Was John Wayne High Noon’s Biggest Villain?

John Wayne also had a personal crusade against the screenwriter of the classic Western, High Noon.

John Wayne High Noon Villain Gary Cooper

Like many Americans, the image of John Wayne’s silhouette is etched into my subconscious. Having the good fortune to partner with one of the greatest directors of his day—and the greatest Western auteur, bar none—the Duke strikes an at once fierce and noble figure in John Ford’s very best films. With pictures like Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, and especially The Searchers in his canon, there is nothing more dignified than the man stretching his arm, an homage to his own Western idol Harry Carey Sr., standing in the doorway to the wilderness he can never abandon. Olive Carey, Harry’s widow, was not wrong in comparing him to a ballet legend when she said the Duke “has the grace of Nureyev,” which was relayed by film historian Glenn Frankel in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.

Yet it is Glenn Frankel’s latest nonfiction study of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one that is as much about American history as it is the motion picture variety, that recalls the Duke’s grim role in another Western classic that neither he nor Ford had anything to do with. Like the title says, Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic is about how one of the most enduring Oaters to ever be put on celluloid came to be, as well as how despite much critical debate to this day about its allegorical content, the actual High Noon movie is obviously informed by the studio system’s own moment of truth. And few failed that moment greater than John Wayne, who time and again recurs in the High Noon mythology as an antagonist more successful than the picture’s onscreen and cowardly townspeople, who fail consistently in running Gary Cooper’s marshal out of town. By comparison, the real life Wayne boasted with pride in his part of sabotaging the career of High Noon’s screenwriter and (ultimately) uncredited associate producer.

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High Noon is of course one of the quintessential Westerns about moral courage and integrity in the face of insurmountable pressure to bend. Subversive toward its genre’s most treasured tropes circa 1952, the film is bereft of vistas, fist fights, or comic relief, and it stars an over-the-hill Gary Cooper in a way audiences have never seen him: terrified. On what is supposed to be a happy day, one where he’s married a pretty young Quaker bride, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), Cooper’s retiring Marshal Will Kane learns that an old enemy has been pardoned by the governor and is arriving on the 12 o’clock train to shoot him dead.

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When faced with the threat of the Frank Miller Gang coming back to town, Kane feels that even though he’s already hanged up his star, he must face this challenge. And yet, no one will stand by his side. One by one, his friends, his co-workers in the form of Lloyd Bridges’ lone deputy, and even his mentor turn their backs and shirk their responsibility to do the right thing, each plentifully rich in excuses but totally impoverished in grit. They tell him to run away. So in the end, Cooper’s scared but assured marshal stands alone, save for his Quaker wife who must forsake her religion to stand by a man whose community has disowned him.

Shot in black-and-white and with an intended modesty that was counterintuitive to the most popular grand Old West epics of that decade, many of them starring Wayne, High Noon was a jolt to the system for audiences inundated with Westerns that had little to say. And, depending who you ask, High Noon had quite a bit on its mind regarding the era in which it was made.

While produced by the Stanley Kramer Company, the film’s most hands-on producer was actually Carl Foreman, who also wrote the screenplay. Once Kramer’s earliest partner—they both met while in military service during World War II—Foreman was given a relatively wide berth by Kramer to oversee the production on his own screenplay, because Kramer was busy overseeing a new deal with Columbia Pictures, and, at least by Foreman’s telling of it, Kramer saw this small, black and white Western being produced for United Artists as an also-ran.

So Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann enjoyed plenty of latitude for much of High Noon’s production, especially because actor Gary Cooper, against all odds, had taken quite a shine to Foreman. The aging and Montana-raised, all-American movie star made an odd pairing in his new friendship with Foreman, the young, bespectacled, and Jewish screenwriter who was known for his leftist politics. That relationship was particularly troubling to the likes of John Wayne.

Like Cooper, Wayne was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Which was the sanitized way of saying, “Hollywood’s Conservative Redbaiters.” Founded in MGM executive James K. McGuinness’ Beverly Hills home—Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick would later describe McGuinness as “the biggest anti-Semite in Hollywood”—the Motion Picture Alliance had its first public meeting in February 1944 with Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Cecil B. DeMille, and John Ford in attendance. Gary Cooper’s frequent director, Sam Woods, was elected president of the organization and Walt Disney vice president. (Wayne himself would become president of the organization in 1949, and was its leader during the height of the Hollywood blacklist and the release of High Noon.) Gary Cooper joined later that year.

As a conservative counterbalance to the perceived communist threat in Hollywood movies, particularly during the wartime years when Hollywood was eagerly making films sympathetic to Soviet Union in lieu of a united war effort, the Motion Picture Alliance publicly and proudly campaigned for the need to hunt down and fire any secret communists in the studio system. They also essentially invited Congress’ now notorious House Un-American Activities Committee to begin investigating their industry.

