The Tao of Cooper: Why High Noon Still Matters

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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Gary Cooper and his daughter Maria Cooper

I discovered what a really good actor my father, Gary Cooper, was on the set of High Noon, when I watched the filming of the movie’s memorable wedding scene. We did not visit my father at work often. He found it distracting to have family around and felt it would be boring for us. What’s more, the High Noon set was on the back lot of Warner Brothers studios, and the faux town of Hadleyville that had been built there was every bit as hot and dusty as a real Hadleyville would have been. Of all of the wonderful photos from the High Noon filming that the studio has in its archives, the one that means the most to me was taken on an especially oppressive day when I was talking to my father and he suddenly took off, saying “I’ll be right back.” He disappeared around the corner of the Hadleyville saloon and reappeared a few seconds later with something in his hand. I beamed when I saw what it was. The photographer captured that moment, as Sheriff Will Kane feeds his overheated daughter some cooling ice cream.

But the wedding scene was a different matter, and that day it was my father who was suffering. The script called for the sheriff and his bride—played by Hollywood newcomer Grace Kelly—to take their vows and for my father then to lift her high on the bureau to be kissed. For the tall, rangy Cooper, the petite young Kelly should not have been much of a burden. But unknown to nearly everyone else on the set, he had strained his back that morning in a most serious and painful way. Bending to pick up a pencil caused him severe pain. Now—never mind the celebrated Cooper minimalism—he would really have to work to act. As the groom lifted the bride, I saw perspiration pop out on his face. And yet he smiled with believable wedding-day happiness, delivering his dialogue easily, warmly, authentically. That scene was repeated many times that morning as the director called for several takes. In all of those re-shoots, I never once saw the sheriff wince. I know my father’s most celebrated screen moment is his performance of Lou Gehrig delivering his farewell speech in Pride of the Yankees, but that day in Hadleyville I came to appreciate how good he really was.

High Noon turns 60 years old this summer. My father has been gone for 51 of those years. And yet the movie has had an enduring impact that none of us, including the stars, could have anticipated at the time. In 1989, the Library of Congress chose High Noon for enshrinement in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It is number 27 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all cited it as among their favorite. So did former Prime Minister Junichiro Kuizimi of Japan. As recently as a few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a think-piece on the idea of facing down evil, and used both High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as examples of how it has been approached cinematically.

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But why? What hold does a very simple, 85-minute Western—made at a cost of just $720,000 in a cinematic era that had no shortage of other Westerns to choose from—have on us today?

The great power of High Noon, I believe, was that very simplicity. It was the story of a lone man who does the right thing at the risk of his own life. Period, full stop. And it was just the right role for my father to play. He was born in the town of Helena, Montana in 1901. He worked the family’s small ranch, went to a small town school and befriended the Native American children who lived in the area. His father—my grandfather—was a state Supreme Court judge, and he taught his son to value a code of decency and justice. “I knew the role of Will Kane was a natural for me,” my father said more than once. “My dad used to tell me stories about the sheriffs he dealt with in his days on the Montana Supreme Court Bench.”

But that Western code has ranged far beyond Helena—and far beyond the U.S as well. In 1989, Poland was holding its first free elections and needed to impress on a public that hadn’t cast a genuine ballot in more than two generations just the kind of power they were being given to wield. Outside of every major polling station a poster was thus displayed—of Gary Cooper in the role of Will Kane, with the name and logo of the Solidarity party added above his badge and the gun in his hand replaced by a ballot.

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In the years before and since, there have been more lone figures who stood up and did right—never mind the possible cost to themselves. There is the unknown hero of the Tiananmen massacre, who stood in the path of Chinese tanks with nothing more than courage rooting him in place. There is Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who endured house arrest for much of the past 21 years rather than submit to the junta that had seized power in her country. There is Nelson Mandela, who suffered even worse for South Africa. Whatever else can be said of George W. Bush’s presidency, his appearance atop the rubble pile just after Sept. 11 was a Hadleyville moment if ever there was one. So too was the image of a dust-covered Mayor Rudolph Giuliani striding toward the disaster site while everyone else was fleeing it. And just this week, President Obama visited two young women who survived the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., one of whom refused to escape during the attack so that she could stay and tend her friend’s gunshot wound.

It’s way too much to say that all of these people were knowingly moved by the lessons of High Noon; it’s way to much even to say that all of them have seen the movie. But it’s not too much to say that Will Kane provided a template for principle and courage that has seeped deeply into the global consciousness over the decades, creating a standard that is both aspired to by the Good Guys and, on occasion, understood and even deferred to by the Bad Guys.

My father had his own, admittedly less life-threatening Will Kane moment before High Noon was ever filmed. The movie was written by his friend and colleague Carl Foreman, who was being targeted for blacklisting by the communist-hunters of the McCarthy era. During one studio meeting at which Foreman was not present, the producers announced that the pressure from the red-baiters had grown too great and that Foreman was “off the picture.” My father stood up. “If Foreman goes, Cooper goes,” he said. Foreman stayed.

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When my father was later nominated for an Academy Award for High Noon, he was shooting another film deep in the mountains of Mexico and knew he would not be able to attend the ceremonies. So, he picked up the phone and called his colleague John Wayne—who had been one of the more vocal people inveighing against Foreman. He asked Wayne to accept the Oscar on his behalf in the event that he won. He did win and Wayne graciously followed through. Foreman, surely, appreciated the irony.

Gary Cooper took a lot of flack for his defense of Carl Foreman—including warnings that he was flirting with a blacklist himself. But he did the right thing. That ideal—writ large before the rumble of tanks in Tiananmen Square or writ small in the hand of a woman stanching the blood from a friend as they crouch on the floor in a Colorado movie theater—endures 60 years after we all first saw High Noon. It always will.