Sunday, November 19, 2017

Good Night, And Good Luck

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

One aspect of this 2005 film, directed, co-written, and starring George Clooney (he’s not just a pretty face), is that it is a historical piece focusing on the United States in the 1950’s when a political witch hunt, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, went beyond its original purpose to root out communist infiltrators, and targeted innocent people. But, there are aspects of this movie which are very relevant to the present concerning abuse of power by politicians and the role of the media.
Clooney shot the movie in black and white, and that choice brings authenticity to the production since during the time period in which the story takes place, television shows were primarily colorless. Viewing it now makes the audience feel as if it is witnessing something historical. And the battle between renowned CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and McCarthy was definitely one for the history books. Also, real footage of McCarthy was used, which not only adds realism to the film, but also makes sense, since it was the senator’s public self, which the population viewed on their TV screens, that Murrow was targeting.
It almost seems difficult to believe, especially for younger people, that at this time, there were only three major network news sources that provided stories, for the most part, during only a small portion of the day and in the early evening. The nation relied a great deal on finding out about events by reading the daily newspapers. The television reporters came from journalism schools, and had to be of the highest caliber in their field to make it to broadcast news. And, because there were so few information choices, unlike the deafening onslaught of amateur news outlets today, the impact that one TV news personality could make was substantial. At the time, journalists were supposed to present the news objectively without personal interpretation or subjective observations. A newspaper would offer the management position only on the editorial page, and not in the writing of the news stories, and similarly, local news stations and national networks would wait to the end of their broadcasts to present commentary (Eric Sevareid was the go-to man for this job at CBS). Even though all of this neutrality has been replaced by personal viewpoints on most of the news programs, and even outright propaganda espousing, it was a big deal in the early 1950’s for Murrow to attack a United States senator.
The story is bookended by the dinner tribute to Murrow on Oct. 25, 1958, years after the confrontation with McCarthy, and it allows Clooney to present the journalist's respected reputation in the introduction to his appearance at the event. We are told Murrow was right in the middle of World War II, broadcasting from Britain during Hitler’s bombardment of that island. He also did groundbreaking stories on segregation and the exploitation of migrant workers, which shows his concern for the underdog, and investigative work on then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. But, Murrow does not present a speech of gratitude. Instead, he sort of bites the hand that feeds him, criticizing, prophetically, television’s problems. He says that the mass media, and in particular television, “is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us” from the realities of the world.
Because a soundtrack played throughout the film would be distracting, Clooney effectively uses soft jazz interludes with vocals, which work not only as chapter divisions and relief from a very talkative script, but which also comment on the narrative. After the 1958 opening, the time shifts to October of 1953, and we hear the song with the line, “TV is the thing this year.” Indeed, the hearings of Congress’ committee investigating communist activity inside the U. S. Government were shown on television, giving McCarthy that loud microphone to broadcast his agenda based on fear. Another example of musical commentary occurs when the CBS workers are paranoid about being under surveillance, and we hear Dianne Reeves sing, “I’ve got my eyes on you … sent my spies on you.”
There is a subplot story concerning news department workers Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband, Joe Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr.) which comments on the main narrative thread. The network has its own oppressive rule which prohibits co-workers from marrying each other. So these two try to keep their marriage secret, although we learn everyone seems to know the truth about them. The sanctions concerning their relationship seem to be part of a general state of control over individual freedom, as is illustrated by the fact the two talk about having to sign a loyalty oath mandated by CBS. If it is not signed, jobs will be lost. Even Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney) have signed it. This requirement shows how far the politics of fear has already spread.
Murrow first wants to investigate an officer released by the Air Force because his father read a Serbian newspaper, and who was thus considered to have ties to the Communist Party. There was a regulation which stated a person was a security risk if he or she associated with someone with communist connections. The Air Force required that the airman renounce not only his father, but also his sister. Friendly asks Murrow why he is taking on this story since it doesn’t have to do with McCarthy. Murrow emphasizes the reach of the witch hunt when he says, “Isn’t it?” The “evidence” against the officer is sealed, so the man hasn’t even had the opportunity to examine it, and try to refute it. Two colonels show up at CBS to demand that the network not air its piece without prior authorization. Friendly makes it clear that censorship is not an option. The military’s self-righteous stand is that only they can determine whether or not a person is a security risk, and the press has no say in the matter. This attitude of course is the argument that national security matters outweigh the freedom of the press. Many would agree that under certain circumstances the government must keep information secret for security purposes. But, here evidence against someone who they are accusing of being an enemy sympathizer is not classified information, and is only a smokescreen to prejudicially separate a man from his family because of assumed beliefs.
Murrow’s immediate boss, Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels), argues against Murrow and Friendly doing a piece on the officer, for fear of retribution by McCarthy. Mickelson points out that Murrow’s sponsor, Alcoa, has defense contracts with the government that could be pulled as punishment for bucking the Air Force over a story with communist overtones. The intimidation is palpable. Murrow makes the argument against always presenting balance to a story because he says that “there are not always two equal and logical sides.” For example, can we really argue the positive side of Nazism? The dedication of these men is seen when Murrow and Friendly must put up their own money to air the show. In the midst of this drama, these men still show a sense of humor. When Murrow says Friendly won’t have any funds for presents for his kids on Christmas, Mickelson says of Friendly, “He’s a Jew.” Murrow responds, “Well, don’t tell him that. He loves Christmas.” Also, just before airing the piece, Friendly jokes that he told the military he didn’t want to do the story. Murrow says that Friendly was always “yellow.” Friendly says, “Better than being red,” playing off of the saying at the time of “better to be dead than red.” The Air Force eventually reverses itself after Murrow’s shining the light on its unjust act, which illustrates the power of a free press.