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Beginning with the “Hollywood Ten,” 10 screenwriters who were sent to prison for up to a year because they refused to answer HUAC’s inquisition-like questions under the supposed protection of the First Amendment, the blacklist quickly took root in 1947. And after HUAC redoubled its efforts in 1951 to not so much fact-find but act as jury, judge, and executioner to any subpoenaed witness they deemed “unfriendly” (who wouldn’t name names), hundreds of careers were destroyed or sidelined for years and decades. In many cases forever. The studios had decided back in ’47 that anyone who HUAC deemed “unfriendly,” or was simply accused by a friendly witness, should never be hired again.

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Which is what again made Cooper and Foreman’s friendship so remarkable. Despite Cooper being a well-known Hollywood conservative who even testified as a friendly witness before HUAC in 1947—but somehow miraculously without naming any communists or “fellow travelers” he might be aware of—Cooper saw a creative partner in Foreman, who was indeed a former communist, although that was not public at the time. At least it wasn’t until screenwriter Martin Berkeley enthusiastically mentioned Foreman’s name to HUAC in ’51 while Foreman was on the set with Cooper and Zinnemann.

Quite like his protagonist Will Kane, Foreman had already long known his fate was to stare down the apocalyptic force that scared the hell out of his community. Prior to Berkeley’s namedropping of hundreds of supposed communists, including some like Foreman who actually were once members of that party, Foreman already received a subpoena to appear before the committee in September 1951, which was about the midway point of shooting High Noon. In the lead-up to his big day, Foreman’s script during pre-production became sharper and more pessimistic, with the writer later claiming he even lifted dialogue for the craven and betraying friends of Will Kane from the pressures being placed on him by Stanley Kramer and fellow business partners in their independent company, Sam Katz, George Glass, and Sam Zagon, to cooperate with HUAC. If true, this would further explain Kramer’s ambivalence for the film’s dailies, which allegedly had echoes of his own bending to HUAC’s power before Foreman even testified.

After Foreman was accused of being a communist and then testified before HUAC, where he went through verbal contortions to say he was not a communist in the last year but would not confirm or deny if he’d ever been one (a questionable “limited Fifth Amendment” legal strategy), his relationship with Stanley Kramer was over, and he was initially even barred from finishing his position as “associate producer” (read: the one on set) until Cooper and Zinnemann stuck up for the writer. As soon as principal photography on High Noon concluded, however, so did Foreman’s association with Kramer. As part of his lucrative buyout, he agreed to have his “associate producer” credit expunged from High Noon. (He’s still credited as writer.)

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Which is where John Wayne, then president of the Motion Picture Alliance, really enters the picture. Historian Gary Wills later described John Wayne’s role in this era as “to emerge after the battle and shoot the wounded.” While he could show more sympathy for former communists than many of his contemporaries, including famed columnist Hedda Hopper, so long as they cooperated with HUAC and essentially went along with the witch hunt, he had no mercy for anyone like Foreman who attempted to stand alone against an annihilating force. He resented the Will Kanes of Hollywood and he took a special, personal aim at derailing Carl Foreman’s career.

Foreman was likely naïve or too furious to see the big picture, but he used his unprecedented buyout for a new member of the blacklist to attempt forming an independent production company—and he had a most unusual partner: Gary Cooper. Wayne’s conservative friend and fellow charter member of the Motion Picture Alliance enthusiastically backed Carl Foreman’s production company, insisting it was a good bet and requesting Foreman announce his part in the venture. A press release came via Daily Variety, reporting that Cooper, Robert L. Lippert, and PR man Henry Rogers were going into business with a screenwriter who just refused to answer before Congress whether he was ever a communist. By all accounts, Wayne went ballistic.

As per Frankel’s new book, Gary Cooper received personal pressure from Wayne, with Maria Cooper Janis remembering her father saying, “Wayne’s bit was if you did this [with Foreman], you’ll never work in this town again.” To be fair, Foreman’s attempt to break the blacklist in 1951 was likely always doomed, and Cooper received just as much pressure from columnist and friend Hedda Hopper as well as Jack Warner, the latter a liberal studio mogul who was the first to name names to HUAC and threatened to tear up a middle-aged Cooper’s contract at WB.

read more: Spielberg is Right About Superhero Movies Being the New Western

Nevertheless, it is the special touch of attention that Wayne gave to Foreman’s association with Cooper, even after Cooper eventually and reluctantly stepped out of the deal, that is remarkable. Like Thomas Mitchell’s mayor in High Noon, he not only didn’t want to help Foreman/Kane, but he took a practical pleasure in dissuading other townspeople, or movie stars, from lifting a finger.

One of Foreman’s last days in Hollywood involved the would-be producer meeting with John Wayne in Beverly Hills. Even with Cooper gone, Wayne was now pushing Henry Rogers to also abandon Foreman. The younger former communist hoped to reason with Wayne, but he’d have better luck knocking over a mountain. Wayne was apparently furious that Foreman had embarrassed Cooper by having him betray the Motion Picture Alliance, and Wayne in turn wanted Foreman to betray his principles by crawling back to HUAC, admit he was once a communist, and name names.

