Monday, May 04, 2009

Rio Bravo: The anti-High Noon

(Hat tip: Creative Minority Report)

Although I enjoy Westerns as much as any other red-blooded American, I have never been a fan of the one movie that appears to be the favorite Western of the cultural elites: High Noon.

I once wondered - back in my Clinton Derangement Syndrome days - whether my distaste for High Noon had to do with the fact that it is Bill Clinton's favorite movie. Now, however, I realize that my reasons for disliking the movie have nothing to do with Bill Clinton, but, nevertheless, are likely to be the very reasons that Bill Clinton does like High Noon.

And they are the same reasons that Rio Bravo, which turns 50 this year, is one of my favorites:
... Howard Hawks’ masterpiece stemmed from his disgust with the joyless anti-heroics of uptight, melodramatic westerns like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957) — dark “message movies” that seemed to revel in smugly depicting small-town Americans as cynics and cowards... the brazen slap across the face that High Noon had given America’s western mythology had bothered him. “I made Rio Bravo,” he later told an interviewer, “because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good western.”

In his now-famous 1971 Playboy interview, John Wayne recalled his own loathing for the film:
Everyone says High Noon was a great picture because [Dmitri] Tiomkin wrote some great music for it and because Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly were in it. In the picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to church and asks for help and the guys go, “Oh well, oh gee.” And the women stand up and say, “You rats, you rats.” So Cooper goes out alone. It’s the most un-American thing I ever saw 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.
Some critics like to nitpick and remind us that Cooper doesn’t actually step on his discarded tin star, but Wayne’s then-twenty-year-old memory is plenty close enough for government work. The conclusion of High Noon (former President Bill Clinton’s favorite movie, natch) has marshal Will Kane casting his badge into the dirt with a sneer, his features oozing contempt for the yellow-bellied townsfolk he defended. “That was like belittling a medal of honor,” Wayne seethed privately to his friends. And even as he graciously did his pal Gary Cooper the favor of stepping up at the 1953 Academy Awards and accepting the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon on Cooper’s behalf, the Duke began thinking about how such a role should have been played, and how he might someday use his superstar clout to craft the same basic story according to his own sensibilities. A story where the town didn’t cringe and run, but instead backed the marshal with their guns and their lives against the black-souled gangsters arrayed against them. A story which would ennoble America, flaws and all, instead of soiling her with a revisionist history at odds with how the brave pioneers of the west really acted.

If there is a single criticism of Rio Bravo that grates above all others, it is the widely-held idea that the jailhouse duet between Martin and Nelson is a major artistic misstep, superfluous and corny. Nonsense. The memorable scene in question occurs almost two hours in. For much of the film, the audience has endured a mournful and threatening Spanish dirge called “El Degüello” (”a throat-slitting”), rumored to have been played by Santa Anna’s troops to the doomed defenders of the Alamo to weaken their resolve. It’s a song the villains play to signify “no quarter,” and as it begins to grate on the heroes’ nerves in Rio Bravo, we the audience worry right along with them. Then, deep in the movie, in a gripping emotional scene, Dean Martin with great agony renounces the bottle and regains his manhood. Finally, at long last, all four men are united in purpose, their doubts behind them. At that exact moment Hawks gives us a much-needed respite via the relaxed singing in the jailhouse. Coming on the heels of all that dramatic strain, it serves as a massive, cathartic release, a musical sunset after the long storms of the first two acts. It is male bonding on a par with the protagonists of Jaws (1975) comparing scars and warbling “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” It is the cementing of an oath-bound brotherhood between friends.

As Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sing, we get lingering reaction shots of Brennan and Wayne appreciating the music — the first relaxed, genuine smiles we’ve seen for a long time. We listen as Dude and Colorado effortlessly merge their voices and complement each other, the beginnings of the teamwork that will become so important in the trials ahead. Stumpy asks Colorado to play something that he can sing along with, and Nelson obliges, bringing Brennan into the emotional core that has formed. This is one of the very few scenes without arguing or bickering of any kind — it’s a peek into the true feelings of a pseudo-family newly formed to confront a daunting menace. By the end of two songs, these disparate personalities have gained a much deeper sense of friendship and fidelity. We the audience have seen them at their most human — not as cardboard cutout plot points, but as people with longings and heartaches and dreams beyond the dusty and dangerous present. It’s the kind of scene that couldn’t possibly exist in a film like High Noon, with its relentless cynicism and sense of betrayal. And that, of course, is the point. “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” has become a thematic mirror-image to the sinister “El Degüello,” and it’s no coincidence that, late in the picture, Hawks has the former tune playing on the barroom piano in the hotel, serving as as a subtle, triumphant reminder of which song — and which worldview and moral code — has won the day.

