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This Is the Best Western in Movie History

The lead actor was one of the most famous movie stars in history. Aging, he would die eight years later. The female lead was one of the most beautiful stars in Hollywood. She had won an Oscar for an earlier movie. In four years, she would marry a prince and retire from acting forever. “High Noon” was an improbable candidate for best western in movie history. However, it tops the list of westerns on the American Film Institute for the 100 best American movies ever made, ranking 33rd overall on the list. It starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelley.

The western got its start early in Hollywood history. However, the first outstanding film in the genre also launched John Wayne’s career as a box office legend. “Stage Coach,” released in 1939, also starred Claire Trevor. “High Noon” was released in 1952.

“High Noon” is a small movie. Virtually all the film takes place in the tiny town of Hadleyville in the New Mexico territory. Marshal Will Kane, played by Cooper, had just married Amy Fowler, played by Kelley. As they prepare to leave town to start a new life, Kane finds out an outlaw he has sent to prison, Frank Miller, will return to Hadleyville with several other men to get his revenge. Against all advice, Kane stays to face Miller. Fowler is a pacifist and decides to leave without her new husband. As she leaves, she meets Kane’s former mistress, who is leaving as well.

Most of the plot is a series of requests by Kane to the town’s people to help him stand up to Miller. One by one, they turn him down, leaving a trail of cowards. Only Kane’s deputy, Harvey Pell, played by a young Lloyd Bridges, tries to force him out of town to save him. A fight ensues and Kane wins, though Pell decides to abandon Kane as well.

After a showdown in the streets, Kane kills Miller and all his allies, helped unexpectedly by his pacifist wife. They leave town permanently, Kane bitter about the people in the town who abandoned him.

What makes “High Noon” so outstanding? Perhaps the American notion that one man can fight alone against steep odds and win. Perhaps, as well, that most people are cowards when they are endangered. Certainly, Cooper’s acting as he desperately looks for help. He won an Oscar for his performance. As a historical note, Wayne was offered the role of Kane but turned it down.

Click here to read about the best westerns of the 21st century.