1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean, who then had a clash of vision of Foreman, who pulled out of the project and suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony in the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, and the film’s screenwriting Oscar was instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Western

High Noon (1952)

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Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Carl Foreman

By Roderick Heath

Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon stands in popular moviegoing memory as perhaps the most famous and purely emblematic of Westerns, and yet what made it stand out in 1952 was the way it violated conventions over the look and sound, as well as the deeper themes, usually found in the genre. It’s also one of two films made in the 1950s that provide a perpetual blueprint for modern action filmmaking, the other being Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Kurosawa’s film set the template for tales about a group of warriors with diverse talents and qualities drawn together for righteous battle. High Noon, its immediate precursor, by contrast portrays the crucial vision of a fighter forced to stand alone, with a title that became a by-word for moments of fraught confrontation. Both films, of course, were themselves condensations of earlier movie and storytelling traditions and particular influences, but each managed to winnow their concerns and approach into such precisely articulated iconography that they became henceforth the instant point of reference. Despite eventually being accepted as not just a classic but a perfect totem for an attitude of fortitude and resolve, Zinnemann’s film became a contested moment in screen history: greeted with general but by no means universal plaudits and solid popular success, it nonetheless irritated many, including John Wayne, and Howard Hawks, who felt the film’s basic premise so wrongheaded he made Rio Bravo (1959) as a riposte. High Noon was nominated for multiple Oscars and yet the disquiet behind the story it told probably resulted in losing out for Best Picture against reactionary chieftain Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. Ironies proliferate, as a movie specifically birthed by, and depicting, the failure of political and social leaders became a morale-boosting favourite of both American Presidents, as well as the Polish Solidarity movement.

 

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The story behind High Noon’s making is now impossible to detach from the film itself, even as most viewers in its time were unaware and indifferent. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, working from an outline he had penned and a short story called “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham, claimed his completed script was an allegory for the anti-Communist McCarthyist furore casting a torturous and destructive shadow over Hollywood, an episode where many hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee suddenly found themselves without support or backing in the climate of fear and fecklessness. Foreman himself was called before the committee as High Noon was being made, and began revising the script to incorporate some of the things happening to him, particularly the church argument sequence. Foreman’s refusal to name any people he had once been members of the Communist Party with left him vulnerable to blacklisting. As if fulfilling his own prophecy, Foreman’s producing partner Stanley Kramer immediately severed their association. Whilst a political conservative who had given friendly if trivial testimony to the HUAC, Cooper disliked the blacklist and backed Foreman, helping keep his name on the film, to such a degree that Wayne and others threatened to get him blacklisted too. Foreman eventually moved to England, and rebounded in Hollywood years later when he pseudonymously wrote David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), another tale of resisting oppressive power that shades into oblivious collaboration with that power, and then officially by writing and producing The Guns of Navarone (1961).

 

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Polish-born Zinnemann saw the project more universally, later noting that there was “something timely – and timeless” about the story, and perhaps with a degree of pretension declared that he didn’t see it as a Western but simply a story taking place in a particular historical setting. For Zinnemann, whose parents had died in the Holocaust, High Noon presented the perfect myth of civilisation standing its ground against malevolence, anarchy, and most insidious of all, cravenness. Certainly he would return repeatedly in his career to the concern of a protagonist wrestling with moral dilemmas and forced eventually to face a reckoning, whether it be with their own conscience, like the heroine of The Nun’s Story (1959), or, as in High Noon, From Here To Eternity (1953), and A Man For All Seasons (1966), being forced to take a stand against bullying and bludgeoning power despite the inevitable cost this invites. Zinnemann had made his prototype with 1948’s Act of Violence, a movie crucially depicting an inexorable march towards a potentially deadly confrontation that also, crucially, hinged on a demand for justice and accountability, in the tale of one war veteran hunting down a former fellow inmate of a POW camp he believes betrayed his comrades. Decades later Zinnemann would invert High Noon’s focus to an extent with The Day of the Jackal (1973), depicting an icily detached assassin’s exacting preparations for killing a political leader at a fatefully appointed hour.