Clooney adds some nice touches to show the power of television. He includes a commercial for Kent cigarettes. The salesman says he knows that the audience isn’t easily influenced by advertisements, but that manipulation is exactly what he is trying to do. The power to sway was eventually conceded, and cigarette ads are no longer aired. But, the scene stresses that TV can have a strong impact on the citizenry, as does any politician who uses media outlets.
Murrow must do journalistic penance for the network by adding more segments of the popular show at the time, “Person to Person,” where he does remote interviews with celebrities. Strathairn (in an Oscar-nominated performance) gives a telling look to show his disdain after someone tells him that one of these shows was good. Murrow, as we heard in the opening speech, sees the use of TV for purely entertaining distraction as being a waste of the medium. There is a segment where Murrow interviews Liberace, who is the real deal, just like McCarthy, and the pianist says, in response to a question about getting married, that he, like, Princess Margaret, is waiting for a “dream man, too.” Strathairn’s slight chuckle is perfect as it acknowledges Liberace’s slip concerning his closeted homosexuality, which also points to the repressive nature of the 1950’s. Also, the actor’s looks of concern for fellow besieged newsman Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) are right on the money. Hollenbeck can’t handle the collapse of his marriage and the onslaught of attacks labeling him a “pinko,” a communist sympathizer. After Murrow tells him he can’t go after Hollenbeck’s enemies and McCarthy, too, Hollenbeck commits suicide. You can see the dejection and guilt in Murrow’s face as he absorbs the loss of his colleague. For him, McCarthy’s abuse of power, which destroyed lives, has hit very close to home. We hear the vocalist singing, “Somewhere there’s music, somewhere there’s heaven,” which underscores what Murrow might hope for Hollenbeck. He gives an on-the-air eulogy for Hollenbeck, emphasizing the man’s honesty, with the implied contrast with the deceptive people who attacked him.

