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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive "Do not Forsake Me”: Biblical Motifs in Zinnemann's High Noon

Robert Paul Seesengood

 

First Verse (Précis) 

Do not forsake me, O my Darlin'

On this, our wedding day. 

For decades the Western was forsaken in film criticism. Westerns are the most generic of genre pics and among the most "pop" of American cultural forms. Yet there is a booming cottage industry of scholarship now reviewing Westerns.[1] As a result, we are better attuned to how the broad appeal of the genre can allow a critical window into American pop culture itself.          

For example, as Jane Tomkins articulates, Western movies both construct and reinforce American ideology.[2] The American West, it turns out, is spacious enough for etiology. As American popular myth, Westerns exploit America's nostalgia over adolescence to soothe the worried insomnia of American high- and post-modern adulthood. As a genre, the Western had its heyday in movies made between 1946 and 1962, when the United States was dealing with the notion of itself as a superpower (and confronting the rival power of communist Russia). Stanley Corkin's Cowboys as Cold Warriors explores how the flicker of Western films occupied our minds during our collective sleeplessness.[3] "Westerns" he observes, "helped mediate [political] shifts by grafting the historical onto the mythic to help audiences adjust to new concepts of national definition."[4]           

Yet a third example, Peter French's Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns, looks at the motifs of sudden (violent) death in Westerns and suggests that threat is really what has been keeping us all awake. In particular, French is looking for what characters in Westerns "give a damn" about. French argues that Westerns construct a different ethic than Judeo-Christianity; they use, but also alter, elements of both religious practice and biblical text to ease our worries and our consciences of threatening violence.[5]            

Tomkins has argued that Westerns are a form of American myth, exploring identity, gender, and space. Corkin has argued that Westerns reflect Cold War struggles and opportunities. French has argued that Westerns interpret and subvert Judeo-Christian ethics regarding death and violence. All three scholars identify Fred Zinneman's High Noon as a landmark in the genre and exemplar of how Western's "work." Are there any biblical motifs in any of the plot, characters, or structure of High Noon? If so, how are these used or modulated in the context of larger assertions about American myth and (gendered) identity?  

Second Verse 

The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.

If I'm a man I must be brave           

High Noon (1952), was directed by Fred Zinneman, an Austrian-born Jew, from a script by another European Jew, Carl Foreman. Zinneman and Foreman were both initially eager to produce a Western, but were not encouraged by many. John Wayne, who famously despised High Noon as "unAmerican," remarked pointedly that one could not expect a "real" Western from the likes of two "foreign Jews."           

The film garnered mixed reactions from the film community. On the one hand, High Noon (eventually) benefited from general critical acclaim. Yet the film ignored, flaunted, or inverted standard themes and motifs of the Western. Costumes, shots, and dialog are all very unconventional for Westerns of its time. There are no Indians, few horses, and no vast prairies. There is a comparative lack of action; nothing happens for most of the movie. Indeed, that is a critical element of the plot: the population of the town of Hadleyville refuses to act to face down an impending threat.     

The central hero, marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), doesn't fit the standard type. He is pensive and worried. He writes his last will and testament. He is unable to control his wife. He is unsure as a gunfighter. He is tempted to flee. The townspeople are not much better. They are cynical and uninterested in doing "the right thing." In this Western, the "action" is largely internal; the showdown is delayed and almost anti-climatic. Dimitri Tiomkin (another "non-American") produced a musical score that was, compared to other Westerns, restrained and built around leitmotifs. The main theme, "Do not Forsake Me, Oh my Darling: The Ballad of High Noon,"[6] not only expresses the entire plot of the film, but is nearly a constant presence in the film's score; the song is reprised more than twenty-five times in the eighty-six-minute movie.            

The basic plot of High Noon is relatively simple: Frank Miller, a convicted murderer, has been pardoned from hanging and released from prison. He is returning to Hadleyville on the train; three of his former gang will meet him. Together, the four plan to ride into town and kill Kane (who arrested Frank). The train is to arrive at noon on Sunday.