 

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If High Noon’s standing has declined over the years, part of it’s because of greater recognition that it didn’t spark the “adult Western” movement of the ‘50s, although it certainly seems to have helped define it in certain key qualities. Zinnemann, whose defining traits of fine-grained, carefully sober, borderline minimalist style has gone in and out of critical fashion, moreover worked to purposefully reject the visual sweep and epic lustre associated with the genre’s leading exponents like John Ford and Hawks, despite the film resembling a feature-length take on the ending of Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby studied Matthew Brady’s Civil War-era photographs to and recreated their look, stripping away all hint of painterly gloss and what Zinnemann later called the “religious ritual” quality of most Western cinematography, instead shooting the film in a unsoftened, unfiltered black-and-white. The unvarnished approach gave the film a level of visual similarity to what was emerging as the distinct aesthetic of the era’s television, which seemed all the better for putting across studies of psychological angst and moral drama. At the same time, Zinnemann and Foreman’s key storytelling touch laid down a template for more recent crazes in trying to create a sense of unified realism in cinema, in labouring to make the film play out in very close to real time, with a ruthlessly metronomic sense of editing’s meaning and its relationship with time that finally becomes overt and oppressively intense in the legendary passage immediately preceding the inevitable climax. Time in High Noon is life, and death.

 

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The story is simplicity itself. In the small but burgeoning town of Hadleyville, in the New Mexico Territory, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is marrying his young Quaker bride Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). The wedding, performed by the town judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger) in his court, brings together many of the players in the subsequent drama celebrating the hero Marshal’s nuptials, including the Mayor, Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), Will’s predecessor and mentor Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), his friend Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan), and Fuller’s wife Mildred (Eve McVeagh). After the ceremony he surrenders the Marshal’s star before leaving on his honeymoon, although his replacement will not arrive the following day. Just before heading off, however, two coinciding events ruin the happy day. News arrives by telegram that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a cruel and violent outlaw who used to tyrannise Hadleyville and its residents until Will took over as Marshal, has just had his sentence commuted by the Governor and been released. Moreover, three men who once comprised Miller’s gang, his brother Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), and Jim Pierce (Robert J. Wilke), have just ridden into town and are now waiting at the railway station for the noon train. This portends an obvious fact: Frank is coming back, intending vengeance and renewal of his reign of terror. After initially continuing on out of town, Will eventually heaves the wagon to and tells his new wife he must head back. Amy retorts with a line of thinking he soon hears repeated in many variations, that it’s not his job anymore. But there’s no-one else to do it, and Will feels the obligation.

 

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Zinnemann commences the film with initially mysterious shots of the three hoodlums assembling in the wilds outside of Hadleyville and heading for the town. The style is immediately unusual, playing out wordlessly under the opening credits but already setting the drama in motion, suggested in the hard, bullet-eyed, expectant faces of the gunmen, set to the strains of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s ballad “High Noon,” sung for the film by Tex Ritter, with its plaintive refrain of “Do not forsake me, O my darling,” which then returns at intervals throughout the film, as if it’s playing within Will’s head, loping, repetitive, nagging, anxious. The song’s popularity and clever dramatic justification sparked a craze for Westerns to all sport their Top Ten-wannabe theme song, but most of those imitators tended much more strident: in High Noon the song is spare, stark, mournfully simple, sounding at once like an authentic Western ballad whilst also evoking the courtly romanticism of a medieval troubadour’s poem. The lyrics recount the film’s plot informally, and suggest the story’s most deeply essential relationship is, ultimately, that between Will and Amy rather than Will and the community: anyone can stand facing the world and its evils when the one person dear to them stands behind them.

 

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Will knows his enemy, sure in his anticipation that Miller and his gang, vicious thugs all with a lode of pent-up anger to expiate, will visit abuse, murder, and rape upon the town, as well as the risk of them running him and Amy down on the road. Will soon forms the conviction that the only way to stop them is to meet them with sufficient force to ward them off. Will soon finds his conscientious sense of purpose, which he feels as surely as any knight or samurai, isn’t necessarily shared by his fellow townspeople. His first major disenchantment comes from Amy herself, as she tells him in a fury that she doesn’t want him risking his life or taking those of others, and swiftly presents an ultimatum, promising to abandon him and head off on the train if he doesn’t immediately leave with her. Will looks pained but makes no gesture to comply, so Amy heads to the station. Will at least knows this was a potential problem with his mate, having accepted her and her Quaker faith, which, as she memorably narrates later, she turned to after losing loved-ones to ferocious violence: “My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn’t help them when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die.” Amy’s moral perspective runs counter to the basic precepts that Will espouses through deed and unspoken feeling rather than intellectual formulae, that certain dangers must be braved in order for society to hold together.