Murrow and Friendly must battle the head of CBS, William Paley (Frank Langella), who sympathizes with what the two men want to do, but who must deal with the government and sponsors. He advises them to let it go, because their stance may hurt their fellow employees if the government goes after them. Of course, it is just this persecution that Friendly and Murrow want to stop. Paley argues that the Senate will investigate McCarthy, and the problem will go away. He says that it isn’t the network’s job to try McCarthy in the press. But, Murrow has already granted that the senator will be given equal time to respond to any allegations made by CBS news. Some may say that his stance is fairer than what occurs today, where attacks in the media come in droves from all sides, and the task to defend oneself can be overwhelming. Paley acquiesces, but requires that all the staff undergo a rigorous background check to make sure there has been no contact by anyone with communist connections. One of the employees says that he didn’t know about it until after his divorce, but his ex-wife attended a Communist Party meeting, and he knows that this fact will be used against CBS. Murrow asks which one of them didn’t attend some kind of meeting or knew someone that espoused some anti-establishment sentiment. He says that McCarthy’s “Terror is right here in this room.” In witch hunts, the hunter is scarier than the witches he hunts.
On the March 9, 1954 broadcast, Murrow goes after McCarthy directly. Paley, in a funny phone call, asks Murrow if he’d go with him to see the Knicks play that evening. Murrow says he’s busy bringing down the network that night. Paley, probably wishing his joke about Murrow going to the game turned out to be true, says, “Oh, is that tonight?” In his commentary, Murrow says that “It is necessary to investigate before legislating. But the line between investigating and persecuting is a fine one, and the Junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.” He argues, as many do now, that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” since without criticism, there is no free speech, and thus, no democracy. As to McCarthy’s tactic of presenting as fact what he pronounces into a microphone, Murrow says, “We must always remember, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.” These words ring true even today, as each side of the political spectrum paints a picture of guilt involving opponents without fair scrutiny. Another line that reverberates today has to do with playing into people’s fears, instead of their better natures, since acting solely out of fear inhibits being able to evaluate the totality of a situation. Murrow doesn’t blame McCarthy for creating the atmosphere of fear of people who are different from those in the mainstream, “he merely exploited it,” which is what a demagogue does to gain power. The broadcast generally receives positive responses.
Again, the actual footage of the hearings is more powerful than any recreation since there is no artificial interpretation or filter to alter what really happened. We see McCarthy intimidating the African American woman, Annie Lee Moss, who worked in a code room, saying it is accepted that she is a communist, because a FBI undercover agent said so. He states this as a fact, and says what he really wants to know is why she, a known communist, was placed in the code room. It appears that he is going after someone else in the government, but by doing so, he has disgraced this woman. Another senator finally speaks up, saying that Moss has lost her job, and is condemned through hearsay, innuendo, and rumor, without producing an actual witness to give testimony. He says once the character assassination takes place, it can’t be erased from the minds of the public, and “that is the evil of it.” He receives loud applause, and we can feel that the tide is turning away from McCarthy.
McCarthy uses his equal time not to contest any of Murrow’s statements, which would be difficult to do since actual footage of the senator’s words exposed him for his unfair practices, but to attack Murrow. He says that the journalist was a member of a communist related organization, the International Industrial Workers, and belonged to the ACLU, which was on the government’s list of subversive organizations. He also states that a socialist dedicated a book to him. Murrow, in his next broadcast says he never belonged to the IIW, that the ACLU is not on any government list, and the book was dedicated to him because of his work reporting the war in Britain. Murrow points out that anybody who disagrees with McCarthy is automatically labeled a communist. Today, if someone disagrees with a politician, what the opposition has to say is also dismissed without hesitation as “fake news.”
We view the famous speech which puts a nail in McCarthy’s political coffin, as he is asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” The CBS newsroom hears that the Senate has decided to investigate McCarthy, which leads to censuring him. But, Murrow and Friendly have to pay a professional price for their defiant courage. Paley cuts back Murrow’s show from an hour to a half hour, moves it from weekday prime time to Sunday, and he will only be allowed to do five more shows. However, the two seem satisfied with what they have accomplished, and promise to go out with a bang in those last broadcasts.
The film returns to that dinner tribute, and Murrow’s cautionary speech. He finishes his address by saying that if all TV is good for is “to amuse, entertain, and insulate, then the tube is flickering now, and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

Downey’s character at one point in the movie says to Clarkson’s what if they were wrong, and that by attacking McCarthy they made the country vulnerable to its enemies. He wonders if there have to be some people sacrificed to preserve “the greater good.” She basically says what if there’s nothing "good" left? If we surrender the nation’s decency and human dignity, then we have truly lost our way. Then Murrow’s signature sign off at the end of his broadcasts fits all too well: “Good night, and good luck.”

