2 old movies every American should watch on Jan. 6

A screenshot from the trailer of “Rio Bravo,” a classic American western film released in 1959. (Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers via YouTube)

Estimated read time: 12-13 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — While just about every film-producing nation on the planet has dabbled in western motifs, there is perhaps no film genre more uniquely and quintessentially American. And, even if westerns aren’t your preferred cinematic flavor, there are two classics that absolutely every American should watch.

Both films are constant fixtures on lists of the greatest westerns of all time and they both star some of Hollywood’s most enduring personalities. But that’s not the reason every single American should watch both “High Noon” (starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly), and “Rio Bravo” (starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nielsen, Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson).

“High Noon” and “Rio Bravo” are inexorably linked. The films are two competing portraits of Hollywood and, by extension, portraits of the United States of America, with a shared history nearly as dramatic as the films themselves. And thanks to recent events, both films are perhaps more relevant now than at any point since hitting the silver screen in 1952 and 1959, respectively.

John Wayne in "Rio Bravo," directed and produced by Howard Hawks and released in 1959.
John Wayne in “Rio Bravo,” directed and produced by Howard Hawks and released in 1959. (Photo: Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers via YouTube)

Not only were both films born out of America’s tumultuous political climate following World War II, defined largely by McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Americans deemed “subversives,” but “Rio Bravo” was deliberately made as a cinematic foil to its predecessor “High Noon.”

Carl Foreman, the screenwriter for “High Noon,” had been a member of the Communist Party in the late 1930s and early ’40s according to Glenn Frankel, author of “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.” But Foreman had “soured” on and subsequently left the Communist Party at the end of World War II. In spite of Foreman’s estrangement from the party, he was named as a communist during the production of “High Noon” and called to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Reaffirming his loyalty oath, as required by the committee, Foreman stopped short of admitting he had been a communist and refused to name others affiliated with the party. Foreman was subsequently labeled a hostile witness and was blacklisted in Hollywood — denied employment as a suspected communist sympathizer.

It was largely thanks to the support from film star Gary Cooper, a staunch conservative and anti-communist, in his own right, that Foreman was able to retain some presence and influence over the politicized production of “High Noon” — at least for a time.

Eventually, however, the political pressure proved too much for the film director and studio executives. Foreman lost his associate producer credit on the film and was given a severance package by Columbia Pictures; afterward, he self-exiled to Great Britain and wrote under a number of aliases on productions such as “Bridge Over the River Kwai.”

“High Noon” would go on to achieve remarkable success including a Best Actor Oscar for Gary Cooper who played Will Kane, the marshal of Hadleyville. And the success of “Rio Bravo” success would lead director Howard Hawks to team with Wayne on two more variations on the same theme — “El Dorado” in 1966 and “Rio Lobo” in 1970.

A familiar storyline

In the film, trouble arises immediately following Marshal Kane’s wedding, when he learns that a murderer he arrested five years prior (Frank Miller) has been released from prison and will arrive in town on the noon train.

Faced with the choice to retire as marshal and run away with his new bride (Grace Kelly) or stay and face Miller and his gang, Marshal Kane (Cooper) chooses to stay — reasoning that Miller will come for him no matter where he runs.

Knowing he’s outnumbered and outmatched, Marshal Kane seeks to deputize the citizens of Hadleyville. But — with the exception of a drunk and a 14-year-old boy — everyone in town, even the marshal’s bride (a Quaker opposed to violence) and Kane’s closest friends, rationalize that his fight with Miller isn’t their fight. As a result, Marshal Kane is seemingly left to face Miller and his gang alone.

A marshall, personally compelled to face a returning deadly enemy, finds that his own town refuses to help him in "High Noon," released in 1952.
A marshall, personally compelled to face a returning deadly enemy, finds that his own town refuses to help him in “High Noon,” released in 1952. (Photo: Rotten Tomatoes Classic Tomatoes via YouTube)

While he never said so during production, Carl Foreman later stated that “High Noon” was an allegory for the politics of the time, specifically the practice of blacklisting.

