In Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 timeless Western film High Noon, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) fights a battle for his soul over the dilemma of whether to pursue what’s easy versus what’s right. Or, in the modern vernacular, the path of least resistance versus, perhaps, the path of righteousness.
In “a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere,” Kane is reminded “nothing that happens here is really important,” by Judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger). But personal choice serves as a monstrous parable, as Sheriff Kane wages a titanic internal struggle that uses different people in the town as foils.
There, in the Western town, civilization itself is a stranger, as much as it was in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Five years ago Marshal Kane sent Frank Miller away for murder. It’s the civilized East that’s sent Miller back into Kane’s life, which has unleashed a monster threatening destroy the town’s tranquility. It’s the “civilized” that have taken the easy path by commuting Frank Miller’s murder sentence down to life in prison, then pardoning him altogether.
Like colliding trains, a crash is inevitable if Kane stays on the tack to meet Miller. Time stops for no one. Frank Miller is coming to town at noon; it’s inevitable there will be conflict if Marshal Kane makes a stand.
Kane’s first reflection on his situation comes from his new pacifist Quaker wife, Amy Fowler-Kane, played by the dazzling Grace Kelly. The couple is married the same day the Miller Gang rides into town waiting for their leader to return. The gang plans to take revenge against Marshal Kane for sending Frank to jail. Amy pleads with Will to think of his future before engaging them.
“You are asking me to a wait an hour to find out if I’m going to be a wife or a widow,” she despairs. The code of the old West burns hot in Kane, and ignoring a threat for the promise of domestic bliss is anathema to this character.
Marshal’s external voice in his internal struggle comes from the law, represented by Metrick. No longer looking for excuses, Kane seems to search for moral support and validation. Metrick, however, gives Kane a nonsensical account of ancient Athens expelling a tyrant, and later cowering before the tyrant when he returns with an army of mercenaries. Metrick has cowardice in the form of self-preservation on his mind. Kane will have none of it declaring, “You’re a judge!” — but as we learned in Liberty Valance , before a gun, a law book does no good. Under pressure from Kane, Metrick spells it out: “I’ve been a judge many times in many towns. I hope to live to be a judge again!”
Kane’s next foil is a younger, less mature version of himself in the form of his deputy Harvey Pell, played by Lloyd Bridges. Like most young men Deputy Pell is unsure about the philosophy he chooses to live by. Kane was this man once, and at time of high stress he’s become unsure again. Pell believes he can manipulate Kane into getting what he wants. While Pell wants to join forces to fight evil with his mentor, he, like Metrick, is affected by self-interest. He’d like to be town marshal. Wavering between what he knows is right and what he desires, Pell tries to drink away his troubles. Kane will get no answers here.
Visiting his past via proxy, Kane then examines his possible future by visiting the retired Marshal Martin Howe (Lon Chaney). Bitterness and fear have worn the old man down. This is obviously a man Kane once admired. “I ain’t goin’ with ya…I couldn’t do nothin’ for ya’. You’d be worried about me. You’d get yourself killed worryin’ about me,” he says, in reference to joining the fight. Howe is not surprised the town has abandoned Kane. This seems to be our hero’s strongest point of consternation. If there was ever a wavering moment in his fortitude, this is it.
The train arrives with Frank Miller, his gang meets him gives him his gun, and they go on the hunt for Kane. Naturally, Kane confronts them and, with help from his wife, defeats them.
He then leaves town.
Throwing his badge on the ground, and riding out on a buggy, not a train, Kane refuses to partake anymore in the lies that have governed Hadleyville. In a sense, civilization — self-interest and smooth sailing — destroyed the town long before it sent Miller on a path to do the same.
His destiny and his honor are his own. He faced his fears and conquered. A human, a man who has fears, but is not ruled by them. Hard decision? Yes. Worth it? Yes. To men like him, choosing their own fate is everything.