After a holiday week off, the next film will be Nuts.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Enemy Below

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

This 1957 World War II film (whose story may remind one of the original Star Trek series episode “Balance of Terror”) that pits an American destroyer against a German submarine is a noteworthy movie because, while dealing with the pragmatic reality of battle, it also offers a vision of humanity that suggests the possibility of transcending the violence that nations inflict upon each other.
The opening shots of the motion picture show two perspectives that will be elaborated upon as the story unfolds. First we see the American destroyer, the Haynes, cruising in the South Atlantic. We then get a shot from the point of view of a U-boat periscope looking at the sea above. The film presents the two worlds as mirror images of each other, and there are scene shifts back and forth to show the differences and similarities between the the two sides depicted.

The American ship’s doctor, (Russell Collins) and a couple of the sailors talk about how hot the weather is. One sailor says he’s thinking of sleeping topside that evening, but the doctor warns that bad weather is coming. The response from the sailor is that “you can’t plan on anything.” This simple exchange is a foreboding of the rough times to come (the calm before the storm?), not only of the weather but also of the fighting that will occur. And, it implies that in wartime, the individual’s plans are always in jeopardy.

The sailors aboard the Haynes are relaxed, almost bored, as they joke with each other during this period which is absent of military action. From these lower-ranking personnel we hear some feelings of insecurity expressed concerning the leadership of their captain, Murrell (Robert Mitchum). He has been holed up in his cabin since his assignment to the destroyer, and there are reservations about his experience. As one seaman says, he’s hiding because he’s been seasick. We hear the officers voicing the same concerns, questioning if their new leader has any “sea legs.” The doctor gives us some backstory, telling the higher ranking men that Murrell is not physically ready for a new assignment since his previous ship was torpedoed and sunk, and he had to spend twenty-five in a raft and only a short time in the hospital for treatment. Lt. Bonelli (Ralph Manza) says, in what turns out to be an ironic statement, “He’d still get more rest here than he would if he were in a feather bed.”
Then a blip shows up on the sonar, and everything changes in an instant. The men are now alert, and the captain comes out of his cabin cocoon, taking command. But, he is still an unknown to the crew, as one sailor blocking his passage doesn’t recognize him, and he must ask the name of the man working the sonar. But his orders show his seamanship, as he orders that the destroyer follow the unknown vessel, matching its speed so that the Haynes will appear as a ghost echo to the ship pursued.
We now cut to the German submarine viewpoint. (The film employs the use of accents and an occasional authentic German phrase to let us know the submarine men are speaking German). Captain Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens) suspects Murrell’s ploy, and alters the sub’s course, but Murrell is able to continue the strategy. Murrell wants to be able to track the U-boat until it surfaces in the morning, making it a far easier target. Von Stolberg quickly becomes a character an American audience can sympathize with because we immediately see he is not a supporter of Hitler. He throws a towel over a German sign hanging in the command center which, when translated, says they should follow the Fuhrer's commands. He also is not thrilled with a gung-ho Nazi seaman named Kunz (Arthur La Ral). He tells his old friend, Heinie (Theodore Bickel), that someone should tell the sailor that there is no saluting at sea. This statement is meaningful, because it implies that those sailing on the open waters are less tied to the rigid systems of those mired on land. It implies that Von Stolberg represents those soldiers who are capable of independent thought.

