Civilization: 'High Noon' for U.S. Army

By LOU MARANO  |  July 28, 2003 at 8:35 AM
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WASHINGTON, July 28 (UPI) -- Two western movies from the 1950s shed light on our overstretched Army and the meaning of civic responsibility. In fact, America's problem is that it's living a "Rio Bravo" culture in a "High Noon" world.

In recent weeks it has become plain that the United States has too few soldiers to rotate in and out of occupied Iraq in a humane and orderly fashion. Those who fought the war, some of whom have been in theater for almost a year, have been extended again and again. Morale has suffered. The soldiers are being blamed for complaining, and the media are being blamed for reporting the story.

But the fault lies with American society for letting the burden fall on too few shoulders and for failing to pay for a larger force. This doesn't mean, "It's everybody's fault, therefore it's nobody's fault." It means, "It's your fault." Yes, you personally - every citizen, voter and taxpayer. You are acting like the irresponsible townspeople in the 1952 movie classic "High Noon," directed by Fred Zinnemann.

The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter expertly summarized the "deceptively simple" plot on May 30: "Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the retiring marshal of a town called Hadleyville, somewhere in the West, is about to marry a pretty Quaker gal (the luminous Grace Kelly) when he learns that three men are in town, awaiting the arrival of the fourth on the noon train (an hour and a half away). The four men will kill him to settle an issue of vengeance. His first reaction is to flee. Then he returns, believing in the power of the community to stand together. But the community, faced by naked force from the outside, disintegrates and (Kane) is left alone to face the four as high noon draws ever closer."

Kane realizes that the killers will pursue him and his bride relentlessly. They must be confronted at once on this Sunday noon. But his callow deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), resentful he didn't succeed Kane in the marshal's job as he did in the affections of the exotic Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), urges him to run. Kane asks the townspeople for help but is let down by one after another.

Although the gang had terrorized the town, some - such as the hotel clerk and the saloon bartender -- favored the good old days with the rowdy bunch and look forward to Kane getting his "come-uppance."

Kane interrupts a church service to recruit deputies. One man blamed the mess on "politicians," who should be taking care of it. Another congregant espouses the free-market philosophy of community defense that underpins our current all-volunteer military. "We've been paying good money right along for a marshal and deputies," he says. "Now the first time there's any trouble, we're supposed to take care of it ourselves."

"I've been saying right along we ought to have more deputies," another man says. "If we did, we wouldn't be facing this thing now."

The town's senior selectman (Thomas Mitchell) begins by complimenting Kane but says a shootout would be bad for business and hurt investment. He advises Kane to flee for the sake of the local economy.

Kane declines assistance from an elderly, one-eyed drunk and a boy in his early teens.

Carl Foreman's brilliant script contains the character I most identify with in all of cinema. No, it's not the stoic Kane; I'm not that self-possessed. It's another townsman, Herb Baker (James Millican), the only able-bodied man to volunteer. But he offers his help assuming he will not be the only deputy.

"The way you cleaned this town up, you made if fit for women and kids to live in," he tells Kane. "Miller and nobody else will ever drag it down again."

Herb returns later to the marshal's office expecting to join a posse.

In a painful scene, fear overcomes Herb when he realizes that it would be just Kane and him against four professional killers.

"I got a wife and kids. What about my kids?"

"Go home to your kids, Herb," says Kane.

"High Noon" is an inversion of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1947), a film in which the community rallies to aid of the frantic hero. Both movies require a suspension of disbelief. Capra's actually requires two. Unless one believes in the intervention of angels, the story ends when George Bailey (James Stewart) jumps in the river to kill himself. A corpse would be fished from the cold, dark water - cut and print. Not a heartwarming Christmas tale. Almost equally improbable is the townspeople's effusion of charity for George.

Even the hyper-realistic "High Noon" relies on artistic license, because Kane survives the confrontation with the Miller gang. Kane's body in the street in the final frame would be too much even for this most "adult" of westerns.

But the last scene generated its own controversy. After the gunfight, the townspeople emerge like ants from their hiding places. Kane regards them disdainfully, pulls off his badge and drops it in the dust, and drives away in a buckboard with his young wife.

This enraged John Wayne and director Howard Hawks, who considered the ending "un-American." Further, they objected to the idea of a lawman "running around like a chicken with his head cut off" asking citizens for help. A "professional" shouldn't need any help, they said. The two made "Rio Bravo" (1959) as a rebuke to "High Noon."

Calls to three midtown Washington Blockbusters and a visit to an independent video shop failed to produce a copy of "Rio Bravo." Unfortunately, my representation of the move must rely on Internet summaries.

Part of "High Noon's" power is that it is famously shot almost in "real time." That is, the span of the story - about 105 minutes - moves inexorably along in a movie of some 83 minutes. (To get the idea, the running time of Richard Attenborough's 1982 life of "Gandhi" was not 78 years, although it seemed like it.) "High Noon's" script is spare, its editing tight. Not a second is wasted.

I've never seen "Rio Bravo," but I've passed through rooms where it's been playing on television, and it has never caught my interest. The dialogue seemed slow and self-indulgent, the pace languorous. Its running time is 140 minutes.

It's probably a better movie than I'm allowing, but the premise that "professionals" don't need help or that it's shameful to ask is simply wrong. The John Wayne sheriff gets assistance from the town drunk (Dean Martin), a lady gambler (Angie Dickenson), a disabled old man (Walter Brennan), and a hotshot "Kid" (Ricky Nelson). Don't go up against North Korea with this ensemble, even with the power of metaphor.

I believe one of the reasons why President Bush has not called for volunteers for the armed forces is because he knows, like Gary Cooper, he wouldn't get any. Contrary to urban legend, the Sept. 11 attacks did not result in significant numbers of new recruits. (Some veterans and reservists did request a return to active duty.) The run-up to the war to topple Saddam Hussein was so long, I could have learned Arabic in the interval. Do you know anyone who volunteered because he knew a war was coming?

So it's up to you. Enlist, encourage your sons to enlist, and tell your members of Congress to fund a larger force. But don't blame the overtaxed volunteers -- our "professionals" who need your help.

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