Rewriting High Noon: Transformations in American Popular Political Culture During the Cold War
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 30-40
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Costello I Rewriting High Noon. Transformations in American Popular Political Culture During the Cold War Rewriting High Noorr. Transformations in American Popular Political Culture During the Cold War by Matthew Costello Saint Xavier University High Noon (1952) was a landmark artifact of American popular political culture of the high Cold War.1 Screenwriter Carl Foreman intended it as a commentary on Hollywood capitulation to HUAC. Director Fred Zinneman and star Gary Cooper saw it as a film about the nobility of the individual in the face of a failure of public morality. John Wayne, the film star and conservative archetype of the period declared the film Un-American.2 One scholar has characterized the film as catering to ideological extremists and challenging the "vital center."3 The varied readings of the film, coupled with its critical and commercial success, spawned a sub-genre of politically self-conscious westerns, treating the nature of the American community, the role of the individual within it, and the responsibilities of citizenship and of power, all within a tale of the lone lawman defending a town from a gang of cut-throats. High Noon, in short, became a cinematic and ideological touchstone against which other directors sought to define their own position and visions ofthe proper role ofthe individual inAmerican society. This paper explores three of these films: Anthony Mann's The Tin Star (1957); Edward Dmytryk's Warlock (1959), and Vincent McAveety's Firecreek (1968).4 Setting these films in the changing historical and cultural contexts of the 16 years after the original (1952-1968) reveals transformations in American popular political culture of the Cold War. While often characterized as an age of conformity, recent historical studies have revealed the 1950s as a period ofpolitical, economic, and cultural ferment. The high cold war (1947-1963) was an era of social change, with the emergence of a post-industrial economy, the creation of planned communities, and the rise of a national security state of unprecedented power and scope of activity. Within this context of social change a new politics of group interests began to emerge including the civil rights SheriffWill Kane (Gary Cooper) and his new wife (Grace Kelly.) movement, a politics of gender, and early signs of a youth movement suggested by the fear of juvenile delinquents and the literary rebellion ofthe beats. In this context of social and political change, citizens, government, business, and cultural agents attempted almost desperately to cling to a notion of consensus around a "vital center." Cast in a variety of contexts—ideological, economic and cultural—the key element was a notion of consensus across the political spectrum, fueledby unparalleled consumer power, uniting disparate former ideological combatants into a centrist coalition against the extremist forces of communism and fascism. The vital center described a community ofwhite, middle class, two-parent families with faith in the virtue of their leaders and in the moral superiority of a free market. They were united by a mission ofmoral progress, defined primarily as the export of their free-market, individualist ideology around the globe. Their mission was threatened by the forces of totalitarianism of both communist and fascist varieties.5 While this "vital center" was articulated, defended and sought by many if not most social actors , there is ample and increasing evidence that the center was growing increasingly fragmented. Tom Engelhardt sees this fragmentation as intimately related to the breakdown of an American consensus he identifies with the American war story, a tale of ambush against Americans leading to a justifiable moral crusade to defeat unconditionally the attacker. He argues that the decline of the war story in the context of nuclear containment (the big fear) led elites to seek to contain the parts of society that were breaking away from the vital center, including the "little fears" of juvenile delinquency and communist sympathizers.6 We can add to this, based on the work ofElaine Tyler May, Jane Sherron de Hart, KA Courdileone and others, women and men.7 The enemy within, either as 30 I Film & History Matthew Costello | Special In-Depth Section communist, delinquent, or gender-defier becomes as significant a Cold War enemy as the Soviet Union, and thus a...