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.
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.