Moral Movie Reviews Moral Movie Reviews

The Moral Center in Films

On the day of his marriage, lawman Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is about to retire as the marshal of Hadleyville and leave with his new wife, Amy (Grace Kelly). Then word comes that Frank Miller, an outlaw Kane sent to prison five years ago, is arriving on the noon train to get revenge on Kane. Three members of Miller’s gang, including his brother Ben, have already arrived and are waiting for Miller at the depot. At everyone’s urging, Kane and Amy leave town on their wagon, but they haven’t gone far before Kane realizes that he can’t leave. He was their marshal and still feels a responsibility to the town—and he fears that Miller and his gang will hunt him down if he doesn’t return and confront them in Hadleyville, where he can deputize a number of men to help him.

High NoonBut throughout a tense morning as the clock keeps ticking Kane is unable to enlist any supporters. Many are afraid of Miller and his gang. Some believe that if Kane doesn’t leave town he’s bringing this all on himself. His young deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is disappointed that he wasn’t appointed the new marshal and tries to blackmail Kane into supporting him for that position, but Kane refuses, and Pell turns in his badge. As high noon approaches, Kane makes one last attempt to find deputies. Interrupting a church service, he practically begs for the men to support him. The pious townspeople debate it, some wanting to help Kane and others dead set against it. In the end, he leaves the church alone. The children outside the church are playing tug-of-war, symbolizing the debate that just took place inside.

Amy also abandons him. A pacifist and a Quaker, she can’t understand his determination to stay and confront the gang, so she buys a train ticket to St. Louis and is set to leave on the same train Miller will arrive on. Kane’s former lover, Helen Ramirez, owner of the saloon, also decides to leave on that train. Disgusted with the town and its people for betraying Kane, she sells her business and is packing her things when Amy knocks on her door. As they talk, Ramirez says she can’t understand her. “If he was my man, I’d get a gun and help him.” Amy asks why she doesn’t, and Ramirez replies, “He’s not my man.”

When the noon train arrives, Frank Miller disembarks and straps on his gun. Amy and Helen board the train, but when Amy hears the first shot fired, she runs back into town. Kane has gunned down one of the outlaws, but the other three corner him in a stable. Kane climbs into the loft and then shoots another outlaw who has crept into the building. To force him out, Frank Miller and his brother set fire to the stable, which is also full of horses. Concerned for their safety, Kane unties the horses and escapes from the burning building by lying on one horse’s back. The two Millers follow and one shoots Kane off of the horse. Wounded, Kane seeks refuge in a store while the outlaw brothers try to corner him again.

Amy, who is hiding in the marshal’s office, sees Ben Miller through a window, creeping into position to attack her husband. She finds a pistol and, despite her pacifist beliefs, shoots Miller in the back. Then Frank Miller comes in through a back door and takes her hostage. Using her as a human shield, he forces Kane into the open. But Amy struggles and breaks free, which allows Kane to shoot and kill his nemesis. Once the danger is past, the townspeople emerge from hiding. Kane looks at them in disgust and then throws his badge into the dirt as he and Amy climb onto their wagon and once leave Hadleyville.

High Noon (1952) is a classic tale of a hero who must face mortal danger alone. The other “good” men in the town are either unable or unwilling to stand by his side, despite the fact that he cleaned up Hadleyville and made it a decent place to live. With his sense of responsibility, determination, and courage, Will Kane represents the moral center of the story—the character who exemplifies the right values and moral attributes. Miller’s gang is the threat to the hero, the direct cause of the dramatic tension in the story, but the true moral antitheses to Kane’s noble behavior are the townspeople, who are hypocrites and cowards. Amy is a character on a moral journey, and Helen Ramirez acts as her guide. Initially unwilling to support her husband and embrace the virtues he represents, she gets a lesson in loyalty when Ramirez advises her to stand by her man, which Amy ultimately does.

Eons ago, when we began telling stories to each other, those stories were not intended merely to entertain; they were also meant to educate and enlighten. They not only relayed our experiences and contributed to our history, they instructed us on the proper ways to behave. The story structures that developed—the ones that were repeated—had familiar elements: protagonists and antagonists, good guys and bad guys, obstacles that prevented the hero from reaching the goal and creative ways around those obstacles. Many stories, especially those told to children, conveyed important lessons (“And the moral of this story is. . .”). But virtually every story has characters who embody the values and moral virtues that reflect the moral standards of the culture. Those characters are the moral center of the film.

The character who represents the moral center does not always prevail. In a number of stories virtue is not triumphant. Sometimes, evil prevails, and that’s the point of the story. But even when the bad guys win, there will be a character or group of characters who embody the values and moral attributes that reflect universal virtues and moral standards. This is the case in Spartacus, for example, where the hero, a rebellious slave leader, is defeated in the end (Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is based on the same theme, and the hero of that film also dies in the end). In these films, the moral center is the courageous commoner who fights a corrupt and vicious ruler or system, and although the hero perishes we learn the moral lesson that rebelling against injustice is the right course of action, even if it puts you in mortal danger and you fail.

This concept of a moral center operates in every type of fiction—short stories, novels, plays, and films. In every medium in which writers tell stories about the human condition, the story structure enables the storyteller to dramatize the struggle between right and wrong, virtue and vice. Identifying the moral center in these works of fiction is often a good way to understand both the storytellers’ intentions and the underlying moral lesson.

In the essays to follow, I will explore the moral center in a number of films, including ones with a perfect moral structure (Notting Hill), a failed moral structure (Wedding Crashers and My Best Friend’s Wedding), and a highly complex moral structure (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Copyright  ©2010 by Terry R. Bacon.  All rights reserved.


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