John Wayne loved Westerns, but he hated High Noon.
Today, the 1952 film directed by Fred Zinneman, written by Carl Foreman and starring Gary Cooper as a weary town marshal forced to stand alone against an impending threat is widely considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made. The American Film Institute has called it the second greatest American Western (behind only Wayne and John Ford’s The Searchers) and the 27th greatest American film of all time. In 1989, it was included as one of only two Westerns (along with The Searchers) in the first 25 films placed in the National Film Registry. It’s a perennial favorite of film critics and U.S. presidents alike, but if you asked Wayne, the de facto ambassador emeritus for the genre, it was “the most un-American thing” he’d ever seen.
Wayne made that statement (among many, many other controversial remarks) in his infamous 1971 Playboy interview, but it was a line he’d been towing for nearly two decades already at that point. To the most visible and enduring star of the American Western cinema, this simple tale of a lone lawman standing his ground while an entire town cowered in the path of a dangerous criminal was a false and damaging portrait of American pioneers, so damaging that the Duke went far beyond just talking about how much he hated it. As president of the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” when High Noon was released, he went to great lengths to put pressure on Foreman—a Jewish, liberal writer with then-hidden ties to communism—and in the same Playboy interview said he would “never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country.”
Wayne’s public and private antagonism toward High Noon, including pressure put on his friend and fellow Motion Picture Alliance member Cooper, is detailed in Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Ironically, when the film won four Academy Awards in 1953, Wayne was on hand to accept Gary Cooper’s Best Actor statue on his behalf, and quipped that he wished his team had gotten him the lead in the film instead.
So, what was Wayne’s particular beef with this film, other than his political disagreements with its liberal writer and his friendly ties to the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee? Here’s how he explained it to Playboy:
“In that picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to the church and asks for help and the guys go, ‘Oh well, oh gee.’ And the women stand up and say, ‘You’re rats. You’re rats. You’re rats.’ So Cooper goes out alone. It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ole Coop putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it.”
Seven decades and many critical reappraisals of its greatness later, High Noon’s reputation as a great American film is not marred in the least by Wayne’s public trashing. But in 1959, the Duke’s battle against the film got another interesting layer. Together with frequent collaborator Howard Hawks, who also hated High Noon and wasn’t shy about saying so, Wayne made Rio Bravo, another film that’s gone down in history as one of the great American Westerns, and another story of a lawman facing down a threat to his town. Conceived in many ways as the anti-High Noon, it shares a similar plot executed in a very different way, and serves as an ideological rebuke to Zinneman’s film.
So, with 70 years of hindsight in the cast of High Noon, and more than 60 in the case of Rio Bravo, which film wins the argument? The answer is complex, particularly when you realize that both films have more to say about our current American moment than they ever intended.
In High Noon, Cooper plays Will Kane, a marshal who’s just retired upon marrying his sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly). Amy, a Quaker who swore off violence after losing her father and brother, has talked Will into hanging up his guns and becoming a merchant, and he seems all too happy to oblige. Just as he’s preparing for his honeymoon, though, Will learns that a notorious criminal he put away years earlier is coming into town on the noon train, bound for vengeance and chaos. Against the wishes of his wife, and with little more than an hour to round up a posse to help him, Kane stays behind to fight, even if the entire town refuses to help him.
Rio Bravo sets up a similar standoff, but with slightly different stakes. Wayne is John Chance, a sheriff who’s just locked up the brother of a powerful local businessman for murder. It’ll be a week before the U.S. Marshals can show up and take the suspect in for trial. Until then, Chance is a man under siege, holding the killer in jail even as hired gunmen stalk him and his small band of allies.
Because Hawks and Wayne particularly objected to High Noon’s depiction of a lawman who can’t get help no matter how much he pleads, one of the first things Chance does in Rio Bravo is turn away help from another local businessman with plenty of firepower in his corner. Instead, he sticks with the little band of misfits gathered to him, including a recovering drunk who used to be a great gunfighter (Dean Martin), an old man with a limp (Walter Brennan, the secret weapon of so many great Westerns), an idealistic kid (Ricky Nelson) and a gambling woman with a past (Angie Dickinson). Chance’s excuse for turning down the help is that getting more people in danger is “not worth it,” even as he realizes just how outnumbered he really is. The implication is fairly straightforward: A real lawman wouldn’t need to go around begging for help. He’d have enough self-respect to stand in the gap himself, armed and ready to fight, keeping only those he truly trusts at his side.
