“High Noon,” Carl Foreman, and the Hollywood blacklist

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Screenwriter Carl Foreman on the set of “High Noon.”

Note — This post is by Dominic Mier, a student in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in Bioengineering. Over the next few months, students in my course, International Relations on Film, will be contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Dominic’s piece is presented here with minor editing.

Americans have always loved Western movies. We love the way the hero is glorified, always prevailing against the evil gunslinger he quarrels with. The good, honorable hero always wins the gunfight. His town celebrates him, cheering and praising him. He defends what’s right and just. He represents how Americans see their nation.

Then you have a film like High Noon, directed by Fred Zinnemann and premiered in 1952. On the surface it’s a typical Western where the good marshal kills the criminals who’ve returned to his town years after he after once drove them out. But as you examine this film on a more critical level, it becomes clear that High Noon is more than a film about good versus evil. Perhaps it was the story of the screenwriter, Carl Foreman.

Despite being an acclaimed film producer and screenwriter of such classics as Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone, Foreman was blacklisted in 1951.

At the height of the Cold War in the early 1950s, the fear of communism had spread through the United States like wildfire. The House of Representatives had formed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1948 to investigate government employees and the film industry, a year after President Truman issued the Loyalty Act, requiring all federal employees to be investigated. A senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, made it his personal crusade to go after these individuals.

McCarthy would accuse individuals who disagreed with him of being communists, effectively ruining their careers. A “blacklist” spread throughout Hollywood, filled with names of suspect actors, actresses, directors, writers, even crewmen who weren’t to be hired because of their supposed communist associations or sympathies.

Carl Foreman was one such man. He found himself targeted by McCarthy and blacklisted, unable to work in Hollywood. He was brought before HUAC in 1951, where it was revealed he had been a member of the American Communist Party several years earlier but had since cut ties. He refused to expose other members, and was hence blacklisted. He left the U.S. and fled to Britain. Though he continued work in the film industry, Foreman did not return to the U.S. until later in life.

The plot of High Noon seems to be much the same as Foreman’s own story. Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the marshal in the film, is haunted by his past coming back around. Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a gunslinger, comes back to town after Kane sent him to the north to be hanged. Like Kane, Foreman was haunted by his own banished past.

Kane searched the town he had protected for so long for deputies and found none would join him. The mayor told him it was his problem to deal with. His deputy quit. His friends hid from him. Even his own wife threatened to leave him. Kane was alone, much like Foreman must have felt.

No studio executives would work with him anymore; they were mid-production of High Noon when Foreman was hauled before HUAC. Foreman had nothing left, his career in Hollywood was ruined. He was forced to leave the country and continue in Britain.

In High Noon Kane overcomes the odds and defeats Miller and his gang with the last minute help of Amy (Grace Kelly), his pacifist wife, who guns down a man in order to save him. Perhaps referencing that if someone had stood up for him, Foreman may have defeated his own past.

The Old West is a classic example of a land ruled by anarchy. The lawmen were spread across a huge expanse, days away in some instances. This was a land where men took care of their issues as Kane did, with guns and violence. No one man ruled for longer than another man wished.

Foreman felt his situation was the same. Citizens no longer had rights. It was one man’s word against another’s. The government was on a wild goose chase, ruining lives of anyone suspected of communism.

This was a rough time in history for American citizens. Japanese-Americans had been imprisoned in internment camps just a few years before. Communists were feared to have infiltrated the country and its government. The civil rights movement was in its infancy, beginning to protest the treatment of African Americans.

In short, it resembled the anarchic times of the Old West, and Foreman saw a need to call attention to that. High Noon, then, is less a typical Western film, and more of an outcry against the government’s treatment of its own citizens.

The American way of foreign policy

high noonI have been teaching American foreign policy for a long time now, and for as long as I can remember I have shown my students the classic Western film High Noon as a way to give them insight into the enduring beliefs about ourselves and the nature of the world around us that animate our conduct of foreign policy.

I originally wrote the comments below as background for my students to give them some context when they watch the film (I’ll be showing it in class today and Friday). But I’ve also been thinking about it in relation to the discussion of foreign policy that has emerged in the current presidential campaign.

As most of the Republicans (Rand Paul the notable exception) seeking the White House have argued over and over again, the world is a dangerous place with enemies that America must confront head-on, with force, lest everything we stand for fall to ruin. America is all that stands between global order and global chaos. We lead not because we desire power, we lead because we must, because no one else will, because no one else is capable.

Lindsay Graham, while an afterthought in the polls, is representative of this perspective, one shared with most of his GOP rivals, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (though her rhetoric while bellicose is far less apocalyptic), and even with the much maligned (by Republicans) President Obama. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July on the threat of ISIS and his plans to militarily intervene in Iraq and Syria to defeat extremism and stabilize the Middle East, Graham said:

This is the 1930s all over again, and this ISIL threat is something that will come our way soon if we don’t stop it over there … There is no substitute for winning this conflict. There is no substitute for America.

President Obama, speaking at West Point in 2014, while stated in more measured terms, expressed the very same sentiments about America’s role in the world:

[I]t is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come. .. The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

What follows are the comments I originally wrote for my students:


 

High Noon (1952) is both a product of its times, the early years of the Cold War, as well as a reflection of our enduring collective political values and beliefs. In other words, High Noon tells us much about how Americans see themselves, and how we saw (and I would argue) continue to see America’s role in the international arena. When you watch this film I think it will come as no surprise that High Noon has been screened in the White House more often than any other movie.

The metaphors in the film operate in two ways. First, the character of Will Kane (Gary Cooper) serves as a metaphor for the post-WWII United States. Kane is the archetypal Western hero evidencing the best qualities of the American character: courage, steadfastness, and devotion to justice.

Some of the background details of the film serve to underscore these embedded values. For example, in the pivotal church scene, the congregation is singing this verse from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; / He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: / Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! / Our God is marching on.

This implies a divine mission to set affairs aright, a mission that men of courage will meet. By failing to act, the townspeople condemn themselves in the sight of the Almighty, an idea made clear in the piece of scripture, Malachi 4:1, that the pastor reads, which evokes similar visions of both righteousness and judgment:

 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the

LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

At the same, the challenges Kane faces in the film are reflections of the challenges the United States faces in the new reality of the Cold War. Just as Kane is a metaphor for the US, Hadleyville, the town where the action takes place, can be seen as a metaphor for the post-WWII international system.

The setup for the story is that Kane, having cleaned up Hadleyville after a long struggle, is hanging up his gun and badge and retiring. This can be seen as the film’s equivalent of the American victory in World War II. After a brief time of peace and quiet, the bad guys – the Frank Miller gang – return to Hadleyville and once again threaten the peace. Here the film equates the threat of communism with the fascist tyranny of the war years.

The central question is how Kane and the townsfolk, and metaphorically the United States and the rest of the world, will respond to this new threat.