That very Sunday morning, Will Kane has married Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a beautiful young blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, in the office of the town's Justice of the Peace. As a Quaker, Amy has insisted that Kane also take an oath of non-violence; he is resigning his post as marshall and planning to move away and start a general store with his pension. Kane learns of Miller's pardon (and return) via a telegram delivered just after his wedding. The new marshal is not due to arrive until Monday. Kane is urged to flee. He feels, however, that flight would be cowardly. To flee is to face "lying a coward in my grave." Amy insists that if Will stays, she will leave him (and buys a train ticket to St. Louis to make her point). Meanwhile, Kane begins trying to round up a posse of deputies; he has just over an hour.            

No one in town will help Kane. His current deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), resigns because Kane will not allow him to parley the current crisis into a promotion for himself. The town Justice of the Peace flees. Many other citizens refuse because of fear. The bulk of the film unfolds, in real time, over the last hour before the noon train arrives. As the minutes tick by, Kane goes from location to location seeking help—saloons, hotels, private homes, city hall, the church, and city streets. As the film progresses, Kane becomes increasingly conflicted, distraught, and alone. The tension is highlighted by sweating people (it is a very hot day) and frequent shots of clocks (one in nearly every scene).           

Frank does, indeed, arrive on time and comes looking for Kane. Kane is forced to hide and use his wits to pick off the gang. At a critical moment, he is aided by Amy, who, as the first shots ring out, decides her love for Kane is stronger than her ethic of non-violence and returns. She herself kills one of the gang members by a shot to the back. She also physically attacks Frank Miller in the climatic scene, distracting him and allowing Kane to shoot him. The conflict now resolved, the citizens return to offer thanks and praise. Kane throws his badge onto the ground and rides off in a wagon with his new bride toward a new life.           

High Noon's plot is "fraught with background," which is fleshed out in the intricate and subtle relationships between characters. Miller's motives are more than "getting even" for arrest, and Kane's are more than just "duty." The center of this matrix of relationships is Helen Ramerez (Katy Jurado). Ramerez is a Mexican woman and widow. She owns the town's saloon and is silent partner in the general store. She lives on the second floor of the town hotel. Ramerez, as the film begins, is deputy Harvey's lover. Five years prior, she had been the lover of Frank Miller. After Frank, she was Will Kane's lover for about four years. Indeed, much of Harvey's refusal to help Kane arises from jealousy. There are hints that Kane, in the past, was a heavy drinker and regular at the saloon. His motives to capture Miller arose in part from his desire for Helen. Will and Amy's marriage is also understood more clearly against this back story; in many ways, the marriage marks his desire to put away an old life of violence. That new hope, however, is threatened in every possible way by the sudden return of his past and concerns that flight aborts his own rebirth.           

Nearly every major character in the film pays a visit, at some point, to Helen's hotel room. She first appears in a scene in her room where she, in nightgown and robe, is with Deputy Harvey. Later, Kane visits her to warn her of Miller's return (and Miller's likely revenge against Helen, after finishing with Kane). Even Amy, intrigued by this mysterious presence who seems to be so involved in everything disrupting her new life (and who was, she learns, a former lover of her current husband), pays a visit. Helen's dialog with all three explicates Kane's behavior and turmoil; Kane, himself, rarely speaks. Helen also is the most direct and unapologetic about her plans to leave town (as well as about her own sexual past). She knows she is a strange and foreign woman in Hadleyville.            

The film also explores themes of duty, honor, and integrity among the general citizenry. What is the "right path": love or duty? Will "Will" stand firm despite standing alone? Who controls "law," the citizenry or "the professionals?" What is, in other words, the virtuous and wise path, particularly for citizens in a newly pacified world? Carl Foreman was very vocal about his script's political implications. Caught in the web of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Foreman would, by the film's release, be officially blacklisted. It is unclear to what extent Zinneman intended the film to be political. Foreman, however, was clear that the film was about a cowardly, inactive, and dishonorable film industry and political witch-hunt. Foreman saw Kane's honor as an indictment of American passivity and cowardice. For others (notably Corkin), the film is clearly a commentary on the harsh burdens of military power and liberty.           

