Searching for Will Kane

Last month Glenn Frankel spoke at the Cinema Lounge discussion group about his book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. He addressed some of the reasons why High Noon still resonates more than 65 years after its release. Carl Foremanís brilliant, lean script; Fred Zinnemannís pinpoint direction; Dimitri Tiomkinís evocative music; and star Gary Cooperís understated portrayal of quiet strength all hold up today. But Frankel also talked about the power of the image of Cooperís Will Kane, left all alone, doing what needs to be done.

The image stands in stark contrast to the beginning of the film, when Kane is surrounded by his wife and friends. Eventually, all of them abandon him as the killers draw near. Kane initially has faith in friendship, community, and the law, but when times get tough, his faith is not justified. The judge is the first one to leave, saying, ďThis is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.Ē Another friend of Kaneís pretends to be away when he comes by. No one in the church will support him. In the most telling blow, the former marshal, Kaneís mentor, remarks that ďPeople gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care.Ē

Frankelís book tells how Foreman saw his friendsí livelihoods destroyed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Committeeís enablers, and the resulting blacklist. Foreman wove what was going on around him into the subtext of High Noon. When HUAC began its Hollywood investigation, those in its crosshairs and their supporters believed that the Red Scare would blow over. Like Kane, they initially had faith in the American institutions. The courts or the Executive branch would put a stop to it and make sure rights guaranteed under the Constitution would hold true. Neither the courts nor President Truman intervened, however, and hundreds of people were punished for their political beliefs without anything resembling due process of law. Foreman knew that the Red-baiters would come for him, and he was right. Like Kane, Foreman was abandoned by many of his friends, in particular his boss, Stanley Kramer, who tried to get him removed from High Noon.

Iím sure Japanese-Americans watching what happened werenít surprised. A few years earlier many of them were forced into internment camps during World War II. The U.S. military carried out the internments following an executive order from President Roosevelt. Neither Congress nor the courts stepped in. In fact, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the government to carry out these actions. Even when courts did intervene, their power could be limited. In the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, but this practice went on for years afterwards.

As Americans we count on our institutions to protect the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In reality the institutions are only as strong as the people behind them. Thatís what Will Kane discovers in his quest for help, just as Carl Foreman and others did during the Red Scare. When fear, paranoia, and political expediency grow stronger, the institutions have all too often wilted in the glare. Itís all too easy to rationalize cowardice. In High Noon, the townspeople had all sorts of reasons for not helping Will. As for the Red Scare, HUAC, their media supporters and the studios implementing the blacklist all believed, or at least claimed that, because communism was such a threat to America, purging from Hollywood anyone with even a suspicion of communist sympathies was justified. Many of the powerful, both in Washington and Hollywood, may have disagreed with these witch hunts, but like Will Kaneís friends, they put saving their own skins first.

The most striking contrast to Will Kane is Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), the deputy marshal. Pell wanted to be Kaneís replacement, but was passed over. Even though Pell has a legal duty to protect the town, he tells Kane to get him the marshal position as the price for his support. When Kane refuses, Pell quits in frustration and refuses to lift a finger against the killers. He had his reasons not to fight. But then again so did Kane, who has a new wife and a new life waiting for him. Technically he was not even the marshal anymore. Despite those reasons, everyone telling him to run away, and not getting any help, he does the right thing. He does what we all hope we would do in that situation. Itís not the institutions that save the town, it's one man with courage.

Our institutions have come under increased scrutiny in the past couple of years, as we Americans look for reassurance amidst the turmoil that surrounds us. In some cases Congress, the courts, the media, or organized religion have stepped in to affirm American values, whether itís those in the Bill of Rights or those posted on the Statue of Liberty. In other cases the grassroots have taken it upon themselves, as we have seen from the survivors of the Parkland school shooting. That story is still being written. But as we have seen on film and in our own history, our institutions protect us only when the people involved adhere to those institutionís values and do not give in to fear or cowardice.

A recent example illustrates this point. Many have advocated for more school resource officers, bolstering the law enforcement presence. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida had a school resource officer, Scott Peterson. When shots rang out, Peterson went outside and stayed there while 17 students lost their lives. More than a month later, another gunman opened fire at the Great Mills High School in St. Maryís, Maryland. This time, the school resource officer, Blaine Gaskill, engaged and stopped the gunman. Sadly, one girl lost her life, but countless more may have died were it not for Gaskill. We can debate what our institutions should do, but in the end one high school had a Harvey Pell, while the other had a Will Kane, and that may have been the difference. Itís the Will Kanes of this world that give our institutions value, and we could sure use more of them.

Adam Spector
April 1, 2018

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