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The American Western and the Rule of Law

by Howard Kaplan*

With its “lawmen” and “outlaws,” the American Western movie can be a powerful dramatic device to explore the rule of law and related themes—the frontier and civilization, law and order, peace or violence, vigilante justice or due process of law, rule by mob or rule of law, self-preservation and civic responsibility. These basic rule-of-law themes work well in classic Westerns because these films provide a mythical time and place, set on the frontier in an American past, where law’s rule is often weak, precarious, or unsettled. The risks are high and so are the stakes, both for the individual and the community.

Perhaps the best movie Western for considering the theme of the rule of law is High Noon (1952), starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane and Grace Kelly as his wife, Amy. High Noon is set in the small Western town of Hadleyville, circa 1880s. All of the action of the 85-minute movie takes place virtually in real time—just about two hours pass from beginning to end. Clocks show the approach to “high noon” and the movie’s climactic scene. The mood is suspenseful, enhanced by the playing of the theme song, the ballad “Do Not Forsake Me.” Kane’s wife, a pacifist Quaker, has persuaded him to resign as marshal and begin a new life with her, as shopkeepers in a new town. They are married in the opening scene. Then shocking news breaks. Frank Miller, a convicted killer whose gang terrorized Hadleyville five years before, has just been inexplicably pardoned by the territorial authorities “up north.” Three members of his gang wait for him to arrive in town on the noon train. They are intent on seeking vengeance. Rather than leave town, Marshall Kane decides he must face Miller, knowing it is life or death. He seeks his wife’s understanding and the community’s support. He hopes they will not forsake him.

Roughly halfway through the movie, a pivotal scene (7-1/2 minutes) occurs when Kane interrupts Sunday morning service at the town church to inform parishioners of Miller’s imminent return. This prompts a vigorous discussion of their predicament. Town leader Jonas Henderson facilitates: “If there’s a difference of opinion, then let everyone have a say—but let’s do it like grown up people.” Many voices are heard. One man asks if it’s true that “there’s personal trouble” between the marshal and Miller. Another avers: “It ain’t [Kane’s] trouble. It’s ours.” Another man confronts Kane, wondering why he hasn’t done anything about the “three killers walking the streets bold as brass….Why didn’t you put them in jail where they ought to be?” The marshal responds, “They haven’t done anything. There’s no law against them sitting on a bench at the depot.” Henderson gets the last word. He acknowledges the great debt the town owes Kane, enabling it to become “decent” rather than “just another wide open town.” Henderson concurs that Miller is “our problem, not his.” He concludes, however, that “shooting and killing in the streets,” no matter what the reason, will do the town no good. It would be best for all, even Kane himself, Henderson argues, if he leaves. His reasoning prevails. The parishioners guiltily hang their heads. Kane mutters “thanks” and departs, forsaken again.

Discussion Questions on the Church Scene

1. What do we learn about the people in the church from their discussion?

2. Do you think Miller is simply Marshal Kane’s personal problem or that of the town’s? Why does this matter?

3. What is the difference between a “decent” town and one that is “wide open”? Does the town being “decent” depend upon maintaining the rule of law? Why?

4. Why didn’t the marshal arrest Miller’s gang members? How might he have done so? What would the consequences have been? Would it have been consistent with the rule of law?

5. Why does Henderson argue that “shooting and killing” would be detrimental to the town, especially for its economic viability in the eyes of investors “up north”? Do you agree with his assessment?

6. Do you think Henderson really believes his “hunch” that “there won’t be any trouble” if only Kane leaves town before Miller arrives?

7. How important is the support of the community to sustaining the rule of law? Why? What does this say about the rule of law, its strengths, its limits and its precariousness? Its dependence on human action and force of will?

*"The American Western and the Rule of Law" by Howard Kaplan