Von Stolberg expresses his feelings to his confidante, Heinie. Despite the possibility that there is an American ship tailing them, he wants to surface to travel faster, meet up with another German ship to collect a British code book, but, most importantly, he wants to return home. He is war weary. He taught his two sons to be good soldiers, believe in their country and do their duty. They both died in the line of duty, which makes sense to the captain. But, he should have died first. He feels that he has outlived his time. He tells of a past era when war was less exact, less destructive. But, current technology has made armed fighting lethally accurate. Everything is machine-like, automatic, with no human factor present, which makes it easier to kill. He does admit that he thinks too much. Questioning things is not a good idea if you are a soldier who is supposed to just carry out orders. His ruminating has cost him his sleep. He says to Heinie, “Be a good warrior and never think. You pay penalty for thinking. You cannot rest.” But, he can’t help but see that, “It’s a bad war. It’s reason is twisted. It’s purpose is dark.” He believes his country will lose its soul in the current struggle because of its “dark” objectives. He says, “there is no honor in this war. The memories will be ugly, even if we win. And if we die, we die without God.”
The symmetry of the story now brings us back to the American side, where we hear Murrell’s story, as he tells it to the person who becomes his confidante, the doctor. Murrell, too, has suffered personal loss at the hands of war, just as Von Stolberg. He worked on a freighter as a civilian. He had recently married when he lost his bride when she perished in a torpedo attack on his ship. But he assures the doctor that his commanding a destroyer which hunts submarines is not part of a personal vendetta. He says he has a job to do. He then shows empathy, not something usually demonstrated in war movies up to this time. He compares himself to the German commander, saying that his opponent is in a similar position, and neither may like what they have to do, but both feel they must do their duty. But, like Von Stolberg’s saying how thinking too much is contradictory to what makes a soldier, Murrell says he doesn’t want to know too much about the German captain. The American commander also feels the need to suppress his humanity when he says, “I don’t want to know the man I’m trying to destroy.”

Murrell, like his German counterpart, also expresses some philosophical views about war. The doctor seems optimistic when he says that eventually, when the war is over, its impact will fade, and their old lives will resume. Murrell, like Von Stolberg, sees how modern warfare, and the evil perpetuated in this particular conflict, will change things. What he says may resonate with the war against terrorism today. He says, “it won’t be the same as it was … We’ve learned a hard truth … That there’s no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head off of a snake, and it grows another one. You can’t kill it, because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it’s part of us.” So here is the major theme of the movie, that “the enemy below” is not an alien “other,” but is really what is inside of us. Or, in Freudian terms, the selfishness of the destructive id buried under our civilized selves wars with our better, magnanimous need to live, and survive, together.

Murrell continues the cat-and-mouse game by ending outgoing communication, and making sure there is no dark smoke coming out of the ship’s stacks to alert the submarine of the destroyer’s presence. When he spots the submarine, he computes the time it will take for the sub to fire and then uses his ship as bait so he can avoid getting hit, so he can attack the U-boat. But, Von Stolberg is just as adept a captain, and dives further down to avoid the depth charges from making a direct hit. The German captain’s desire to stay on course to get home is a weakness because Murrell can predict his eventual actions.
An American sailor loses some fingers when he doesn’t remove his hand quick enough during the speedy deployment of depth charges. Murrell shows his concern for the wounded man. Even though the young man tries to stay positive, the fact that he no longer can work at his profession of watchmaker shows how war can alter one’s entire life in a split second. There is a cut to the U-boat, and we have the German commander offering moral support to the ship’s cook who receives a great deal of criticism concerning his meals. We again see Von Stolberg shoot a disdainful look concerning Kunz’s mentioning of the Fuhrer, which shows that the captain knows what behavior to, and what not to, encourage. Later, he must confront a sailor breaking under the pressure of the attacks, reassuring him that he, the captain, will not let him die. The movie makes the point that both captains are capable of human compassion.
When Von Stolberg rests the submarine on the ocean bottom to make it appear as if the sub has escaped, we have a quiet period where we see how the two sides indulge in heavy reading (an American sailor holds The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Kunz opens up Mein Kampf), and a crewman on each side looks at comic strips. These shots attempt to humanize and universalize the experiences of soldiers, no matter which side they fight on. Onboard the destroyer, waiting for the U-boat to make a move, the doctor says to Murrell that it’s too hot out. The captain says during wartime, it’s always too hot or too cold. It implies that there is too much action or none at all. But, it also suggests that nobody is comfortable when in a state of war.
Once Von Stolberg takes a chance that the destroyer may have left and decides to resume the journey home, Murrell decides to wear the submarine crew down by firing intermittent barrages of explosives to slow the German sub down and demoralize its sailors. However, Von Stolberg plays rousing German celebratory music to show their spirit. (It is ironic that the supposedly overly patriotic Kunz is the only one who wants to surrender, which shows that his nationalism is not based on solid ground). Murrell admits his admiration for his foes by saying that he almost wishes his tactics wouldn’t work.
Von Stolberg realizes a pattern to Murrell’s maneuvers, and is able to predict where the ship might be so he can fire off four torpedoes while not at periscope depth, hoping one will hit the destroyer. His plan is successful. But, Murrell has one more move. He makes it look as if his ship is failing quicker than it is by lighting fires ondeck. After having most of the crew abandon ship, he has gunners take out the surfaced submarine’s primary weaponry and rudder, and then rams the U-boat with the destroyer. What happens next illustrates how this film goes beyond the usual good guy versus bad guy ending. The American sailors help rescue the Germans who abandoned the submarine. Murrell sees Von Stolberg with the severely wounded Heinie, who he stayed to rescue, and they exchange salutes. Murrell then helps rescue the two men, and the German and American sailors, together, climb back up the destroyer to retrieve their commanding officers. Both ships are totally destroyed as the self-destruct bomb on the submarine explodes. It’s as if these two sides, who were enemies, ended their conflict with each other after eliminating the machines of war which left them as individuals, not soldiers of countries, needing the help of each other to survive.

