Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2002 / 11 Tishrei, 5762

Joseph C. Phillips

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Reflecting on High Noon | America just observed the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and is struggling to garner international support for removing Saddam Hussein from power. It seemed like a perfect time to revisit the classic western High Noon.

I was curious about how a modern-day retelling would speak to present-day issues, so I decided to forego viewing the 1952 original film and instead watched the Turner Broadcasting remake. The film's director, Rod Hardy, said that he adjusted elements of the original story to give it a more contemporary flavor. It was his belief that the modern-day retelling would be more identifiable with today's viewing audience. Let us hope he is wrong.

Where the original tells its story in stark black and white, emphasizing the dry heat of moral struggle, the remake is lush with color and covered in mud. If McCarthyism gave the original its clarity and poignancy, the Bill Clinton era of moral relativism informs this overly sentimental remake. Sadly, where the original film fills me with hope, this contemporary remake left me strangely pessimistic.

The original film was unequivocal in its assertion that evil (embodied in the character of Frank Miller) exists. However, in the remake, we are told over and over again that Frank Miller is crazy. It is only in the current climate of non-judgmentalism that a man bent on not only taking the life of an officer of the law, but on destroying a town, cannot be labeled as evil. Today, we search for the root cause of anti-social behavior.

Like the leading citizens of the fictional town of Hadleyville, who stood debating while evil lurked just outside of their town, we endeavor to understand the hatred of our enemies. How did our behavior invite the attack of 9/11? Were the terrorists crazy? No. They were evil; as is Saddam Hussein; as is the film's villain, Frank Miller. All are bent on destruction and if left unchecked, they will destroy everything in their paths.

Evil is distinct from insanity in that the insane do not know what they are doing. The destruction they reap is the result of a diseased mind. The evil, on the other hand, know exactly what they are doing. They destroy because it gives them gratification -- sexual, moral or personal. It is worth remembering that the 9/11 murderers did not attempt to build something greater than the World Trade Center Towers. They knocked them down. And their supporters danced in the streets just as the barkeep in High Noon buys drinks for the house upon news of Miller's return.

The remake also gives us more insight into the roots of Amy Fowlers' pacifism and, in so doing, shifts the focus of the film from the cost of manhood and the price of standing up for what is right, to a more general observation that it's important to stand up for one's principles. Thus, the remake renders every principled stance as moral and suggests that we must all follow our own moral compass. The original film was saying just the opposite! In 1952, the height of the McCarthy era, filmmakers said in no uncertain terms: There is "right" and there is "wrong" and that "Sometimes it is just that simple. " All behavior, no matter how well intentioned, is not moral. What a difference 50 years makes.

In the film, with misty eyes, Amy tells Mrs. Ramirez that guns killed both her parents. "I admire the manner of their death." She adds, "They could have picked up guns. They could have killed to save their lives. Instead they chose to show love in the face of hatred. Love is the only way things ever really change." Actor Richard Gere exhibited a version of this same naiveté one year ago. While speaking to an audience filled with New York City firefighters, policemen and their families, Gere encouraged the audience to look upon this time of mourning as an opportunity to reach out and show love to the world. He was appropriately booed off the stage.

Love is not a passive emotion. It is proactive behavior. Embracing one's enemies at the cost of the lives of the innocent is not an act of love, but an act of contempt. Should I embrace those who would deny my children a father? Or is my violent act of taking the life of my enemy an act of love for my family?

Perhaps the most disturbing portion of this contemporary retelling occurs during the climactic shootout when Amy Fowler saves Will Kane's life. In the original Fowlers act is an independent act of love and loyalty. In the remake she does not pick up a gun until after she has been roughed up by one of the assassins and her husband is on his knees before Miller. It is a sad commentary on contemporary society when we demand that our heroes bow before evil as Tom Skerrit's Will Kane does. Gary Cooper would never have gone to his knees!

As our enemies plot America's destruction and our allies abandon us as we prepare to rid The Middle East of Saddam Hussein, let us hope that Hardy's contemporary view is wrong. Let us pray that we are not brought to our knees before the Amy Fowlers of the world realize that those bent on destruction understand only force. Denying evil and engaging in a debate over minutiae while the clock ticks is not an act of responsibility, it is an act of cowardice.

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JWR contributor Joseph C. Phillips, professional actor, published writer and public speaker, appeared in a recurring role on The Cosby Show and a variety of TV sitcoms. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Joseph Phillips