 

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High Noon’s take on an eternal dialogue between pacifism and measured force is cast in the roles of masculine and feminine values, purposefully set at their most polarised extremes with Will’s, but also entangled by the bonds of affection, as well as an incipient trial of strength within the marriage, the marriage of two minds as inevitably fraught contests of moral vision with mutual degrees of incomprehension. This element of the film, which threads right through it both dramatically and philosophically, immediate connects High Noon to the social perspective espoused in Ford’s great Westerns but also confronts it and asks certain interesting questions. In My Darling Clementine (1946) the eponymous lady embodied civilised values the gunfighter hero could dance with but could not countenance settling down with: as he had before in Stagecoach (1939) and would again in The Searchers (1956) despite their divergences in theme and style, Ford conceived of the Western hero as a figure who had substance only in a specific place and moment and had to yield to a civilisation, defined as intrinsically feminine. One thing that’s particularly interesting about High Noon, both within its own narrative and in terms of its genre, is that High Noon actually tells the story after the story. Will’s first victory over Miller can be regarded as the Western genre in miniature: the barbarian has been defeated, civilisation has settled. Now the warrior can turn in his badge and take the bride who will have him “running a store.”

 

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Of course, the narrative compels us to recognise the more imminent validity of Will’s point, because his foes aren’t reasonable men with motives that can be assimilated or negotiated, but rather holdovers from a barbarian past who once might have held sway over the Steppes or the Danelaw, given an historical petri dish to grow again by the Wild West’s disorder. This aspect also both builds upon and interrogates Ford’s concept of the Western, suggesting that barbarity and civilisation exist one inside the other like Matroushka dolls than a rolling tide of colonial superceding, one keeping a check on the other, requiring that certain people, in this case Will, retain their outback bushido as the only way to ensure the world holds together. The message is most easily and commonly formulated by the famous line Wayne delivered in another film, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” But just what is it a man’s gotta do? A phrase repeated twice in the film in variations is an answer to a character’s uncomprehending question as to why Will pursues his sense of duty: “If you don’t know, then I can’t explain it to you,” evoking a realm of ethical experience that almost lies beyond liminal understanding, a sense of personal responsibility for the world that one either possesses or doesn’t.

 

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Will soon finds others want him to move on for a wide variety of reasons. His chief deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a callow and resentful man, is annoyed that he got passed over for being Will’s replacement, a choice Will says was that of the town council rather than himself: where Amy’s resistance is principled, Harvey’s motives are more aggressively perverse, his desire to assimilate Will’s stature plain in not just seeking his job but also in having taken up with his former lover Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado). It’s as if Harvey sees all this as the blueprint for evolving into a similarly potent and sovereign man, also manifesting in a need to hinder Will, to reduce him rather than try to live up to his example. Harvey quits when Will refuses to promise him the sheriff’s job in exchange for his help, and later assaults Will to forestall his confrontation with the gang, not to save him but because Harvey knows it would too sorely expose his own weakness. Mettrick, who passed sentence on Miller, packs up his belongings upon hearing Miller is coming, whilst coolly and calmly explaining his own attitude to Will, recounting both historical precedent and personal, including one from ancient Athens and a similar situation he was involved in himself years before and feeling discretion the better part of valour: “I’ve been a judge many times in many towns – I hope to live to be a judge again.” The rule of law has no strength without its enforcers.

 

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Mettrick is glimpsed, in a mordant touch, taking down and folding up the American flag: afterwards the rectangular imprint of it on the wall behind him remains visible. Invisible presences are important in this scene, nudged more forcefully as Mettrick reminds Will of Miller’s promise to return and kill him, pointing to the chair where he sat during the trial and spoke those words. Zinnemann dollies up to the empty piece of furniture as it becomes the totem of Miller’s tyrannical presence, before making a jagged jump cut to Pierce smashing an empty liquor bottle as he and his companions wait in sweaty frustration. Others in town wouldn’t mind seeing Will go up against the gang and earn a few bullet holes, like the impudently sarcastic hotel receptionist (Howland Chamberlain) and tavern owner Gillis (Larry J. Blake), still annoyed that the process of “cleaning up” Hadleyville cost them their best sources of business. When Will enters the tavern on the search for volunteers to back him up, immediately after a charged, silent encounter with the smirking Harvey, he hears Gillis delighting in the prospect. Will socks Gillis in the face, but immediately apologises when the bloody-lipped Gillis notes he has all the power in their immediate situation. Will tries to find Fuller, but Fuller hides in his house and has Mildred tell Will he’s not home: “Well what do you want, you want me to get killed?” he demands of her when she wears a shameful look after lying to Will.