They are all rescued by an American ship. The Germans conduct a respectful funeral at sea for their fallen comrade, Heinie. The doctor tells Murrell that he found reasons for hope in the strangest of places, a war, for the future of the world based on how these soldiers acted. The movie ends with Murrell offering a cigarette to Von Stolberg, who says that he should have died many times before. He says his survival this time was Murrell’s fault.The American captain jokingly says that he didn’t know, and says, “Next time I won’t throw you the rope.” But, the German commander sees in Murrell a man like himself, who is a caring human being underneath the military exterior. That is why he knowingly says, “I think you will.” Maybe some day we will realize that we will all survive by being each other's lifeline.
The next film is Good Night and Good Luck.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

High Noon

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Director Fred Zinnemann made films that show individuals fighting against dangerous, sometimes insurmountable challenges to take what they think is the right action. He showed the heroism of men in the midst of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in From Here to Eternity. In A Man for All Seasons, Zinnemann gave us the story of Sir Thomas More, who had to defy his king in order to stand by his beliefs, and which led to his execution. In Julia, the characters risk their lives to undermine the Nazi government. In High Noon (1952), the director presents possibly his most lonely hero who must fight for the good of the many while others abandon him.
Zinnemann wanted a washed out black and white look for the movie to give it a gritty realism, a quasi-documentary feel. The story unfolds in almost real time, as ticking clocks, which are shown everywhere, build suspense as the countdown to the confrontation between the good guy, Will Kane (Gary Cooper, in an Oscar winning performance) and the bad guys, the gang led by Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), approaches. The emphasis on time takes on an even broader meaning, suggesting that time is running out on the society as a whole to make the right choices, or there will be dire consequences to follow.

The opening cuts contrast for emphasis scenes of impending doom and hopefulness. We see convict Frank Miller’s men, Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), and Jim Pierce (Robert Wilke) wait for the noon train that will bring Frank (the town will not be delivered from evil, but instead evil will be delivered to it). The film then shifts to the wedding of Will and Amy (Grace Kelly). We quickly learn that Amy is a Quaker, a religion that believes in pacifism. Will is giving up his job as marshal effective the next day. (Cooper was in two other films that deal with pacifists dealing with the realities of violence: the Quaker  centered movie Friendly Persuasion, and Sergeant York). It is said at the ceremony that the town will be safe until the new marshal shows up (this statement quickly turns into an ironic one, because, as was said, there is no time to waste when the threat is imminent). Will surrenders his gun and his badge (but not his commitment to the law) in deference to his wife’s wishes, and her beliefs. In this act of acquiescence, Will aspires to the ideals of Amy, which point to the hope for an end to violence.
The celebration of the wedding is short-lived as the word comes that Frank and his men will carry out the promise to kill Will for having sent Frank to prison. The townspeople quickly send Will and his bride packing to avoid the confrontation. But, Will is technically still the marshal. He decides to return to the town of Hadleyville to do his duty. It is important to point out that it would seem reasonable to most people that given the fact that this was Will’s last day, he should leave. But, even to abandon his loyalty to upholding the law for one day would be too much of a compromise for this man of principles. He knows that the town will be morally compromised if Frank Miller is able to gain a foothold on Hadleyville, and Will puts his concern for others above his own. He says the problem must be “nipped in the bud.” So, he feels that if the disease isn’t caught early, it will spread out of control.

