Moral Clarity at ‘High Noon’

Column by Jerry Fabyanic
Posted 5/4/22

I am drawn to stories in which the protagonist is internally conflicted about themself or how to proceed through a fog of chaos when the right course of action is not readily clear and available.

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Moral Clarity at ‘High Noon’

Posted

I am drawn to stories in which the protagonist is internally conflicted about themself or how to proceed through a fog of chaos when the right course of action is not readily clear and available. In such situations, the protagonist is often confronted by a great moral crisis, finding themself standing alone. Yet, they move forward, groping or plowing their way through the fog undaunted. For me, that is what a hero is made of.

Individualism reigns supreme in the pantheon of American values. Early American literature reflects that ethos. It was vividly portrayed by James Fenimore Cooper in his “Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757,” the second book of his pentalogy, “The Leather-Stocking Tales.” The struggle for the strong individualist erupts when they try or find themself needing to walk their own path — step to the beat of their own drum — while still living and acting within the confines of their tribe and social group. There the fight-flight-freeze rule applies.

Often though, the individual’s internal conflict involves or becomes a matter of conscience, of needing to make moral choices. When that happens, tension generally arises between them and their tribe or society with the promise, if not a guarantee, of an ensuing volatile clash.

The classic film “High Noon” presents such a conflict in stark terms. The setting is a placid, isolated Old West town teeming with the “frontier spirit.” The town is, however, encumbered by strict social norms. The citizens have forged a strong, fairly homogenetic community.

The story is a modern rendition of the late Middle Ages morality plays. In those, the theme focused on a high moral platitude portrayed through a sainted person’s life story. “High Noon” follows in the tradition of the old-time morality play with its length: about 85 minutes. It was filmed in black and white, which created the mood as well as presented the conflict in the stark moral contrast of good versus evil. Every citizen was forced to choose.

Initially, a sense the conflict that could be avoided took hold of Marshal Kane, who the gunnie and his henchmen were coming for. He heeded the counsel by the town’s leaders and fled. But a short time away from the dusty town gave him space to examine his conscience. That is when clarity set in. Running was delusionary. It would not solve the problem. Rather, it would merely transfer and delay dealing with it. He concluded his only recourse was to return and deal with it.

Life is an ongoing choice-making. Some choices involve ethical or moral issues, but most do not. If you are hungry, you might choose to eat in or to go out for a bite. But that presumes you have the means to make that choice. What if you don’t, and you and your children are starving with no handout available? Would it be OK for you to steal food to prevent starvation despite the moral and legal injunctions that stealing is forbidden? Is driving over the speed limit ever OK? Have you ever? Most drivers become apoplectic if another is weaving in and out and driving at breakneck speed. But what if that reckless driver was driving erratically because their passenger was experiencing a health episode that demanded immediate emergency care?

Rarely are we confronted by such existential crises, but when we are, it is not usually one we anticipated and prepared for. Nevertheless, it’s in your face, and you must choose. Just like the townspeople who refused to stand with the marshal, who personified the rule of law, either out of self-preservation — cowardice — or because the rule of law was bad for business. Either way, moral equivocation when confronted by great existential challenges is ultimately moral cowardice.

There was no threading of the morality needle there.

Curiously, John Wayne called “High Noon” “the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life.” But perhaps that was due to his familiarity with the movie’s director Carl Foreman who was blacklisted by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

A few years after the film was produced, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

His statement echoed one made by John Stuart Mill, 19th-century British political philosopher.

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing,” he said.

That was and remains true unless, of course, they run into people like Marshal Will Kane.

Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.

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