(emphasis added)

Rio Bravo Trailer

Dean Martin & Ricky Nelson: “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me”

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At 5/04/2009 10:44 AM, Blogger DP said...

Well, looks like I have something in common with the 42nd President after all.

Sure, you could read "High Noon" as withering contempt of small town folk when the chips are down.

Truthfully, though, I'd never even considered that until I read this post.

I've always liked High Noon because it is a parable about doing the right thing even when everybody else won't, and even at great risk to yourself. Think "Mr. Smith Goes to Tombstone."

At 5/04/2009 11:24 AM, Blogger The Dutchman said...

Does it have to be either/or?

My son is interested in film and so we’re working our way through the cannon of what is generally regarded as the “great films” (e.g. “Metropolis,” “Battleship Potemkin,” “Rules of the Game”) as well as those of historical significance (“They Made Me A Criminal,” “Little Caesar,” “The Fountainhead”) and I guess “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo” both fall somewhere in between great and significant, so we saw them recently. As a matter of fact, we watched them as a pair precisely because the one film was made to answer the other.

Fundamentally, they deal with different themes. “High Noon” is about social sin, the failure of citizens to live up to their duty to society, and how this makes things almost impossible for those who do have a sense of justice and duty. (It’s probably a commentary on McCarthyism and blacklisting, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.) “Rio Bravo” is about personal sin, the virtue of courage, the morally corrupting nature of drunkenness.

Frankly, my son and I found both films to be heavy handed and without nuance. We much preferred “The Ox Bow Incident” (for social justice) and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (for personal sin).

I think the fact that people usually like one or the other is a neat commentary on whether they are liberal or conservative. Liberals are very concerned about social justice, and often deny the existence of personal sin, so “High Noon” is for them, while conservatives almost always deny the existence of social sin, so they are disgusted by “High Noon” and revel in glorifications of bravery and triumph over personal failings.

And didn’t Christ teach against both kinds of sin? Isn’t it the scandal of Christendom that just about nobody except the Pope consistently rails against ALL forms of sin? I can give you lists of parishes in Chicago where they preach on social justice week in and week out, and I can give you the names of where they preach against personal sin, but I can’t name one parish that consistently preaches against both.

At 5/04/2009 12:28 PM, Anonymous Donald R. McClarey said...

High Noon was just not believable. People in the West were usually eager to help out law enforcement. Most of the men were familiar with guns, most of the women also for that matter. They were not about to let a band of desperadoes run rough shod over them. The reaction of the citizenry in Northfield, Minnesota on September 7, 1876 to the raid of the Younger and James gangs was typical. Every able bodied man grabbed a gun and started blasting. Posses were quickly formed to pursue the bandit survivors. Those were tough times and the law-abiding citizens were equally tough.

At 5/04/2009 1:28 PM, Blogger The Dutchman said...

Did the James-Younger Gang have trouble before the Northfield Minnesota Raid? I think not. My impression is that residents of Missouri did nothing to defend banks against outlaws, seeing the bankers as Northern Republicans. I'm sure that citizens of the West were as mixed a lot as citizens anywhere, and that different towns had differing civil cultures. There were probably dozens of towns where the residents shirked their duties.

At 5/04/2009 7:42 PM, Blogger Daniel C. said...

I always thought High Plains Drifter as one of my least favorite westerns, this coming from a huge Clint Eastwood fan. Actually, if you think about it both High Noon and High Plains Drifter have the same contempt for small town folk.

At 5/04/2009 10:20 PM, Blogger matthew archbold said...

It's funny because I originally really liked the sorta kinda' remake of Rio Bravo which was El Dorado. It had the Duke again but this time with Robert Mitchum as the Sheriff? Thankfully, Mitchum didn't sing.

But I loved that movie and then later while flipping around I saw the Duke and I stopped. (I always stop at John Wayne movies) and saw that it was essentially the same movie.

Love them both.


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