But of course, High Noon’s story isn’t as simple as Wayne and Hawks let on in their complaints about the film. Will Kane is not simply sticking around out of some misplaced sense of duty. He and the incoming outlaw, Frank Miller, have shared history, some of it involving a woman, and Will knows that even if he does get out of town, he’s only putting off an inevitable standoff. He also isn’t completely alone. Kane, too, turns down help from would-be allies, either because he doesn’t want his friends to get hurt or he doesn’t trust that they’ll actually be there when the shooting starts. More importantly, though, as Zinneman would later note, High Noon is an allegory that used the West to illustrate “a man’s conflict of conscience.”
Will Kane, you see, also has a past of his own, a past of violence and sin and trespass that he’s eager to put behind him through his new marriage and the fresh start it offers. On the wall of his office, we can see a flier that reads “War Declared,” a reminder of the American Civil War and its rippling consequences. In a town that’s tired of fighting, Will Kane might be the most exhausted man of all, and High Noon is the story of his realization that he can’t rest yet. That resonated with postwar America, and resonates now, as we face pandemics, far-right extremism and lingering battle scars from two decades of post-9/11 war.
Standing opposite Kane in this realization are the townspeople, many of whom don’t deny him help out of cowardice, but out of what they see as a sense of practicality. Some argue that Frank Miller’s beef isn’t with them at all, while others argue that Kane should just let the new marshal, who rides into town the very next day, handle the problems to come. Still others, of course, resent Kane’s steadfastness, and remember the days when outlaws filled their saloons and lined their pockets, while others blame the “politicians up North” for the whole mess, and say those same politicians should be the ones to solve the problem. In High Noon, capitalism, political complacency, and whataboutism are weapons just as potent as a revolver.
Wayne and Hawks’ goal with Rio Bravo was to present John T. Chance as a lawman unmoved by these primal forces, and secure in where his own conscience stood in the fight. He routinely refuses to buckle in the face of financial, political and physical pressure, even when his friends start turning up dead. Wayne plays him as principled and steadfast to the point of outright grumpiness, perpetually carrying around a carbine rifle just to remind everyone that he’s not afraid to fight (and because he’s not as fast with a pistol as he’d like to be). Ironically, though, despite Wayne and Hawks’ desire to show off a sheriff who refuses help and stands strong in the face of a fight, Chance gets bailed out of danger by his friends quite a lot throughout the film, and at various points his gang of misfit pals proves just as capable and clever as he is, if not moreso. For all its posturing and all its efforts to present a portrait of Great American Maleness in the face of adversity, Rio Bravo plays like a story of Chosen Family, about a man who realizes the traditional power structures in place around him can’t solve a problem—but his group of wounded comrades just might.
Each film also has something going for it that the other does not. High Noon unfolds almost in real time, and Zinneman uses that as a pitch-perfect exercise in rising tension. Cooper says more with his eyes than many actors can with reams of dialogue, and though you have to wait about 70 minutes to see it, the final gun battle is worth waiting for. But High Noon can be a bit preachy; Rio Bravo is just fun. It’s got that crackly, Hawksian dialogue going for it, several wonderful standoff sequences and, of course, Dean Martin singing.
As to who actually won the ideological fight instigated by Wayne and Hawks after no small amount of personal, damaging jabs in the direction of the makers of High Noon, well…funnily enough, the films draw many of the same conclusions. They’re about the importance of sticking to your guns (literally and metaphorically) and the power a small, committed group of people has to effect change. Ultimately, though, despite Rio Bravo’s standing as a Western classic with its own pleasures, it’s High Noon that stands tallest. Foreman, Zinneman and Cooper made a landmark revisionist Western, one that expresses the anxiety of realizing that the world we have now is born of the blood that was shed then, and asks us to examine our own roles in perpetuating cycles of violence that exist beyond mere bloodshed. Both films are classics, but 70 years after its release, High Noon remains a masterpiece on another level.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.