Will’s resolve (he isn’t called “will” for nothing) comes in conflict with that of Amy, who wants nothing to do with gunfights. She gives her husband an ultimatum: either he goes with her or she will leave by herself. The noon train symbolizes both the coming of the challenge to fight the good fight, or to run away from it. The popular theme song from the movie, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” plays throughout the film and can be seen as a plea by Will to his wife to stay. But it is a more general cry for help to the citizens of the community, and possibly to the citizens of the United States to not abandon their own values, and the people who stand for them. The film has been considered to be an allegory for Hollywood capitulating to the blacklisting of those working in the film industry during the McCarthy years.

The story does seem to be a microcosm for society as a whole. Those who refuse to fight with Will have their reasons, which range from selfish to practical to hopelessness. Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger), whose name seems to indicate he’s done the math concerning the situation, and who sentenced Frank Miller, sees no plus side in taking a moral stand. He says that back in ancient Greece the citizens would welcome back the tyrant they originally expelled, and would allow him to slaughter his enemies. His argument is that people will do anything out of fear. The judge seems to be saying that the ancient drive for self-preservation has not evolved into anything more noble over the centuries. He tells Will, “This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.” Based on his comment, does one adhere to ethics based on the size of an area’s population or notoriety?
Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) wants Will to go because he wants to take his job. So, his interests are selfish. But it goes beyond an immediate promotion. He also is angry at Will for not recommending him for the job. In addition, Harvey has been romantically involved with the Mexican businesswoman, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), and Harvey is jealous because she was Will’s girlfriend (and it turns out she was also involved with Frank Miller). So, Harvey will not help Will fight Frank Miller.  Helen says that Harvey may be big and strong, but “it takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man.” Helen sees Will as being a real man because he is noble. (It is noteworthy that a woman, and a Mexican one at that, is given a prominent role in the story, a groundbreaking act on the part of the filmmakers. She shows her own strength of will when she slaps Harvey away when he tries to force a kiss on her, saying that she won’t allow someone to touch her unless she gives permission. And, she is not denigrated by a double standard for taking on multiple lovers, which shows she is being depicted as equal to men). Later the sight of Will walking alone to face danger makes Harvey feel ashamed about his lack of nobility. In a moment of weakness, Will goes to the stable and thinks about taking off, and Harvey, who follows Will, tries to make Will leave, so as to lessen his own guilt. Will, though, can’t go, and the two get into a fight, with Harvey ending up physically, and spiritually, beaten.

Amy waits in the hotel lobby until the noon train arrives. The clerk there is a sleazy fellow who says he wouldn’t leave town since there will be “a sight” to witness when Frank Miller comes back to go after Will. He represents those who are just passive spectators that watch others put themselves in peril for their entertainment. He also is selfish because Frank Miller would generate business as people used to cme to witness his outlaw brand of running things. He also makes a lewd comment about Will not having trouble finding Helen’s room when the Marshal comes to warn her about Miller returning. The clerk says this remark in front of Amy, which makes the reference even more inappropriate.

