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The AFI Top 100 Films: High Noon (#33)

Entertainment 150High Noon (1952)
Starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly and Lloyd Bridges
Written by Carl Foreman (screenplay) and John W. Cunningham (short story)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann

This is another one of those movies where the behind-the-scenes story is just as good as what you see on the screen. But High Noon is included in this list because it’s a great movie, so let’s start there.

Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) is quitting his post after marrying his Quaker wife (Kelly). On his last day of the job, he learns that the infamous Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) has been pardoned for a crime that Kane sent him away for some time ago. Miller is back in town, and he definitely means to make trouble. Instead of letting the town deal with it on its own, he decides that the right thing to do is round up a posse and go after Miller before anything terrible happens. Miller’s gang is waiting for him at the train station; his train is supposed to arrive promptly at noon.

Rounding up a posse is much easier said than done. Everyone in town has their own reasons for turning down Kane’s request, but it all amounts to the same thing. As noon fast approaches, Kane finds himself with ever-dwindling support while simply trying to do the right thing. We spend quite a bit of the movie watching Peck’s increasing, quiet desperation as he’s turned down time and again by his friends and neighbors. We learn quite a bit about the town — and Kane’s relationships to its inhabitants — in the meantime.

The film is a model of efficiency, playing out in nearly real time. Every one of Kane’s potential cohorts plays his or her history with him right on their sleeve, and the reasons they give for their refusal are believable, if frequently disappointing. It builds to the inevitable confrontation, of course, and I won’t breathe a word of what happens. It’s quite a surprise!

Really, we've got some righteous drinking to do.

“That’s a room full of no.”

High Noon was written as an allegory for the Hollywood blacklisting that was running rampant at the time; McCarthy and his posse were coming for various people in the industry and no one would stand up to him. They all had their reasons, of course, but it all amounted to the same thing. They stood by while the lives of their friends and neighbors were dismantled and ruined.

In fact, writer Carl Foreman was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and blacklisted. He was forced to live in England for the rest of his days. One of the people leading the charge in Hollywood? None other than the Duke himself, John Wayne, who was a very strong proponent of what McCarthy was doing at the time. Twenty years later, in an interview with Playboy, he said he didn’t regret his actions. He also said a few other things that I cannot believe were said by a national treasure.

Far from being angry about it, I find it kind of exhilarating. John Wayne was every bit the double-edged sword of the American ideal at the time. While upholding the virtues of the national mood, he also embodied a lot of its vices; a sort of hysterical cruelty about ‘the other’ viewed as a threat, an uncompromising, regretless arrogance that made it impossible to learn from mistakes. Foreman attempted to warn us about what was happening in the 50s, about the excuses we would use to shroud us from responsibility to do something about what was happening. And he was targeted and brought down for his trouble.

At least he went out with a fine movie to his credit. The film is populated with great characters and memorable interactions, and even though so much of it is characters unpacking their history together to display it for our benefit it never feels wordy or slow. The confrontation at noon looms large over every scene, driving the dialogue with weight and purpose. At the end of every exchange is a decision that can’t be rescinded. There’s a finality there that makes it wonderfully taut.

Kane travels through this small town to the steady drumbeats of the film’s signature song, Tex Ritter’s “High Noon”. It reminds us of the inevitability of Kane’s duel, and suffuses the film with a melancholy that can’t be shaken. The film looks bright and hot, the sun beating down on saint and sinner alike. It’s an indelible film, the kind that you catch yourself thinking about for weeks afterward. It has the spare beauty of the best cowboy poetry.

High Noon reminds us of the importance of our own individual morality, and of how that can guide a community into something better than it would be otherwise. Sometimes our fears can be conquered just by watching someone else rise above their own. Then again, sometimes it can’t. I found myself checking my gut at the end of this movie, wondering what I would do. We all think we would have the courage to stand with Marshall Kane, to turn back the outlaws no one else would do anything about. But the many rejections in town give us pause. Would we be like the man who tells his wife to answer the door and let Kane know he’s not home? Would we secretly gloat about Kane’s downfall because his sanctimoniousness rubbed us the wrong way? What High Noon teaches us is that there’s always a reason to do the right thing, but there are always many reasons to do the wrong one.

Rating: 9/10.


