It’s unfortunate that the Western genre has been occasionally responsible for perpetrating toxic traits within its supposedly “heroic” characters. While the genre has the potential to show what differentiates wholesome lawmen from cold-blooded killers, the two often grow intertwined when a film’s morality becomes as hazy as the dusty landscapes of its setting. There a more than a few great Western characters that might be endearing protagonists that work within the specific parameters of a certain story, but aren’t exactly a template that should be emulated. Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and John Wayne’s Uncle Ethan in The Searchers would be chief among them. However, Gary Cooper’s role as Sheriff Will Kane in High Noon isn’t just one of his best performances, but a genuinely compelling portrait of what any lawman should be, regardless of genre. Cooper created a character who had a gripping moral and personal dilemma and was willing to make the hard choices necessary to be a great leader. He’s a perfect hero, and easily the greatest sheriff in the history of Westerns.
Why Is ‘High Noon’ Different From Other Westerns?
While many Westerns succeed due to the use of many locations to create a sweeping sense of epicness, High Noon is a rather confined and straightforward morality tale. Sheriff Kane has earned the respect of the citizens of Hadleyville in the New Mexico Territory, and their admiration has earned him the right to retire his badge in order to spend more time with his new wife, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). Fowler sees a future for their family in a different town where their potential children can prosper, and she can help Kane operate a local store. It’s a simple life that they desire, as Kane himself does not seek fortune and glory. However, the happy life that seems to be waiting for them at the train station is disrupted when the fearsome outlaw Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) and his cohorts Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), and Jim Pierce (Robert J. Wilke) arrive in town and instantly start causing havoc. It’s a situation that demands a strong lawful resistance. The only question is if Will is going to be the one to resist Frank and his men, or if he will leave the town to fend for themselves.
Director Fred Zimmerman presents the situation to be a more complex moral dilemma than it initially seems to be. Will’s departure wouldn’t only leave the town in a worse place than when he had started serving as sheriff, but it would necessitate the hard work of a new lawman to fix and defend the town when they’re just a novice in the position of sheriff. However, Will’s safety is not guaranteed, and he could likely slip up when dealing with a criminal as dangerous as Frank. This would leave Amy as a young widow and would likely initiate more violence than there would be if Will simply ceded control of the territory to Frank. Amy’s perspective is also seen as valuable, and screenwriter Carl Foreman does not characterize her as a cloying, “nagging wife” in an era where so many Westerns featured two-dimensional female characters. Amy is a pacifist and a Quaker, and for her, leaving the town before Frank arrives isn’t just the best move for their family, but the morally correct decision.
The fateful debate that occupies the majority of High Noon is what makes Will such a compelling character and interesting sheriff. It would have been easy to show him as a stone-cold lawman who simply responds to Frank’s impending arrival with bravery, but it was far more interesting to show his initial hesitation and trepidation. Will isn’t just a figment of justice or a blunt instrument of violence. He was a fully realized, three-dimensional character that’s given the impossible choice of saving the town he committed his life to protect or spending the rest of it with his beloved new wife and growing a family. He’s earned his reputation as a strong sheriff for a reason, but High Noon shows that bravery isn’t an inherent trait for all heroes. It’s something that must be built up over time.
Why Is Gary Cooper’s Will Kane Such a Great Hero?
Giving Will such a heat-pressed decision-making process made him more compelling; High Noon builds suspense not through action scenes, but by slowly showing the deterioration of both the town and Will’s new marital relationship. Will’s ultimate decision to stand up to Miller becomes more emotional upon the discovery of Amy’s motivation for joining the Quakers in the first place. She reveals that she initially became part of the religious movement and their way of life because her family had been gunned down by criminals, and she subsequently swore off any and all forms of violence.
This makes Will’s decision to face off against Miller something his wife expressly forbids him to do. However, Will realizes upon seeing the struggles that his people are going through in the streets, he could not possibly leave them to perish. Would his wife really take issue with saving those that experienced the same primal violence that she had in her youth? It’s powerful to see Will take out these criminals, only to throw his sheriff’s star in the dirt. He has the capacity to be a great sheriff, but that burden of responsibility isn’t something he can do for the rest of his life.
Cooper’s performance embodies a great sheriff. He’s respectful to those that he serves, and truly feels like a “man of the people.” Will does not see himself as an intimidating man but knows that he must show strength in the face of someone like Miller, who cannot be reasoned with. Will has to put on a brave face to ease both the town’s fears and his own, which makes the final action sequence even more rewarding. High Noon isn’t necessarily the origin story of a great hero: it shows that the potential for heroic action lies in everyone. Will ends up finding a solution that is satisfactory to both his family and those under his command. Is there anything else that you can ask for in a great sheriff?
THE BIG PICTURE
- The Western genre often perpetuates toxic traits in its supposedly heroic characters, High Noon stands apart by presenting a more complex moral dilemma.
- Gary Cooper’s portrayal of Sheriff Will Kane is a compelling and three-dimensional character who is faced with an impossible choice between protecting the town he serves and spending his life with his new wife.
- The film builds suspense through the deterioration of the town and Will’s relationship, ultimately leading to Will’s decision to stand up to the outlaws despite his wife’s opposition, showcasing his capacity for greatness as a sheriff.