 

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The central scene sees the failure of support for Will implicate the community’s innermost ranks, when he visits the congregation gathered in the local church mid-service. This scene bears a strong and deliberate-feeling resemblance to scenes that often featured in movies made during World War II where communities argued about the costs of resistance versus passivity, like Edge of Darkness (1943), which also takes place in a church. Except that the upshot of such scenes is inverted, starting off with some of the men in the congregation immediately rising to pledge their aid, only for objecting voices to be raised and stall them, and Will’s hope of forging a unified response bleeds steam and dies. Will’s motives are impugned, accused of wanting to drag others into what is a personal feud between him and Miller. The parson (Morgan Farley), who snippily criticises Will for coming to the church despite rarely visiting it other times and not getting married there, notes with confused gravitas that the Commandments forbids killing “but we hire men to go out and do it for us,” and remains noncommittal. Voice of protest are still raised from those who find the failure to support Will disgusting and those who remember how bad things were before he took up his job and got rid of Miller. The real blow falls when Henderson starts giving a speech that seems to be supporting Will until he suddenly changes tack and argues any gunfighting will ruin the town’s nascent prosperity and that likely nothing will happen if Will doesn’t confront the gang, preferring the illusion of peace and harmony to its actuality. This finally leaves Will without any support.

 

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Zinnemann provides both a dash of comic relief and pointed symbolism as Will leaves the church, as the children play tug-of-war on the lawn mimics the verbal contests of their elders before all falling over. The connection between the church scene and those forebears from wartime movies, with the stinging diagnosis of faltering communal will and purpose, takes aim at the chief disease of a hard-bought peacetime: apathy. The accumulating portrait of a community now paralysed by its own timidity and uncertainty is mediated by a complex sense of individual purposes. Everyone has their reasons, from Henderson’s forced-seeming declaration of faith in simply avoiding the fight, breaking out in a muck sweat as he praises Will to the heavens whilst also abandoning him in his cause, to Harvey’s more personal, egocentric objections. The only men who fearlessly volunteer to help Will are disabled, like the one-eyed Jimmy (William Newell), or addicted, or very young, wanting to prove themselves, and Will must gently turn them down. Will’s last visit to make an appeal for help is to Howe. Howe too elects to stay out of the fight, in part for the right reasons as he’s too old and riddled with arthritis to be of any real help. But he also clearly mortifies Will when he comments on the underlying problem Will’s facing: “They don’t care. Deep down, they don’t care.” Finally the only one of Will’s deputies who shows up, Herb Baker (James Millican), immediately begs release from his duty, and Will grants it, knowing by this point there’s no point resisting this particular tide.

 

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Just about everyone has experienced some moment in their life, perhaps relatively trivial or truly life-and-death, where they’ve felt exposed and alone before fate to the indifference of others. High Noon converted this feeling, this familiarity, into a perpetual legend applicable to any variation; indeed, it might even have incidentally exposed it as something close to the existential state of the modern world. Whilst the genre plot rhythms might disguise it, High Noon is as disillusioned with the post-war settlement as any Italian alienation epic. Despite Zinnemann’s unease with identifying the film as a Western, it nonetheless depends on its genre setting for its potency, and not just to provide an accessible commercial chassis. High Noon annexes the already well-defined capacity of the Western to tell rock-ribbed, quasi-mythic stories about good and bad, about civilisation and its discontents. It’s a genre where the arrival of civilisation is supposed to be a good thing but also an ambivalent moment if only because its arrival chokes of further hope for the kind of violent, freewheeling action the genre required. High Noon, like a sagebrush take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, nonetheless took that ambivalence a step further to diagnose jealousy, selfishness, cowardice, disloyalty, and all the other familiar traits of human beings since time immemorial in Hadleyville. Of course, none of this was exactly, entirely original in the Western. After all, Ford had introduced his heroes in Stagecoach as social outcasts, beset by Pharisaic creeps appointing themselves the defenders of civilisations. Nor did High Noon introduce the idea of a lawman making an appeal to townsfolk for aid: many dozens upon dozens of oatsers had featured the sheriff rounding up a posse to go hunt down somebody. What High Noon did more concertedly than most before it was make the Western a realm for social drama, an idea that ironically helped fuel its explosive popularity over the next 15 years, as now it could encompass analogies for any kind of moral conundrum and interpersonal conflict, but most crucially the fraught relationship between individual and the community values.