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The AFI Top 100 Films: Doctor Zhivago (#39)

Entertainment 150Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin and Rod Steiger
Written by Boris Pasternak (novel) and Robert Bolt (screenplay)
Directed by David Lean

After watching Doctor Zhivago, I found it easy to imagine why people were freaked out about communism. The movie, adapted from the Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, details the life of a poet and doctor while the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war erupts all around him. Things weren’t great under the czars for a lot of people, but the suffering only seemed to intensify once the Bolsheviks rose to power. The story centers on the tension between the individual’s right to pursue their own happiness and the needs of society. Czarist and Bolshevik Russia swing from one extreme to the other and goes from bad to worse in the meantime.

Yuri Zhivago was adopted into a bourgeois family after he loses his mother. He cultivates two careers: one as a poet, and one as a doctor. What’s interesting is that these two professions come to symbolize the eternal struggle of a man as social animal — what enriches him personally, and the way he can be of best use to those around him. He’s recognized for his talents in both professions, but circumstances call for the use of the practical over the fulfilling more and more.

He falls in love with two women through an incredibly turbulent period. First, World War I demands his expertise as a doctor behind the front, and then he’s driven to leave Moscow when the Bolsheviks take over. His doubts about “the needs of the many” doesn’t endear him to the new regime, and his poetry is seen as far too personal and indulgent to agree with the political sensibilities taking hold at the time. Even his practice as a doctor isn’t enough for him to stick around; his family’s home and possessions are repossessed by the state and given to others as some measure of equality. Eventually, there simply isn’t enough to go around and the lack of goodwill forces him out of the city.

What follows is an arduous, harrowing and eerie train ride through the Russian countryside. It’s a very impressive sequence; the landscape is stark and beautiful, and a small community forms out of the strangers packed into a single train car. We also see how the building conflict between the Communist Party and the White separatists has ravaged the land. Small towns suspected of harboring the rebels are attacked by the state, and some are burned to the ground as part of a (literal) scorched earth policy. Yuri himself is even picked up and interrogated by the Communist military operation travelling in parallel with the civilian train. The sense of helplessness in the face of totalitarian power is palpable during these scenes; if Yuri gives an answer that the commander doesn’t like, then he could disappear immediately without his wife and son ever knowing what’s happened to him.

At some point, that actually DOES happen. Yuri, who’s been having an affair with a woman he served with during the war, goes to a neighboring town to end their dalliance once he learns his wife is pregnant. On his way back home, he’s conscripted into service by the Communists and spends several months trekking through the Russian wilderness to hunt down rebels. During this time, he finds out the state is essentially killing children and young men. Disillusioned with the new regime, he deserts his post and returns home, only to find his family has left. His mistress remains, however.

The movie is actually a romantic drama framed against the backdrop of societal turbulence. The civil unrest serves as the force driving Yuri and his loves apart, so that we understand how the rise of communism affected people on a personal level. It works well in that regard, but I actually find the tension between individual desire and societal need the most interesting. The melodrama regarding Yuri, his wife and his lover is interesting, but not quite the strongest part. Where the movie works best is as a historical record of what Russia was like during the rise of the Bolsheviks, and how the new regime took its reaction against the decadence of the bourgeois and Czarist classes to the extreme. Everyone, no matter who or what they were, were reduced to the same rough life. There was no room for individual pursuits or even a moment’s happiness in this new state. All that was left was what it was decided had to be done. Society above all, was the thinking.

Still, Doctor Zhivago works well as an epic romantic drama as well. Lara, this mistress that Yuri falls in love with, has her own intriguing story that also serves up the movie’s great villain — Komarovsky, an opportunist who forces himself on her and has a knack for not only surviving through the worst of times, but flourishing. I think he’s the movie’s best character. While Yuri, Lara and Yuri’s wife Tonya are interesting on an intellectual level, Komarovsky is the only person who connects emotionally. You hate him in a way that reaffirms your morality, and he’s incredibly effective as a loathsome individual. He serves as a useful critique of communism, actually. The Bolsheviks were hoping to stamp out people just like him, but he ends up succeeding in the new regime just as well as the old one.

Director David Lean does a great job of tightening the story and focusing on the most important parts, thanks to Robert Bolt’s efficient screenplay. Pasternak’s novel is sprawling, filled with characters that represent all walks of Russian life. We get a good sense of its expansiveness while still keeping focused on our viewpoint characters. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and everyone involved hits it quite well.

It’s not that often that I recommend a movie on the grounds of its historical interest, but that’s precisely why I’d recommend Doctor Zhivago. It’s a fascinating look at a crazy time in Russia’s history, and a fairly good romantic melodrama besides. The soundtrack is wonderfully distinctive, the sets are awesome, and the cinematography top-notch. All of it serves the mood of the story, as tragic and poetic as the Russian wilderness.

Rating: 7/10.

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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Politics, Reviews


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