High Noon and Rio Bravo share a fascinating and perhaps singular position in the annals of American cinema as companion pieces of social commentary that also managed to succeed as two of the greatest and most influential Westerns, and indeed films, of their time. Created seven years apart, with Rio Bravo intended as a direct rebuttal of High Noon, both films explore their creators’ personal philosophies in the context of the American West. Any number of topics are explored, from gender roles to pride and self-medication, but the most prominent is an examination of American ideology and politics, specifically McCarthyism and the blacklist.
High Noon, a film about a prominent, respected, and well-liked citizen’s disillusionment when his friends, one by one, refuse to stand with him against a strong, corrupt, and unyielding foe, can easily be viewed through the prism of the Red Scare. Even setting aside writer Carl Foreman’s experiences as a former member of the Communist Party called to testify before HUAC and blacklisted for refusing to name names, the themes of betrayal, first from the government, in the form of the judge who pardons the murderous Frank Miller, and then from friends, colleagues, and even family (Amy, who plans to abandon Will mere hours after vowing “’til Death do us part”) are omnipresent. Impending finality and dread seep throughout the film and, until the very end, Kane and the townspeople are presented with the idea of Miller, a faceless threat represented by an empty chair, rather than anything concrete. As in countless McCarthy analogies, the true villain of the piece is the inaction of good men, men who convince themselves that, if ignored, danger will pass them by.
Rio Bravo has a different perspective on individual and communal responsibility. Nathan Burdette is made corporal early in the film, instantly narrowing the threat from an all-powerful, mythic force to an all too mortal man. Rather than betrayal, this film centers on affirmation, as friend after friend pops up to help, regardless of how vehemently Chance fights their involvement. Director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne’s ideological clash with Foreman is seen most clearly, however, through Feathers and her unfortunate past. Due to her previous association with a known troublemaker, her description has shown up on a list of suspicious characters and, through no fault of her own, she is presumed guilty and searched. At first Feathers rebukes Chance, standing up for herself against his baseless accusations, but it’s not long before she’s apologizing for her behavior, happy to collaborate as she now understands the significance of the situation in which he’s become embroiled. Chance offers to pull strings to clear her unjustly tarnished name and from then on, the characters, and the story, can focus on the next looming threat.
The contrast here is stark. While High Noon casts the villain, Frank Miller, as HUAC and the federal government in general, Rio Bravo sets Wayne’s John T. Chance squarely in this role and this shift of the hero’s perspective, from the persecuted Kane to the business-as-usual Chance, drives the pacing and tone of each film. In High Noon, each moment is felt as the ubiquitous clocks oppressively count down to Miller’s arrival. Rio Bravo has a far more relaxed pace, told more as a series of scenes than one continuous narrative, with plenty of time for character study and even relaxation. High Noon shows a man under threat; Rio Bravo shows an institution.
Also interesting is the depiction of each hero in their role as sheriff. The themes of governmental trust and distrust are evident in both men’s approaches to their job and their role in the community. Whereas Kane won’t arrest Miller’s henchmen who loiter in town, Chance makes it clear he has no compunction about murdering Joe Burdette, who has yet to stand trial, should it seem likely Nathan will free him. High Noon depicts an untrustworthy federal government and a local sheriff who has respect for and is a strict adherent to the law. Rio Bravo on the other hand shows a supportive federal government and a local sheriff willing to sidestep the law, if needed, to pursue justice. One film asks the audience to distrust the government and the law of the land (what audience member doesn’t want Kane to lock his would-be attackers away, if only ‘til Miller is taken care of?) while the other asks the audience to trust the government and its representatives to act in the best interests of the community, regardless of technicalities.
Perhaps most compelling, though, is the depiction of the communities of High Noon and Rio Bravo. Though the townspeople love and respect Kane, they turn on him, unwilling to speak out against this larger threat. It’s a very straightforward and uniform response, despite the varied justifications given throughout the film. Rio Bravo is more nuanced. Chance and his deputies are aided by Colorado, Carlos, Consuela, and Feathers, the individual, named characters, but the town as a whole is far more threatening. One after another, the townspeople turn to help the Burdette gang, bought out for gold. Chance’s suspicion towards and unjustified search of then-stranger Feathers is proven to be well-founded; the individual may be honorable, but the people are fickle, untrustworthy, and easily manipulated or turned to the enemy’s cause. Therein, perhaps, lies the most significant shared theme of these two films, and it’s a dark one, particularly given the mostly breezy tone of Rio Bravo.
Despite their differences of approach and philosophy, each film has its own strengths and presents its position effectively, but though Hawks and Wayne considered Rio Bravo an answer to High Noon, the two present entirely different scenarios. It would be fascinating to see Chance respond to Kane’s predicament, and Kane to Chance’s, but that’s not what Rio Bravo gives us. Whereas Kane has been personally called out by Miller and his gang, Chance is in danger because Burdette wants his brother released. Another notable difference is the backup headed Chance’s way in the form of the US Marshall coming to pick up Burdette. Though it doesn’t work out this easily, of course, Chance can choose to sit tight and avoid a fight altogether. Kane never has this option.
In fact, one of the most entertaining ways to approach these films is as an unintentional (rather depressing) two-parter, with Rio Bravo functioning as a prequel to High Noon and Will Kane as an older John T. Chance. Carlos has died, leaving Consuela a widow, Stumpy’s retired, Dude’s fallen off the wagon (the one-eyed drunk who offers to stand with Kane), and Colorado, angry at being passed over for sheriff, quits and is later dumped by current girlfriend Consuela. Feathers got back on the stage a while back but, after a fling with Consuela, Chance has finally found happiness with his new, young, Quaker wife and retired. That is, until he hears Joe Burdette is out of jail on a technicality (Chance threatening to murder him?) and headed back with his gang to Rio Bravo. Would these characters follow the same paths as their High Noon counterparts? Probably not, but it’s certainly interesting to consider, along with how Will Kane and his former deputies cleared out the Miller gang in the first place.
Looking back now, more than 50 years after High Noon’s release, the parity of these two works is astonishing. Both commit to highly philosophical themes without letting their message overwhelm their storytelling. Both feature utterly memorable music and impressive performances and both star iconic leading men, Gary Cooper and John Wayne, both held up during their careers as paragons of the American Ideal. Perhaps most important, however, is that both succeed, and have succeeded, not only as social critique, but as entertainment; not just critically, but commercially; not just in their time, but to this day. Countless filmmakers have been inspired by these films and while most cinephiles will prefer one over the other, regardless of their politics, the fact that this kind of public discourse came from the studio system is encouraging and a reminder that populist entertainment need not sacrifice meaningful debate in search of popular appeal.