ve got to, that’s the whole thing.” Thus, Gary Cooper’s character set out for a gunfight, facing down outlaws in the classic 1952 western High Noon. Although some contemporary audiences saw the film as a social critique of McCarthyism, High Noon – starring Cooper and Grace Kelly, can be best understood as a Cold War allegory of American vigilant determination to contain the Soviet Union.

In the decades after World War II, the US and Soviet Union waged a protracted struggle for world power. This Cold War between the planet’s two “superpowers” was the dominant feature of global politics for the latter half of the 20th century. Like it or not, America doggedly shouldered an awesome responsibility, to protect, as President Harry Truman pledged, all peoples from the threat of communism.
Leading the free world, while living under the shadow of war, weighed heavily on the American mind. And these dangerous Cold War tensions were often clearly reflected in movies and television. The fifties were the “golden age” of the “western” as Hollywood made nearly 600 western motion pictures, and at least 30 shows aired in primetime. Although there were countless variations of the fateful cavalry charge, last stand battle, or lone gunfighter, nearly all postwar westerns told the same symbolic story. We’re the good guys, a basically peaceful people, that only fight as a last resort when threatened by ruthless bad guys. And although outnumbered and fighting against long odds, with a lot of bullets, we inevitably win. What anthropologist Margaret Mead characterized as America’s “aggressive innocence.”

Consider the allegory of High Noon. Set in the frontier town of Hadleyville, New Mexico, the central character is a retired lawman, Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, who won an Academy Award for the role. In the movie, Cooper’s character is confronted by outlaws he sent to prison, who have now returned after many years to exact their revenge on Kane and overrun the town; clearly the Russians and their Warsaw Pact cronies. While preferring to avoid a fight, Cooper comes out of retirement, bravely accepting their challenge for a gunfight in the center of town at twelve o’clock sharp.

But his efforts to form a posse are in vain. His fellow citizens of Hadleyville lack the courage to stand with him. In this way, Cooper represents the United States in the Cold War, who must also stand alone against the spread of Soviet communism, a brutal enemy bent on our destruction. The townspeople, whom Kane protected for many years as their sheriff, signify our NATO allies that were often criticized for not doing their part in containing communism even though the U.S. had sacrificed for them during World War II.

Kane’s Quaker wife Amy, played by Grace Kelly, is an interesting, gendered subtext. She pleads with him to shirk his duty and sneak out of town like a coward, symbolizing national self-doubts that middle-class affluence had actually made America too soft and no longer “man” enough to fight.

In the end, though, Cooper heroically guns down his enemies, protecting the ungrateful town, reaffirming our toughness, and proving American superiority over the Red Menace.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.