Many years ago, when Roger Ebert reported John Wayne’s comment about the great movie “High Noon,” I was surprised.
“What a piece of you-know-what that was,” Wayne said. “Here’s a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains, fightin’ off Indians and drought and wild animals in order to settle down and make themselves a homestead. And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”
Being a fan of both Wayne and “High Noon,” it took me a while to come to terms with it.
Wayne was right, but he was wrong.
Having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s, I thought I understood the underlying themes of “High Noon” without being told, so when I first read that it was screenwriter Carl Foreman’s screed against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), I was surprised. But I was young then and tended to take things at face value. I was already aware of the sort of equivocation and prevarication common to middle-class America, discouraged by the lack of real idealism, and bothered by the phony flag waving. Now, this disturbing, inspiring, and moving film was being cast into a new light.
I saw that the complacency was part of a moral rot.
Wayne, of course, was famously and earnestly conservative in his political views. He almost went broke financing, producing and directing “The Alamo” as a filmed statement of those beliefs—no less earnest than Forman’s. However, Forman’s was the better script, and Fred Zinnemann the better director. Historically, the actual battle of the Alamo was a terrific microcosm of all the rights and wrongs at work in America’s westward expansion, but Wayne left out too many of the wrongs and deprived his story of not only its own integrity, but the greater power of the sacrifice made by those defenders. At a smaller scale, Foreman put better cards on the table, and played them.
Now, the problem here is not film, I think. It is integrity.
The middle-class Americans who returned from a world war reacted to that horror by making too much of safety and equanimity. They did not want to face up to the darker forces already at work at home, or to the consequences of compromise. Prosperity became the moral standard. But much like the townspeople in “High Noon,” you can’t hide. Being wrong is correctable. Hiding is despicable.
What surprises me more today is not that so many people are wrong, but that so many are afraid to be right.
We learn by our mistakes. But if we deny them, we learn nothing. Too many of the children and grandchildren of the “Greatest Generation” have learned the wrong lessons. Never mind, for the moment, whether they are politically Left or Right. How can they sleep at night knowing they have done little or nothing to counter so much evil? What sort of world do they think their children (or, if they are skipping the responsibilities of parenthood, their nieces and nephews) will be faced with? Or do they even ask such questions? I don’t think so.
The Baby Boomers, of whom you have heard too much, let their moment slip. Their Alamo was never fought. They did not “change the world.” Their slogans wafted away with the pot smoke at Woodstock and Altamont. Their vigor was spent on drugs and rock’n roll. They took safe jobs and bought nice houses and learned more from Martha Stewart than from either Friedrich Hayek or Karl Marx. They voted away their integrity on the promises of politicians who never even bothered to earn their trust. So, when the sheriff came for help, they had their excuses.
In my own discontent, when I look about for moral support, the comforts now are few and far between. More often I am told that I should be happy with what I have. This admonition is commonly made in good faith by people who have risked as little as possible, having benefited mightily from the good works of those who once stood their ground and risked everything.
Discontent has no synonym as strong and precise, while still being inclusive of all the aspects of being unhappy with one’s situation—dejected, aggrieved, disgruntled, displeased, dissatisfied, malcontent, perturbed, even despondent. This is now the age of discontent.
In time, we have let the victories of the past slip away. Now, there is no place to hide—to ride out of here. Our high noon has come. Our children now inherit the dirt.