Legendary actor John Wayne had originally been offered the role of Marshal Will Kane in “High Noon,” but turned it down, later referring to the film as “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” But Wayne’s distaste for Carl Foreman’s story didn’t end there.

For Wayne, “High Noon,” as an allegory for blacklisting, was personal.

Wayne was both a prominent and outspoken anti-communist, and an ardent supporter of blacklisting. While discussing “High Noon” in a 1971 interview, Wayne even proudly claimed that he had “helped run Foreman out of (the) country.”

Ironically, when Gary Cooper was unable to accept his Oscar for “High Noon,” it was his close friend John Wayne who stepped in to accept the award on Cooper’s behalf, falsely claiming at the time that he had not been offered the role of Marshal Will Kane himself.

Within the decade, Wayne would partner with Hawks and release their retort to “High Noon” — “Rio Bravo.”

Wayne, playing Sheriff John T. Chance, finds himself in a predicament similar to Will Kane in “High Noon.” Greatly outnumbered, the unwavering sheriff, called “Chance” by his friends, arrests murderer Joe Burdette. But there’s just one catch. Joe has a brother, Nathan, a powerful, corrupt and dangerous Texas baron who will do anything to make sure his brother doesn’t pay for his crime.

Like Will Kane in “High Noon,” John Chance is unwilling and unable to abandon his oath to uphold the law despite the near-impossible odds. But rather than being abandoned by his friends, a colorful cast of characters rally to their sheriff’s aid, in spite of the ever-present danger posed by Nathan Burdette and his henchmen.

They include Dude (Dean Martin), an alcoholic plagued by powerful personal demons; Stumpy (Walter Brennan), an eccentric old coot; as well as a competent but initially apathetic baby-faced gunslinger called Colorado (Ricky Nelson); an itinerant gambler nicknamed “Feathers” (Angie Dickinson); and a hotelier named Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and his wife Consuelo (Estelita Rodriguez).

Political reflection

While both films at first appear to be centered around a steadfast and idealized moral figure wearing a badge, they are perhaps better viewed as portraits of the towns where each story unfolds; each is an allegorical representation of the United States of America.

According to Glenn Frankel, when Foreman set out to write “High Noon,” he intended to write a parable about the United Nations and the unity needed following World War II. But having been branded as a communist and blacklisted, “High Noon” instead became a parable about the betrayal and the isolation Foreman endured.

Ironically — “Rio Bravo” (John Wayne and Howard Hawke’s retort to “High Noon”) is exactly what Foreman first intended to write — a unity parable. It’s the story of a diverse group of people who bicker and fight, and are at times short-sighted, selfish and unsure of themselves — but who rally in the defense of the law and their friends sworn to uphold and enforce it.

Viewed in light of America’s current political climate — which two years ago today led to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol — these two films have grown ever-more relevant.

Consider the police officers and members of Congress at the Capitol, who like Marshal Will Kane and Sheriff John T. Chance have sworn an oath to uphold, defend and faithfully execute and enforce the laws of the United States, and were besieged upon the conclusion of the former president’s speech — which, on Jan. 6, 2021, coincidentally, took place at high noon.

Insurrectionists loyal to former U.S. President Donald Trump breach the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Insurrectionists loyal to former U.S. President Donald Trump breach the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo: John Minchillo, Associated Press)

Beyond the extralegal violence and intimidation employed for the purpose of interrupting or altering the lawful and constitutional certification of the 2020 presidential election, cancel culture (effectively the 21st-century reincarnation of blacklisting) has become the weapon of choice for anyone who wishes to purge all who do not adhere to partisan and social dogma 100{835de6664969b5e2b6c055b582ef3cf063416af730213b9aba3a0f9f5e47a307} of the time.

Congresswoman Liz Cheney has been stripped of her leadership position and expelled from the Wyoming Republican Party despite voting with her party and the former president 92{835de6664969b5e2b6c055b582ef3cf063416af730213b9aba3a0f9f5e47a307} of the time.

