Gary Cooper taught our grandfathers what it meant to be a man. Does the sheriff of ‘High Noon’ still have relevance to today’s man?
Before the Internet, men who wanted to know how it was done went to the movies. “It” could be damn near anything a guy needed to know. Knot a tie, kiss a girl, wear a t-shirt, comb a pompadour, hold a cigarette, propose marriage, stir a Martini, pet a dog, wear a tux, hug his kids. Grandpa plunked down a few coins and bought a ticket to watch screen heroes. With no support groups and no manuals, there was no self-doubt about how to be a man. Screen heroes made the mold.
If anyone thought about manliness, they did after they did what they needed to do. Act first; think later—if ever. Any guy who suffered doubt went to the movies and learned Lesson #1. Keep your mouth shut. Unsure? Confused? No one cares. Man up. Get on with it.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Coop was 51. His screen wife, Grace Kelly, was 26 when High Noon hit the silver screen, the summer of 1952. A few years later, Grace Kelly quit pictures to become a real-deal princess, the Princess of Monaco.
Figure casting was blind to his being 25 years older than Grace and did not notice that his face had more lines than a roadmap. He’s not Hugh Hefner, but WTF?
This romantic screen-pairing would not have surprised Grandpa. After all, Coop played Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees and fought the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls, a story penned by his real-life fishing pal, Ernest Hemingway. In that flick, Coop winds up in a sleeping bag with Ingrid Bergman, something less than a hardship gig. Off-screen, Coop was linked with Marlene Dietrich and other leading ladies, including—you guessed it—the future Princess of Monaco.
In High Noon, Coop plays an ex-marshal ready to leave a dusty no-account New Mexico town with his new bride, a Quaker pacifist. The town’s industries are dust and sagebrush. Just as they load the buckboard, they learn a really bad, mean, ruthless, murderous, nasty dude he sent to the pen is out on a technicality. Even in the Old West, there is some soft-headed judge Ice T on Law and Order: SVU who might put a shiv through his motherfucking wagon wheel. Coop’s bad guy and three maniac buddies are arriving on the noon train.
They want Coop dead. Nothing less will do.
Coop turns the buckboard around. It’s not his job anymore; it’s not his lookout; it’s not even his town. Grandpa understood: the guy is stand-up.
Coop expects the town to express gratitude for his years of loyal service. He expects they will stand shoulder to shoulder with their friend and neighbor, the ex-marshal. The audience expects it, too. Why not? Outside the theater, beyond the scent of popcorn, America is kicking bad-guy ass everywhere. It is 1952, and the victory of World War II is fresh in the in audience’s memory, the Korean War is in the newspapers, and Senator Joe McCarthy is peeping under every American bed to find commie stooges corrupting the American Way. If we stick together, what can’t we do?
The problem is that the good people of Hadleyville, NM, aren’t as stand-up as Coop. The new marshal is pissed that his old boss is back. The merchants see no percentage in backing Coop’s play. After all, they paid him a salary to take risks like this. It’s not their business; this is not their problem. One wet-behind-the-ears kid thinks he can have his shot at glory, but when he learns he is the sole volunteer, he comes down with a bad case of gutless.
Coop should spit on the sidewalk and do a one-eighty, which is what his wife wants. Right?
Grace Kelly cannot deal. No honeymoon yet, but her husband has already placed her second to honor. Coop watches her board a train out of town. She occupies the seat beside Coop’s former, slightly slutty, girlfriend. She is bailing because she cannot stand to see Coop have his fool head blown off. But come high noon, the two women realize they love the big lug. They hightail it back to assist their man.
It seems the only two people in town with any balls don’t really have any. The pacifist princess plugs a baddie before she finds herself in a tight spot where she will need rescuing.
After some elaborate gunplay, Coop comes out of the fracas bleeding, but only a little. In front of the humiliated town, he throws his marshal’s badge into the dust. Coop and Grace climb into their buckboard. They are outta here.
Here’s what Grandpa learned:
- A good man is always alone.
- A good man is so devoted to a code of courage that he will sacrifice his happiness, his wife’s happiness, or his life to uphold it.
- A good man will look Death in the eye and never blink.
All right, Internet friends, let’s do what Grandpa could not. Let’s argue in cyberspace. A half century later, in 2011, are Grandpa’s lessons a burden? Or does a code of courage above all else define a man as a man?