Will keeps searching for volunteers to help him, but although there is acknowledgement that he is brave and cleaned up the town, they are not willing to stick their necks out for someone else (they sound like Rick from Casablanca until he regains his morality). One of them, Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan), hides behind his wife’s reluctant lie that he isn’t home when Will visits. In response to her judgmental look, he asks her if she would rather be a widow by having him joining up with Will. The movie puts us in the shoes of these people, and, if we are honest, we probably can admit to ourselves that we might have reservations about taking a stand against the evildoers.
When Ben Miller gets tired of waiting for the train, he goes to the saloon, and the men their welcome him like he is a hero. The fickle nature of the masses is shown here, as their inconstant loyalty has them switch allegiance to whomever currently seems to have the upper hand. When Will goes to the saloon to solicit help, he hears one man saying Frank Miller will kill the marshal as soon as he gets off of the train. In a moment of weakness, Will lets his anger get the better of him, and he punches the guy out. But, he quickly apologizes, showing his mistakes are only temporary ones, as he agrees that he shouldn’t hide behind his badge for committing wrong behavior. The camera shoots upward at Will, implying that he is the man we should look up to ethically.

We see townspeople in church singing the lines“the grapes of wrath,” but they do not have the courage to fight. When Will arrives there to ask for volunteers, some immediately are ready to stand with Will. But, other voices prevail. One says that they are not trained as law enforcers. It is the fault of the government that there are not enough permanent deputies. Another says that they don’t want the state government to view Hadleyville as a town with troubles, so Will should leave to avoid violence. Then, more funding will flow to the town. It’s as if the people are looking for an after-the-fact governmental bailout when they should have not allowed a bad situation to occur in the first place. So, there is a a bit of an anti-government sentiment here, since the institutions do not appear to be places to rely on, and justice should be handled by the individuals. Even the town parson is wishy-washy when it comes to providing sound moral advice to his flock. When Will exits the church alone, there are children playing, reminding us of how the inaction of the adults shows them to be poor role models. We even see one boy with a toy gun pretending to be Frank Miller shooting Will, which stresses the point of how the parents can influence the next generation in a negative way.
When Will visits the former marshal, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney, Jr.), we get more of the nihilism that was expressed by the judge. Howe says that as marshal, he put bad men away, and then the politicians released them. If a lawman was honest, he led an impoverished life until someone eventually gunned him down. He says that people just don’t care and all attempts at doing good are “all for nothing.” Another man says he “has no stake in this” fight, as he bails on Will, showing the man’s shortsighted vision about the implications of not taking a stand. The fact that the only people who are willing to help Will are a one-eyed drunk and a fourteen-year-old boy, which although admirable, shows how pathetic the rest of the townspeople are.
Amy visits Helen to try to have her persuade Will to leave. Helen, who said she is leaving because the town will die (probably in a spiritual sense once Frank Miller takes over), tells Amy that she should stand by her man because she, not Helen, is his wife, and it is Amy’s job to fight for her husband. She says maybe Amy is just not used to hearing gunfire. But, Amy says that she knows about it all too well, as both her father and brother were shot even though they were on the side of what was right. That is why Amy decided to become a Quaker, because “there’s got to be some better way for people to live.” Amy’s ideals are admirable, but, unfortunately, not practical given Will’s situation.

Frank Miller does arrive and he and his three men strap on their guns and go looking for Will, who has written up his last will and testament as he prepares to put his life on the line. We see his aloneness emphasized by his standing in the middle of the deserted main street. The camera pulls away upward to stress Will’s smallness in the face of the immensity of his task. He is able to surprise the men, and kills two of them. After hearing gunshots, Amy leaves Helen on the train and goes to Will’s office. Her duty to the immediate needs of her husband outweighs her religious commitment in the moment and she uses a gun found in the office to shoot one of the men. Frank grabs Amy as a hostage and threatens to kill her unless Will puts down his gun. Amy, showing her resolve, turns and claws at his face, allowing Will the time to shoot Frank.

The movie ends with all of the townspeople now pouring out into the street, reaping the rewards of the courage of the one hero whom they were not strong and unselfish enough to help. Before riding off with his wife in his wagon, Will surveys the crowd with disdain, and tosses his badge onto the ground. Even though doing the right thing may help those who do not deserve one’s sacrifice, for the honorable and moral person, it is the only choice.

The next film is The Enemy Below.