The contrast of Helen and Amy is drawn in broad strokes. Both women are loved by Kane. Kane was Helen's former lover (though he did not marry her). He is Amy's present husband (though, as yet, they do not appear to be lovers). Helen knows Kane will stay and fight. Amy insists Will flee with her. What Helen finds attractive about Kane—the essence of his manhood—Amy detests and fails to understand. Helen is infinitely practical; she advocates doing what one must to survive. Amy is naïve in her ideals and virtue. Helen is openly sexual. Amy is a virgin. Amy is, throughout, dressed in her wedding garments. Helen is first dressed in a silk sleeping gown and robe, then in exotic clothing. Amy is blond with blue eyes and from "back East." Helen is a dark haired with dark eyes and skin; she is from Mexico. Amy speaks with proper elocution. Helen has a strong Spanish accent. Amy is thin and graceful. Helen is Reubenesque. Amy appears, most often, to the strains of "Do not forsake me." The music for Helen is a mariachi inspired samba. In short, everything about the presentation of Helen (even her name) speaks to sexuality and exoticism, to foreignness, strangeness, and temptation. Everything about Amy invokes chastity, devotion, values, and "whiteness." Kane is positioned exactly between these two, one marking his former self, the other embodying his hopes for the future.

Bridge 

O to be torn 'twixt love and duty!

S'posin' I lose my fair-haired beauty! 

There are two explicit references to biblical text in High Noon, and both occur within the Hadleyville Church. The 11:00 worship hour corresponds to the tense wait for the noon train. In the first scene, the congregants are singing the first verse of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." This (period-relevant) hymn alludes throughout to the Apocalypse of John (particularly 14:17-20). We next see the church interior when Kane interrupts the sermon seeking volunteers for his posse. The pastor announces his text for the day and begins the reading from Malachi 4:1-4, a passage about the Day of the LORD:

For, behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall, and you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be as ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.[7]

This reading predicts the denouement of the film. Kane and Miller are to meet at noon, the sun's highest point on an already hot day. Kane, during the ensuing gun battle, hides in the town stable, which Miller sets aflame; Kane escapes by releasing the stock inside and rushing out in the confused stampede. By the end of the battle, all four of the Miller gang lie dead in the streets. Will and Amy are reunited, their love reaffirmed, and their relationship healed. Will has acted as God's agent, destroying the wicked on the Day of the LORD.[8] Kane's violence is God's judgment. Kane is God's Will.           

High Noon's original song with its insistent plea, "do not forsake me," reverberates with yet another biblical echo. The motif of "forsakenness" (Heb. 'āzab) occurs more than fifty times in Kethuvim (the third portion of the Hebrew Bible). It frequently marks the pleas of the tormented to God (viz. Pss 27:9, 38:21, 71:18; perhaps, most famously, Ps 22:1). Left alone and "beset by evil men," who seek the life of the innocent and revel in violence, the voice of the Psalmist cries, again and again, to God, begging against being "forsaken." The trauma of abandonment (by his wife, by his friends, by the townspeople) surrounds Kane throughout the film.

A second locus for 'āzab / forsakenness is God's pleas for fidelity in worship. Deuteronomic writings (viz. Deut 4) express the covenant between God and God's people via metaphors of marital fidelity; idolatry is likened to adultery. The motif is central in the prophets, perhaps most aggressively in Ezekiel 16-18 or Hosea 1-3. A breach in marital loyalty is a major element of forsakenness in High Noon. The tension of this rift is even more acute with the presence of Kane's former lover, Helen. Will is, at least ideologically, betraying his new bride; Helen knows he will stay to face Miller at any cost, revealing that she knows and understands him with a greater intimacy than does Amy (a major portion of "the cost" Kane is risking).           

But there is, still yet, a more relevant use of 'āzab / forsakenness in the Hebrew text. The book of Proverbs opens with a nine-chapter celebration of the virtues of Wisdom.[9] Wisdom (hokma, in later Greek, sophia) is a gift from God and very often articulated in terms of knowing submission to God's will and divine instruction (torah) and reproof (1:7, 3:11, and elsewhere). The prologue to Proverbs is framed as a father's remarks to his son (1:8, 2:1, 3:1, and elsewhere). There is substantial debate regarding the origins of Hebrew wisdom traditions (whether they be public or private, court or main street, school or home).[10] Whatever the exact origin, this discourse, couched as fatherly advice, is reflecting a discourse of men, about "manly" experience and interests.            

Fidelity/marital metaphors surround the advocacy of wisdom. Wisdom, personified as an actual woman, is celebrated as "good wife / partner."[11] She first appears in 1:20-33 where she "cries aloud in the street" as she searches the city, promising rewards to those who embrace and keep her. Again, in 8:1-31, we see her searching the streets, the markets, the houses of government, and the holy places calling for those who are wise to embrace her. She is a good partner, always providing insight and ability. In 4:1-9, the father's pleas become earnest.