 

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Cooper was in a rough patch in when he came on board for High Noon. He’d made several financially disappointing films in a row, he was separated from his wife after a string of affairs with leading ladies, and he was in physical pain from both his hip, which had been injured in a car accident when he was a teenager, and from a recent operation to remove a bleeding ulcer. He only landed the role of Will Kane after several other stars turned it down, including Marlon Brando, the breakout star of Zinnemann’s earlier film The Men (1950), and Kirk Douglas. Cooper had been the top male movie star in the world fifteen years earlier, powered by a rarefied combination of rough-and-ready charm and sanguine cool, able to wear a tuxedo or buckskins with equal ease and as deft at comedy as gunfighting, playing a certain kind of male ideal but never projecting an aura of compensating force, instead offering a gently discursive, off-the-beat rhythm in his dialogue and emoting. His handsome playboys and igneous range heroes often seemed slightly embarrassed, conscious of the disparity between their inner and outer worlds. Cooper had won his first Oscar acting in Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), playing a character who could well be described as a combination of Will and Amy, a pacifist who becomes a warrior through his desire to save others rather than kill.

 

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Cooper’s presence is the life blood of High Noon, his familiarly subtle, discursive acting style helping make Will Kane an unusually realistic, palpable hero, one who distilled Cooper’s entire career and persona into one character. He’s somewhat off the beat for the style of hero gaining traction in 1950s dramas who wore their jagged anger on their sleeves, those played by actors like Douglas and Brando. Will Kane is by contrast an emblematic stoic, and yet Cooper constantly reveals through controlled gestures the troubled, shocked, infuriated soul lurking behind his limpid gaze: Will Kane is compelled by inner virtue to take a stand, but he’s all too aware he’s probably asking to be gunned down in the street, and he’s frightened. The registration of staggering treachery and weakness in his encounters with various townsfolk registers in that gaze like tiny star shells going off, reaching an apogee when he realises Henderson is deserting him, his expression barely changing yet his absolutely beggared shock still apparent, as well as his sense of sudden exposure, suddenly changed from public hero to the indicted problem, a fool at the pillory, his desire to sock Henderson just as he did Gillis plainly simmering even as he keeps his cool this time and offers a single, terse “Thanks” before stalking out. Cooper’s health problems only amplified the performance as Zinnemann and Crosby’s intense, almost excoriating close-ups found the most finite registers of discomfort and disenchantment.

 

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Kelly, by contrast, was the fresh-faced starlet plucked off Broadway, still with a little baby fat around her famous face, easily projects maturity far greater than her 21 years, her posh, cut-glass accent odd in the setting and yet helping give haughty edge to Amy’s vehement, zealous moralism and repudiation of Will when he can’t be swayed. Jurado is the dark and bodied opposite of Kelly’s virginal blonde primness, spindly white-clad form and earthy, fleshy, dark-draped body in strange gravitational proximity when the two meet. Helen Ramirez combines opposites within herself: she is at once a figure of social potency and a sort of anointed priestess in a primeval cult, moving as lover from villain to hero to Harvey, the avatar of a misbegotten species of boy-man hovering in between. Amy, who knew nothing about Helen before Will feels obliged to visit her to ask for her influence, eventually visits her hotel room in furtive fascination. Like so much of the film, they retain multivalent symbolic power, Madonna and whore, Latin America and WASP, independent woman and spouse, and two different but equally fierce private codes. Helen knows Hadleyville’s secret life with unblinkered honesty, grasps its true nature with its supercilious piety and imminent lack of real character: “I hate this town. I always hated it. To be a Mexican woman in a town like this.”

