Thursday, February 19, 2009

Nearin' High Noon

Do not forsake me O my darlin'On this our wedding day.Do not forsake me O my darlin'Wait, wait along.
(The Ballad of High Noon,music by Dmitri Tiompkin, lyrics by Ned Washington)

Last Saturday night, Barbara and Natania left right after Shabbat and headed into Jerusalem to see an adaptation in Hebrew of Nicolai Gogol’s play “The Marriage.” (The report I got the next day was that they were able to understand about three quarters of it; our collective grasp of the language is increasing. I am bringing up the rear, even though I got a 78 on my ulpan final two weeks ago.) I was more than happy to stay home alone and entertain myself. Recently we bought a second hand TV; not a new, sexy flat-screen model, a regular old bulky 19 inch’er, the kind we had in the States. Being across the hills of Jerusalem, we don’t even get the usual channels one or two that most people can get without a dish or cable – neither of which we have because they keep raising the price, and there is even less here to watch than in The States – unless you like ‘football’ (soccer), which I don’t. So we use the TV to watch videos. For the last several weeks, we have been downloading some films over the internet, and I could think of nothing more fun than spending a Saturday night watching a movie, maybe with some popcorn. My choice for the evening? “High Noon,” a different take on getting married.
Sunday night, I mentioned to my charming other half that I had watched this film and inquired if she had ever seen it? Barbara didn’t think so. So I began describing it to her, knowing full well that what makes this film so special is not the creaky plot, but the screenplay, the direction, the camera work, and especially some great acting: There’s this marshal, played by Gary Cooper, and when the film starts, he is getting married to Grace Kelly, who is a Quaker and a pacifist. The plan is that the marshal will resign his position, and that he and his wife will set off for parts unknown, perhaps to open up a store somewhere. After the ceremony, word comes that a dangerous outlaw who had terrorized the town had been paroled and was heading back to town on the midday train to meet up with three of his gang. The outlaw had sworn to kill our marshal, the one who had arrested him and made the town a fit place for women and children. The newly-weds set off in a carriage, but after they leave town, the marshal stops the carriage and decides to return to town. He has never run from any one before; and even if he does so now, the killers will only come after him. The couple will know no peace, and they will be defenseless when they are caught. The two quarrel; the bride cannot understand her husband’s position. If he will not go away with her, she will leave by herself on that same noon train. They return to town and he puts his badge back on.The marshal tries to raise a posse of deputies, but no one will join him. The judge who sentenced the outlaw immediately resigns, grabs his possessions and leave town. The deputy marshal, still angry that he was not given the position permanently also resigns. The marshal goes to the local saloon; no one will volunteer. He goes to the church and interrupts the Sunday service; no one will volunteer. The mayor is afraid that a gunfight on the main street will scare away potential business. Everyone hopes that the marshal will leave town; somehow when the new marshal will arrive the next day, everything will be better. Our marshal is left to fight the four bandits by himself. Meanwhile, his bride is waiting at the local hotel for the train to arrive, where she meets the woman who owns the place, who is also leaving town. She chastises the bride for running away, saying, “If it was my man, I would stay with him.” The train arrives precisely at 12 noon. The two women get on, and the outlaw gets off, joins his confederates and they set of to kill the marshal, searching for him throughout the town. The marshal, carefully keeping out of sight, kills the first bandit. Just as the train is about to leave, the wife, hearing the first gunshot, hurries back to town to see that the dead man lying in the street is not her husband, who by now has killed the second gang member. Our heroine waits inside a store, and when the opportunity arises, shoots number 3, leaving only the villain alive. When he is finally killed, all the townspeople emerge from their hiding place and crowd into the main street. The marshal looks at them in disgust and drops his badge to the ground.

When I had finished, Barbara looked at me and said, “That sounds like Israel.” Which took me by surprise, because that was more or less what I had been thinking as I watched the film. Either great minds think alike, or we’ve been married too long.
Now let’s be clear about one thing: nobody was thinking about the mid-East when “High Noon” was made in 1952. The topic du jour in those days was ‘blacklisting’ in Hollywood. The screen play by Carl Foreman (who also produced the movie and would later be prevented from working in Hollywood) was supposed to be an indictment of all those who refused to stand up to Senator Joseph McCarthy. It’s a rather clumsy parallel, and if you didn’t know what Foreman was trying to do, it is unlikely that you would realize it today. The case against McCarthyism was made more effectively by Arthur Miller in his play “The Crucible,” about the Salem Witch Trials. And the counter-argument, that ‘ratting on’ individuals who were themselves less than exemplary was a noble activity, was presented more effectively by Elia Kazan in his masterpiece, “On the Waterfront.”
It is fifty seven years after ‘High Noon” was made. As far as I can tell, everyone (except for the child actors) who had anything to do with this film has passed away. Political commentators are still debating which was worse: the red-necked, bigoted, anti-Semitic members the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Leftists and their (often unwitting) supporters who made certain that no films ever came out of Hollywood critical of Communism or Stalin. But the idea of a lonely fight against evil, impeded by fools and cowards, still resonates today. And Barbara and I are free to take it personally and draw appropriate parallels.
He made a vow while in State's Prison,Vow'd it would be my life or his andI'm not afraid of death, but O,What will I do if you leave me?

No question that for the last several thousand years, the Jewish people have been hotly pursued by every varmint, rustler, and tin horn who had it in for us. For most of the time, we weren’t even packing a six-gun to defend ourselves. We have always been an ornery bunch, chasing down idolators and spreading our own vision of frontier justice, which includes just one deity and adherence to His Law. No one has been on our side – for very long. Every one we thought would ride with us found a reason not to, sooner or later. No one even seems put out that people are trying to kill us and steal our horses. The Nations are even embarrassed that we are still around. If only we would agree to be reasonable; if only we too would leave town and head out to the next territory! The new marshal – perhaps the new religion – will solve everyone’s problems.
In the movie version, though, who finally comes to the marshal’s side? The woman he had married, the one person he had not asked for help, the one person he had given up on. That is why I am so fond of this self-constructed allegory. For we, the Jewish people, are also in a long-term (several thousand years!) relationship, with Someone who we often feel has abandoned us, the one Someone to whom we often do not turn for help – even though that Someone has been the only one who has ever helped us. I am sure that John W. Cunningham, who wrote “The Tin Star” originally for Colliers Magazine would be astonished with our ‘spin’ on his story, but maybe not more so than with Foreman’s. Remember that his story appeared in 1947, the year when we as a People – with Someone’s help – put on our holsters and started shooting back at the bad guys.

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