Reel Men: Marshal Will Kane of High Noon

Reel Men: Marshal Will Kane of High Noon

Jun 06, 2011

We are men, men who enjoy movies. Within the diverse canon of films that comprise our favorites, male characters exist whom we count among our heroes. These are men who often represent the archetypes of manhood, for better or worse.  These are the Reel Men and we will be studying these characters in order to determine what lesson of mandom can be gleaned from them. 

The Film: High Noon (1952) 
Who’s The Man: Marshal Will Kane 
Marshal Will Kane is a lawman beloved by everyone within his jurisdiction. He was personally responsible for ridding his town of its most notorious criminal and a man who represented the single greatest threat to the safety of its citizenry: Frank Miller. Satisfied that his people are no longer under the thumb of Miller, Kane decides the time has come to hang up the guns and settle down with his pretty young bride. But just as Kane appears to be entering a new, happier chapter of his life, his past books itself passage on the noon train back to town.
Miller was able to secure a pardon from a bent politician and is coming back to even the score with the man who arrested him. One by one, the townsfolk who had previously championed Marshal Kane begin to distance themselves from him; terrified of the wrath of Miller and content to lay all the consequences at Kane’s doorstep. Kane must decide if he will face down Miller alone or save himself and flee with his new wife. 
What Makes Him a Reel Man?
There is a very good reason why our fathers and our grandfathers swore by Westerns. The basic tenants of manhood are not only explored within this genre, but chiseled into personification, poured into a pair of boots, and topped with a well-blocked Stetson. When judging them against male protagonists of modern cinema, it may be noted a mark against Western heroes that they did not draw from the same diverse palette of emotions. But I would argue that, for the purposes of dissecting the essentials of manhood there contained, the limited emotionality in Western heroes is a definite advantage. These were men uncomplicated by flights of indulgent moodiness. As such, they were free to be the standard bearers of the universal and objective qualities that define manhood.
In the case of Marshal Kane, the quality he possesses above all others, the quality to which all men should aspire, is courage. Elementary as it may sound, the courage displayed by Kane is no trifling characteristic. He is a man victimized by fear, but never submits to it himself. The fear the townspeople harbor of Frank Miller has them all turning their backs on him in his most dire time of need. Also, Kane’s fight isn’t just with Miller, as three members of the man’s former gang are waiting at the train station to join in his vengeance as soon as he steps onto the platform. Any lesser man would have calculated the four-to-one odds, taken stock of the utter lack of support from those around him, turned tail, and ran. 
But Kane represents the ideal of courage; a lanky, tin star-donning pillar of what defines a real man. It isn’t simply his oath of office that compels him to stay and face Miller, in fact he makes that abundantly clear at the end of the film in one of cinema’s ultimate metaphoric face slaps. Kane is also not some genetic aberrant born without the cognitive capacity for fear. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Kane sits in his office and weeps discretely, despite being alone, which again plays into his near stoicism, as he ponders his own very likely demise. But despite operating under no delusions of invincibility and feeling wholly betrayed by his constituency, Kane refuses to live in the shadow of fear or let anyone outside himself dictate the course of his life. His courage therefore transcends flashy machismo and is instead rooted in his need to be his own man. That being said, the climactic gunfight does paint the Marshal as something of a badass. 
The Man’s World
It is no secret that High Noon served as a veiled condemnation of McCarthyism and the dubious Red Scare that took place in this country from the late 40s to the late 50s.  Kane is a well-liked, highly respected citizen until he is targeted by a threat invisible to the audience until the end of the film. It is at that point that people begin walking away from him; disassociating themselves lest they also fall prey to that same threat. If that doesn’t smack of the Communist witch hunts occurring when High Noon was made in 1952, I don’t know that anything does. The ironic twist here is that director Fred Zinnemann uses one of America’s most indelible film genres to take on the House Un-American Activities Committee. 
Given that the tentacles of Sen. McCarthy’s fear mongering reached, and often did irrevocable damage to, the film industry, the choice to challenge him with a film, even figuratively, is a bold one. The courage the filmmakers displayed by firing back at one of the most powerful and corrupt figures in our nation’s history only amplifies and expands the courage alive within Marshal Kane. Interesting side note to this subtext, High Noon was beaten out for Best Picture at the Academy Awards by The Greatest Show on Earth; considered one of the great injustices in the history of the Oscars. It was well-documented that The Greatest Show on Earth director Cecile B. DeMille was one of McCarthy’s biggest Hollywood supporters and that the award was given to his film to placate the Senator.  
The Man Behind the Man: Gary Cooper
As television mafia figure Tony Soprano once observed, Gary Cooper was the quintessential “strong, silent type.” His characters’ words were few and carefully selected, but their missions were always clear and his resolve steadfast. The courage he brought to Will Kane was part and parcel of his own personality.  Gary Cooper had a bleeding ulcer during the filming of High Noon, but, like Will Kane, Cooper refused to shy away from his responsibilities and did not allow shooting to be slowed on his account. Despite the fact that he was in a great deal of pain throughout most of shooting, he never declined doing second or even third takes. Movie star presences like that of Gary Cooper are rarely seen in this day and age, and that is what makes him such an important man; a reel man. 
One Final Toast
High Noon is one of the first films to be told in real time. The events of the film begin an hour and twenty-five minutes before noon and end fifteen minutes later. All the events that take place within that time frame occupy the runtime of the film…or at least the original runtime. Given that the final cut of the film is 84 minutes long, it isn’t hard to spot the discrepancy here. But this is due to the fact that Zinneman ordered a second edit of the film in order that it boast a more efficient runtime and not lose the audience’s attention. Still, the fact that an attempt was made to edit the film within the confines of the time it would take the actual events to unfold not only strictly, and probably unintentionally, adheres to Aristotle’s Poetics, but also builds a nice tension all throughout as frequent shots of timepieces remind us of the ever-approaching threat of Frank Miller. I wish it hadn’t been altered so this still worked to the second, but it’s impressive nonetheless. 

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