 

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Helen is many ways the most vividly realised and remarkable character in the film, both exemplifying and undercutting the figure of the Latin temptress, a worldly being whose charisma and fecund sexuality, something she has no compunction in bestowing on men who catch her fancy, have ironically made her a potent and respected figure in her community. Helen alone stands outside the communal dynamics being acted out as she coldly repudiates everything that begins to disgust her all at once, most particularly Harvey who finds he has no sway over her at all when tries to force her to stay and kisses her. “I don’t like anybody to put his hands on me unless I want him to – and I don’t like you to anymore,” she states imperiously, and gives him a good slap to seal the deal. Helen may be anointed but also knows her role is to do the anointing of the successor in the chain of masculine maturation, and Harvey just ain’t got it. Helen does what Will most pointedly cannot do, and forsakes Hadleyville and its citizens in her conviction that when Will dies the town dies with him, and refuses to wait around to watch it. Meanwhile the offended and semi-soused Harvey tries to force Will to leave town, finally attacking him physically when he cannot be persuaded, his eyes bright with hysterical need to rid himself of Will. Fisticuffs are sparked when Will finally resists by throwing off his grasp: “Don’t shove me, Harv. I’m tired of being shoved.”

 

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Will wins the brutal fistfight that follows but emerges battered and bloodied and perhaps robbed of his best fighting edge: Will still pauses to tip a pail of water over Harvey to make sure he rouses, a lovely little character touch, as is the subsequent scene where, after writing his last will and testament, he releases town drunk Charlie (Jack Elam), who’s utterly oblivious of the primal drama gripping the town and asks if the saloon is open yet. The film’s real climax is the marvellous montage sequence as Will writes his legacy in his office whilst the clock ticks down the last few seconds to noon. Zinnemann cuts between the various players in the previous hour or so locked in their little spaces of particular feeling – all of them suddenly solitary like Will even amongst community – before returning to the empty chair where Miller sat, in his absence now as powerful as any dragon, whilst Tiomkin’s mostly sparing score gyres up the sense of imminent drama in obedience to the ticks of the clock’s pendulum, until suddenly severed by the whistle of the approaching train, sounding exactly upon the noon stroke.

 

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Zinnemann’s aesthetic for High Noon, which studio chieftains kept complaining about during shooting, helped speed up a process in which Hollywood divested itself of the lingering influence of Expressionism and adopted the look Zinnemann and Crosby created as the new template of realism which was in its way as stylised as what it was supplanting particularly in the flat lighting, quickly travelling beyond the boundaries of the Western. But the harsh, flat look doesn’t obscure the precision of Zinnemann’s framing, his careful use of close-ups and tightly composed images of the actors that still retain some of the flavour of the silent era German cinema he had been involved in, and that cinema’s overriding desire to capture people in both their physical and mental dimensions. Zinnemann’s shots in the countdown montage, like a looming close-up not entirely contained by the frame of the three waiting outlaws looking like the three heads of a sleazy Cerberus, and a glimpse of the Fullers in locked together in their safe, guilty space, have piercing clarity. The countdown montage, endlessly influential in terms of the mounting suspense and rhythmic intensity of a movie, sees Zinnemann and collaborators turn cinematic time itself into an iron maiden squeezing upon each character, not simply heightening the suspense but offering in its way a final signature on each facet of the social drama, each person who has failed Will and themselves weighing up the value of their mortality.

 

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After releasing Charlie and sealing up his will, Will heads out into the street where the only thing that moves is the carriage carrying Helen and Amy to the station: Helen dares a glance at Will alone on the street but Amy cannot. Zinnemann’s deft punctuation with camera movement is as notable as the editing proceeding this vignette, first offering a dolly shot moving away from Will, the act of abandoning him rendered physically palpable. Zinnemann then switches to a crane shot that moves remorselessly upwards from Will until he’s a small, dark, spindly figure alone in a ghost town: Will is at once dwarfed by space, realising just how completely alone he is, but he’s also now the only presence, the rest of the townspeople, as Helen predicted, erased and meaningless. This particular shot has also been endlessly imitated and invoked in heroic cinema, inverting as it does Ford’s introduction of Wayne’s Ringo in Stagecoach, where the hero resolves out of shadow, mythic function, the storehouse of archetype, suddenly loaned flesh; Will instead becomes the focal point of a different mode of cinematic exaltation, one that diminishes him physically but also urges in the opposite direction, from man to figure fit for legend.