Adam Kinzinger, who voted with his party and the former president more than 90{835de6664969b5e2b6c055b582ef3cf063416af730213b9aba3a0f9f5e47a307} of the time, and served, simultaneously, in the Air National Guard and Congress, has been similarly purged, because, in Kinzinger’s words, “I swore an oath both in uniform and in this office to protect this nation and its constitution … not a political party, and not a single man.”

One of the central messages of both “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo” is that extraordinary courage is sometimes required to remain true to one’s oath to faithfully uphold and defend the law. That faithfulness might even result in abandonment, or mark you as a target for those inconvenienced by or at odds with the law.

History repeats itself

Neither Frank Miller (primary villain in “High Noon”) nor Nathan Burdette (primary villain in “Rio Bravo”) get much screen time, but they both loom large over almost every scene in their respective films: Miller being represented by a ticking clock and Nathan Burdette by a piece of music.

As villains go, Frank Miller and his gang are pretty one-dimensional characters, which works fine for “High Noon” because the people of Hadleyville are the more primary focus of the film. Many gather in church and pray together, some even praising Marshal Kane as “the best marshal” they’ve ever had.

In the end, the people of Hadleyville either fail, or refuse to turn faith and admiration into action, becoming Frank Miller’s enablers.

One particularly poignant scene finds Marshal Kane confronting the town judge, who having passed sentence on Frank Miller five years earlier, faces the same threat as Kane. But rather than standing up to Miller, Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger) chooses to skip town, comparing the people of Hadleyville to the ancient people of Athens, who after deposing and banishing a tyrant later “opened the city gates for that same tyrant and stood by while he executed members of the legal government,” likely a reference to Peisistratus sometimes called the “tyrant of Athens.”

While the judge — who like Marshal Kane swore an oath to uphold and enforce the law — explains his reasons for leaving, he unceremoniously removes both the American flag and the scales of justice from his office wall and stuffs them into a bag, symbolizing his and the town’s abandonment of the rule of law and their capitulation to Hadleyville’s “tyrant.”

The scene is echoed later when a disillusioned former lawman laments, “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they are willing to do anything about it. Maybe because deep down they don’t care. They just don’t care.”

While many in Hadleyville are scared of Miller, others see opportunity in Marshal Kane’s life-or-death struggle. Some unapologetically claim their business would be more profitable with Marshal Kane out of the picture and Frank Miller on the loose.

Of the two films, “Rio Bravo” paints a more political portrait of villainy, making a surprisingly relevant commentary on what some might call metastasized capitalism, where money and affluence often threaten the just application of law.

Where Frank Miller is a “wild,” “crazy” and unapologetic fiend, Nathan Burdette is more calculated and political in “Rio Bravo” — paying or directing others to do his dirty work, speaking almost exclusively in veiled threats and denying having any role in the violence despite being its architect.

Lessons learned?

The parallel dilemmas faced by the fictitious towns of Hadleyville and “Rio Bravo” and those facing Americans today are quite remarkable. Even the life-or-death nature of each film no longer seems as hyperbolic, when remembering those who died in connection with the attack on Jan. 6 and the “surge” of political violence across the nation, including the riots following the death of George Floyd and the attack on Paul Pelosi.

Carl Foreman ultimately wrote a unity parable when he penned the script for “High Noon” — though not as he intended. The people of Hadleyville are very much united, arguably more so than the people of “Rio Bravo.” Only they are united in capitulation to Miller and in the abandonment of law and order and their honorable friend sworn to enforce it.

By contrast the characters of “Rio Bravo,” while still prone to squabbles, pettiness and self-doubt, ultimately overcome those obstacles and unite in defense of the law and those faithful to their oaths to uphold and enforce it.

These two dueling American unity parables pose a nuanced set of questions to the people of the United States, especially following the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Many have called for unity following the attack on the Capitol.

But these questions still remain: What will unite Americans? And what ought to unite them?

Will Americans be united in defense of the law like the main characters in “Rio Bravo”? Or will they be united, like the citizens of Hadleyville, abandoning the law and blacklisting those who faithfully labor to uphold it?


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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.

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