Hear, O sons, a father's instruction . . . .When I was a son with my own father, a tender youth, the only child of my mother, he taught me and said to me, "Let your heart hold fast to my words . . . Get wisdom . . . Do not forsake her, and she will defend/protect you; love her, and she will love you (4:1-4; ital. added).

The metaphor is clear: as a father counsels his son to "find a good woman" and set up a peaceful home, he just as urgently pleads with his son to embrace wisdom.           

A second woman appears in Proverbs. Occasionally called "Dame Folly," she is the antithesis of Wisdom.[12] Like hokma, she can be seen in the streets, enticing men inside (5:1-6), but she promises only fleeting and dangerous pleasures. She is sexually experienced and alluring, but she is an adulteress and will not remain faithful. In the end, she will forsake her paramours to face violent death (5:8-14).

Dame Folly is described as a "strange" or "foreign" woman (Prvbs 2:16; 5:3, 20; 6:24; 7:5 and, beyond the prologue, 20:16; 23:27; 27:13).[13] In part, the "strange woman" ('isha zara) may linguistically imply "a woman who is an inappropriate sexual partner for you," or "someone else's wife." Clearly, however, issues of "foreign born" women as inappropriate wives can be found in the biblical text (viz. Ezra 9-10). Further, the primary issue in Proverbs is the embrace of a Jewishethic as "wisdom." "Other," "foreign," and "strangeness," in this light, take on more ethnically charged connotations.            

Within High Noon this contrast is reflected in Helen and Amy. Helen's advice and insight, at first seemingly vital and accurate, will, in the end, leave Kane alone to face mortal danger (and result, inevitably, in the death of at least one of her former lovers). Helen, though not specifically associated with adultery, is certainly sexually experienced. She abandons Kane and has honeyed speech. She is very literally "strange" and foreign to the world of Hadleyville.           

Amy, however, pleas for mercy and, initially, offers a suggestion that isn't completely imprudent—with a deranged gunman bent on revenge due to arrive on the next train, flight is certainly reasonable. She speaks the truth (as she knows it). She is a virgin; she spends the entire film dressed in a wedding garment. She is, also, very much notforeign or "strange"—in either sense of the word. Finally, she plays a critical role in Kane's final victory.

Refrain 

Do not forsake me, O my Darlin,'

You made that promise when we wed.           

In some ways, the characters of Helen and Amy exemplify the classic "two woman" trope of Proverbs. Helen, very literally a "strange" and "foreign" ishah zarah,represents Kane's violent and sexual past. Amy represents Kane's turn to wisdom; she is the classic 1950s view of the "Virtuous Wife" (ishah hayil).[14] In many ways, Kaneperforms the dichotomy the two women embody. He speaks wisdom. Flight would damage Kane's honor and prevent him from putting away his violent past. Like both hokma and the ishah zara, Kane searches the streets, neighborhoods, markets, public houses, courtrooms, and temples seeking followers. His is the voice of the title song.

Yet, Kane cannot really embody the two-woman trope alone. To begin, gender is essential for his character. "Manhood" is the core thesis of the film and essence of all inner conflict and turmoil. Kane is able, however, to connect with the motif through both women. As past and future lover of the two women, Kane divides and conflates them both. Having absorbed both women into himself, the new triad unites to demonstrate "wisdom." Both women nuance Kane's struggle to be authentically male.           

Such, unfortunately, is also reminiscent of the biblical trope. In wisdom literature, the function and gender of women are controlled and scripted by their relationships and their profits to men.[15] In key ways both texts—the film and the wisdom writings—perform a dynamic articulated by Tomkins. Tomkins observes that women, in Westerns, queerly construct male identity. Women are the "language of men." Tomkins observes that women in Westerns are "masking the fact that what the men are really interested in is each other."[16]           

In High Noon, Amy-as-Lady-Wisdom is, herself, instructed and changed. Amy's choice not to forsake Kane, in the end, brings her to forsake her own values of non-violence. To defend Kane, Amy must "cross over" into his argument, into hismessage of wisdom. In essence, Kane has taught wisdom to Wisdom. This conjoined queer matrix of Kane-Amy-Wisdom has an ominous moral: to eschew violence is ultimately to forsake because it is to be dishonorable, to be unwise. As Tomkins also observes, "the genre [of Westerns] exists in order to provide a justification for violence."[17] That justification, indeed, sums up High Noon very neatly and certainly permeates American Cold-War era politics, government, and gender roles.  

