Higher Movies: Vocation in Westerns: High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma

by the Rev. Charles Lehmann

It wasn't until just a few years ago that I saw "High Noon." I'd heard that it was one of the greatest westerns of all time, but I wasn't that interested in seeing it. Old movies take a certain kind of mindset to enjoy. Many of them move too slowly for me to appreciate. But sometimes, even a slow-moving film can grab me.

"High Noon" did. It's still the best western I've ever seen. It is well acted, well written, and has an incredibly complex story.

Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, is a marshal who is retiring. He's old, and he has arthritis in his shooting hand. He's just married a Quaker woman who's made him promise to put away his guns forever because she's a pacifist.

He intends to do so. But just after the wedding he learns that Frank Miller, a killer that Kane sent to the gallows, has been pardoned. He's on the noon train. He's coming back to town to seek vengeance against Kane and the entire town.

Kane is intent on keeping his word to his wife and leaves town with her, but he's struck with a crisis of conscience. He believes that Miller is his responsibility, and he needs to see to it that the town is defended. He goes back to town, takes up his star again, and tries to find deputies to help him defend the town against Miller and his gang.

The town is filled with cowards. No one is willing to help defend the town. Kane gets ready to face Miller's gang alone.

The movie is filled with tension. You don't have a single moment of peace once Kane takes up the tin star again. He is the only one who feels any sense of responsibility. He is the only one willing to risk his life to serve his neighbor.

Having been abandoned, Kane faces the gang and is able to kill two of them. When a third gunuman is about to kill him, his pacifist wife kills the gunman. She is taken hostage by Miller, but manages to free herself allowing Kane to finish Miller off.

At this point the townspeople come out of hiding, the threat gone. Kane stares at them in contempt, throws down the tin star, and walks away with his wife.

Some of the theological themes are obvious. Service to neighbor at the risk of self is the obvious one. But there's also the relationship between Kane and his wife. Should she have forced on him the vow? No. Once he took it should he have obeyed it? Yes. Would it have been wrong for him to let the town suffer under Miller's gang? Yes. There are no easy answers. But Kane does what his conscience demands. He sacrifices his reputation with his wife to serve ungrateful, uncaring, and cowardly neighbors. The image is a touch Christological.

"3:10 to Yuma" shares some of the same themes. I'm not going to go into quite so much detail so that if you want to go to the movie while it's in the theatres you can still enjoy it.

"3:10 to Yuma" movie posterA word of warning. This is a bloody film with a bit of vulgar language and a few questionable scenes. I would not recommend junior high students see it at all. I would only recommend it for a high school student if their parents have first seen and approved it. For the college viewer, be discerning. If you think you can handle it, there are some things that can be learned from it and it can be good fodder for discussion, but don't go to it blind, not expecting some things that will make you uncomfortable.

3:10 explores many of the same themes as "High Noon." It is primarily the story of a father, Dan, played by Christian Bale, who finds himself and his family in a completely unmanageable situation. He also has a physical challenge that makes it even more difficult for him to cope with the problems he faces... he lost part of one leg in the Civil War.

He manages to negotiate a $200 fee to help transport the criminal Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe, to Contention, Arizona to catch the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Throughout the experience he is faced over and over with challenges. His devotion to his family is challenged. His principles are challenged. And his ability to physically face the task is challenged. He is abandoned by those who are supposed to be helping him, and he finds himself much like Kane in High Noon, facing the final moments alone.

3:10 and High Noon share a very honest and complex look at vocation. What do you do when the whole world is against you? What do you do when service to neighbor puts your life in very grave risk? When you are offered an easier way, how do you handle it?

At its best, film can help us consider these questions. They can provide entrees back into the Scriptures so that we can discuss those things that are most real, Christ and his gifts to us.

 

The Rev. Charles Lehmann is Assistant Pastor for Youth and Education at Peace With Christ Lutheran Church, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Created: September 14th, 2007