 

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Zinnemann continues to keep Miller himself a vague, almost abstract presence even after he steps off the train and greets his confederates; his acne-scarred, crudely charismatic features aren’t seen until he glances up and sees Helen boarding the train. The demon finally has a face, and he’s granted immediate potency precisely because he’s not immediately presented as a frothing mad dog, but as a coldly imperious figure. The businesslike swagger of the gunmen as they head into town has the focused precision of a death squad rather than a gang of scabby desperados, but the discipline is broken when thought turns to the revels to come after the hunt: Ben steals a lady’s bonnet from a shopfront display, the sound of shattering glass warning Will where the killers are and allowing him to lie in ambush, gunning down Ben in the first volley. The first gunfire also shatters Amy’s glaze of resolve, and she dashes off the train and back into the town to find Will, whilst Helen is carried out of town.

 

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Will uses his immediate familiarity with the town as his one real advantage, lying in wait, shooting, running, eluding, finally ending up in the hayloft of a stables. He manages to kill Colby when he comes in close for the kill. Will’s innate decency and his quick thinking converge when he’s trapped in a barn and the gang try to force him out by setting fire to it: Will frees the frightened horses and drives them out of the stables, clinging low and hard to one as he speeds out, bullets whizzing around him. The action in the finale is notably intense and realistic – nobody’s a superhuman shot and the violence is quick and frenetic. Men die in the blink of an eye. Will’s tactics and use of the town as an obstacle course not only make perfect sense given his situation but also makes clear why he preferred to make his stand there rather than risk running on the prairie. When, inevitably, Amy intervenes in the fight and shoots Pierce, it’s a powerfully affirming gesture for Amy in intervening to save her husband, but also a distinctly inglorious one: she shoots Pierce in the back from the window of the Marshal’s office when he’s reloading his pistols, and Zinnemann cuts to a close shot of her cringing in horror and pain.

 

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It’s easy enough to see this as the ultimate “stand by your man” message, but it’s more complex upon consideration, chiefly in the fact that Amy likely saves her husband’s life and then saves her own, granting her equity as Will’s partner, and when one remembers Amy’s motives in becoming a Quaker, because of her dead loved-ones: the one essential impulse drives two seemingly contradictory impulses, much indeed as it does Will. Amy’s intervention also makes her a combatant and therefore she immediately becomes vulnerable: Miller takes the chance to sneak up on her and take her hostage. Amy helps save herself and Will by clawing at Miller with sufficient ferocity that he thrust her away, giving Will the chance to gun him down. And just like that, the threat is gone, the dead very dead, the living holding each-other in numbed gratitude. Will’s famous last gesture, picking off the star after giving a long look of disgust to the crowd flocking and tossing it into the dirt, confirms there are limits to even the best person’s sense of duty and responsibility, and Will, fully justified in his house if not his town, leaves with his bride to the lilting refrain of the title ballad. As an ending this still feels daring in its curt diminuendo, the refusal to force any kind of make-nice or underline with bombast: doing right has been a terrible thing, but not half as terrible as watching others do wrong.

 

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High Noon’s impact is such a constant in pop culture it’s hard to summarise, giving rise most immediately to Westerns as diverse as the self-consciously mythic Shane (1953) and the vividly psychological Johnny Guitar (1954), and echoing on in overt variations and tributes. The template was as easily transposed into space for Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981) and monster movie for Predator (1987) as into the contemporary landscape for the likes of Dirty Harry (1971), which pointedly invested new meaning to Will’s last gesture, and Die Hard (1988), where duelling memories of the film define the relationship between the hero and villain (“That was Gary Cooper, asshole!”) and the worlds they represent. Despite his lack of fondness for the way the film changed the Western towards something more psychological and moralistic, Sergio Leone offered his own, characteristically magnified tribute in the opening scene of Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) as he recreated the vision of three bored, tense gunmen waiting for a train. Sam Peckinpah inverted the march of the villains into the town for the legendary march of The Wild Bunch (1969) towards their auto-da-fe. But as is so often the case, the wellspring retains its own, specific power, one that can still sneak up on a viewer even now.

 

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