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When Foreman said maybe he’d just find work in Europe, Wayne responded by asking what makes him think he’ll be able to leave the country? Foreman took that as a threat, and by all appearances, even in his old age, Wayne probably wouldn’t have minded the inference. Foreman eventually did leave America, essentially exiled to the United Kingdom in search of work. It was the end of his marriage and the destabilization of his career, which he was able to rebuild after some years in Britain (and after the State Department revoked his passport so he couldn’t travel beyond the UK).

John Wayne, meanwhile, ironically wound up accepting Gary Cooper’s Oscar for Best Actor in High Noon. At the acceptance speech, Wayne joked, “I’m going to go back and find my business manager and agent, producer, and three-name writers and find out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper.” The irony of this is that Wayne despised High Noon.

Whether or not it was at all informed by his sense that the film seduced his pal into cozying up with a suspected communist is hard to gauge, as Wayne simply found the movie unto itself un-American and unpatriotic. Why would a marshal need any help to fight bad guys? And if he did, what sort of brave Americans would turn their back on someone in need? Perhaps unable to grasp a sense of perspective, he and Howard Hawks even partnered on what they imagined as a retort to High Noon’s cynicism with Rio Bravo, one of legendary director Hawks’ dullest films.

In that 1959 Oater, Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance is practically drowning in allies amongst his neighbors when bad men come to town. Chance is even forced to turn several of them down from aiding in the shootout at the end. Hawks sneered about High Noon, “I don’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head cut off, asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him.” Equally as contemptuous for 1957’s 3:10 to Yuma, Hawks and Wayne’s Chance is a broad-chested hero who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “fear.” Or depth, for that matter.

Eventually the blacklist did break, and the Cold War tensions diminished following another generation’s disillusionment of the Vietnam War, not to mention Watergate. History eventually saw the blacklist for what it was—a time of cowardice and submission by an industry afraid to do the right thing. But not John Wayne. A vocal proponent for the Vietnam War, he never backed down on the need for the blacklist, even if by his final years he began denying there was technically a blacklist.

In May 1971, Wayne told Playboy that he’d never regret “having helped run Foreman out of the country.” It was also the same interview where he used tortured logic to support white supremacy. The irony of this is that Foreman never held his greatest animus for Wayne (even though he did fire back forcefully at Wayne’s 1970s rants). He even ran into the Duke at a Hollywood restaurant in 1975. Introducing Wayne to his English family (who he would never have had if he hadn’t been “run out of the country”) he kept things cordial and later remarked, “He was a patriot. He didn’t do it to hurt me.”

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It’s fascinating that by the end of his life, Foreman could forgive Wayne, as well as even befriend Hedda Hopper to a degree, after they helped lead the witch hunt against him, but not Stanley Kramer his one-time best friend. The irony is that Foreman considered Kramer’s betrayal, one that no one could have stopped at the height of the Red Scare, more personally damaging than Wayne’s aggressive antagonism.

Perhaps Foreman simply saw Duke as a product of the blacklist environment, be it in Hollywood or High Noon’s fictional “Hadleyville,” who couldn’t be held individually responsible for the carnage that followed. That might be true, but Wayne still reveled in it, led it (including against Foreman), and eventually denied it.

In 1974 Wayne did a television interview with British journalist Michael Parkinson. During the interview, Wayne denied there had been a blacklist against liberals who were unfriendly to HUAC, as well as spoke again of his least favorite Western, High Noon. While simultaneously defending and dismissing the blacklist with his own proto-form of fake news, Wayne said, “They were not blacklisted. We didn’t name anybody, we stayed completely out of it and said, ‘We are Americans.’ We gave no names out to anybody ever.”

Nevertheless, in his next breath, Wayne described the blacklist era as very necessary because “radical liberals” were going to take over moviemaking. He even downright misconstrues reality when Parkinson brings up the name of Larry Parks by claiming, “Larry Parks admitted he was a communist and went on working…. [and] he hadn’t worked a hell of a lot before that.” In reality Parks was a recent Oscar nominee when he was called as the first witness of the 1951 witch hunts. After he was grilled for hours until he broke, the only work he could get was in dinner theater.

As for Foreman and High Noon, the Duke shrugged, “A whole city of people that’ve come across some plains and suffered all kinds of hardships are suddenly afraid to help out a sheriff because three men who are coming into town who’re tough?” Ultimately an increasingly incredulous Wayne exclaims, “I don’t think that ever happens in the United States.”

Actually it can happen in the United States, Duke. It did in Hollywood from 1947 till at least 1960, and it happened throughout the rest of the country as McCarthyism and the Red Scare swept across coasts and plains alike. And Americans like John Wayne were in that proverbial church, keeping their head down, and then denying there was ever a need to raise it on talk shows decades later.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.