“High Noon” & Manliness

“It’s said that most Americans under the age of 30 reflexively dislike movies made before 1970, especially those that were shot in black-and-white. If this is so, I suspect it’s because such films portray an America that no longer exists,” Terry Teachout wrote recently in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.

Teachout is right about one thing—for some reason, old movies seem inaccessible to young Americans. Part of this is surely the lack of color, the slower dialogue-fueled storyline, and a depiction of old-fashioned, seemingly obsolete cultural mores. But Teachout’s premise that old films portray an America that no longer exists does a great disservice to these classics. Truth is, the classics often speak to the present better than do many of the new releases.

For instance, one cultural phenomenon that has received a lot of attention in the midst of the economic downturn is the arrested development of the millennial generation, most notably among young men. “Where have the good men gone?” lamented Acculturated contributor Kay Hymowitz in her controversial WSJ op-ed last year, adapted from her equally controversial book, Manning Up. “What explains this puerile shallowness?” Ms. Hymowitz asks. “…[W]ith women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.”

Ms. Hymowitz’s observations about our present deficit of real men are certainly insightful. But as reads the refrain in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And in this case, we need only look back to the 1952 Western High Noon, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, to see that real manliness—that combination of fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity, and I’d add a sense of duty—has been in short supply for many moons.

High Noon begins with the wedding of the town marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), to his Quaker bride, Amy (Grace Kelly). And immediately following his nuptials is the marshal’s retirement ceremony. We learn that the town will be welcoming its new marshal the very next day. But before Marshal Kane and his bride are able to depart for their honeymoon, the townspeople learn that convicted murderer Frank Miller, whom Marshal Kane had years ago sent to prison, has had his sentence commuted and will be returning on the noon train to seek revenge against the marshal.

The newlyweds initially set out in a horse-drawn wagon in spite of the grim news, but before long, Kane brings the wagon to a halt. “Why are you stopping?” his bride asks.

“It’s no good. I’ve got to go back, Amy,” Kane responds.

Amy protests and tries to convince her husband not to turn back, but her desires prove to be an insufficient counterweight to the sense of duty the marshal feels. “I’ve got to. That’s the whole thing,” he determines after a long pause as he reorients the wagon toward town. And with that, Kane establishes himself as a real man. To be sure, he’s sympathetic and caring toward his wife—he understands her religious opposition toward violence and her desire to avoid danger, but in the end, he determines that it’s his obligation to return and stand his ground. In any case, running would only delay, not preclude, the inevitable confrontation between him and unhinged psychopath Frank Miller.

The most notable foil to Marshal Kane is Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) who throws a tantrum when he learns that he didn’t make the cut to be Marshal Kane’s replacement, and who refuses to support Marshal Kane in the impending confrontation with Frank Miller. “I’m going to tell you something about you and your friend Kane,” Harvey’s mistress says to him. “You’re a nice looking boy. You have big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man…It takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey. And you’ve got a long way to go. You know something? I don’t think you’ll ever make it.”

And the Deputy Marshal isn’t alone in his arrested development. Standing in contrast to the fortitude and duty embodied by Marshal Kane is the spinelessness of each and every other male character in High Noon.

Does High Noon depict an America that no longer exists? While the dust and cacti of the wild west have been replaced by suburbs and strip malls, this sixty-year old black-and-white film describes a problem that we’re experiencing today in contemporary America with guys who can’t seem to grow into men. In Marshal Kane’s town, crazy guys with guns and the potentially fatal consequences of fulfilling one’s duty made it hard to be a real man. Today’s challenges—an education system that teaches to women, a floundering economy, feminism’s assault on masculinity—are very different. But it all boils down to this: it’s just plain difficult to be a man. Always has, always will be.

Diane Ellis is the lead editor of Ricochet.com.

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