High Noon uses biblical motifs of the Day of the Lord, "forsakenness," and the personifications of Wisdom and Folly as women to articulate that violence is necessary for true peace, civility, liberty, and honor. Such violence is likened to divine judgment. Understanding this is divine wisdom.

The film ended, the voice of Tex Ritter soft in our mind's ear, our American (post)modern angst is, once again, assuaged enough, at least, for us to switch off the TV and turn to sleep.

Robert Paul Seesengood, Albright College

Notes

[1] For general review, in addition to the sources cited below, note John G. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green, Ky.: Kentucky University Press, 1975); Eugene Cunningham, Triggernomitry (Causton, 1941); George N. Fenin, The Western: From Silents to the Seventies (New York: Grossman, 1973); David French, Westerns: Aspects of a Move Genre (New York: Viking, 1973); Gary J. Hausladen, Western Places, American Myth: How We Think about the West (Reno, Nev.: University of Nevada Press, 2003); John H. Lenihan, Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980); Rita Parks, The Western Hero in Film and Television: Mass Media Mythology(Ph.D. diss.: Northwestern University, 1974); Armando José Prats, Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002); Jon Tuska, The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985); Will Wright, Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975); Andrew Brodie Smith, Shooting Cowboys and Indians: Silent Western Films, American Culture and the Birth of Hollywood (Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2003). Critique of Westerns has even entered the discipline of biblical studies. Note the significant essay by Jennifer L. Koosed and Tod Linafelt, "How the West Was not One: Delilah Deconstructs the Western" Semeia 74 (1996): 167-81.

[2] Jane Tomkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[3] Stanley Corkin, Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western in US History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Peter A. French, Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 11.

 [6] Lyrics Ned Washington and performed by Tex Ritter—the movie's only appeal to "conventional Westerns." On the song and its impact on film, see Deborah Allison, "Do Not Forsake Me: The Ballad of High Noon' and the Rise of the Movie Song." Online: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/28/ballad_of_high_noon.html.

[7] English translations here, and throughout, are from the Revised Standard Version, modified by me (using the standard, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia [Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1990]).

[8] As for the congregants, they initially arise to help. They decide it is best if Kane simply go away. As Miller and his gang arrive in town, the congregants are seen inside the church, fervently in silent prayer. Miller, evil, still arrives at their town and is driven away only by Will's "righteous" response of noble violence. One is left wondering if their prayers have been answered.

 [9] My readings of Proverbs are very much informed by W. McKane, Proverbs (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970); R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (ABC; New York: Doubleday, 1965); R. C. Van Leewan, "The Book of Proverbs," The New Interpreter's Bible (vol. 5; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 19-262; and Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (WBC; Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson, 1998).

[10] See Michael V. Fox, "The Social Location of the Book of Proverbs," Texts, Temples and Traditions (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1996), 227-39; H. J. Hermisson, Studien zur israelitischen Spruchweishert (Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1968); C. Westermann, Roots of Wisdom (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1995). For a summary, see James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (rev. ed.; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 35-54.

 [11] See, for summary, Roland Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 133-49.

 [12] Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1985). The trope of Wisdom vs. Folly is often referred to as the "Two Woman Motif" of Proverbs. It is, by no means, exclusive to that book, nor even to the Hebrew Bible. Notably, see Barbara Rossing, The Choice between Two Cities (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity / T&T Clark, 1999), where she follows the theme into the New Testament's Revelation to John.

 [13] See, for an excellent survey on the topic, Gail Streete, The Strange Woman (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 101-19. Streete, interestingly, argues that the original context of the material for Proverbs 1-9 was concerns regarding tribal / ethnic identity and marital stability. This structure was then articulated in and later made allegory for Hebrew Wisdom.

 [14] The ishah hayil of Lemuel's poem in Proverbs. Thirty-one is, within Proverbs, distinct in both origin and theme from hokma of 1-9. The two are often, however, conflated by later interpretive communities and perhaps even by Proverb's redactors. See Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine.

[15] Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine. See, as well, A.-J. Levine, ed. Feminist Companion to Wisdom Literature (essays by Gail Yee and Claudia Camp).

[16] Tomkins, West of Everything, 40.

[17] Ibid, 272.

 
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