How ‘High Noon’ Helped One Country Achieve Freedom in the 1980s

The Big Picture

  • High Noon, a classic Western film starring Gary Cooper, became a symbol of freedom and justice for the people of Poland during their first semi-free election in 1989.
  • The image of Marshal Kane, armed with a ballot instead of a gun, represented the Western ideals of freedom and liberty for a nation oppressed by the Communist Party.
  • High Noon’s message of standing up against tyranny and fighting for a better tomorrow still resonates today, and the film remains one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

The Western has long been a symbol of American independence. Ever since the Civil War era, stories have been told mythologizing Western icons into larger-than-life legends. Be they lawmen, outlaws, cowboys, or gunslingers, Westerns remain timeless and universal, despite being tied to a specific historical place and time. Among some of the best Westerns ever made, High Noon ranks as one of the best. Starring Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, the 1952 feature tells a compelling tale of one man who stood alone against tyranny.

But tragically, not all tyranny is fictional, and not all kinds can be solved in a gunfight. Our world is full of dark places, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t rise above today and fight for a better tomorrow. Inspired by Cooper’s iconic Western, that’s exactly what the people of Poland did in 1989 during their first semi-free election. Using an image of Marshal Kane, armed with a ballot instead of his trademark sidearm, High Noon became a symbol of freedom and justice to a people oppressed by the Communist Party.

What Is ‘High Noon’ About?

Image via United Artists/MGM

Of course, to fully understand how something like this could happen, one must revisit the plot of High Noon in the first place. As previously noted, the Western centers on the newly married Marshal Kane as he forgoes leaving with his bride, a Quaker woman named Amy (Grace Kelly), to defend his small New Mexican town from the recently pardoned outlaw Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald). Told in real-time, High Noon follows Kane as he searches aimlessly for friends in a city of cowards.

As Kane wanders the streets looking for any allies, the people of Hadleyville turn their backs on their dedicated Marshal, the same man who took Miller down in the first place. They all give a host of no-good reasons, and at the end of the day, Kane goes into battle alone. It’s here that Kane’s character shines through, that even though the « good people » of Hadleyville turned their back on him, he refused to turn back from what he knew was right. It’s no wonder, then, that High Noon is beloved by audiences on either side of the political aisle, remaining ambiguous in its politics to tell a compelling tale of freedom and responsibility. If only modern-day blockbusters could follow suit.

Yet, walking the line meant that High Noon was not without its share of controversy, especially at the time. Western star John Wayne famously hated the picture, deeming it the most un-American thing he’d ever seen, according to an interview with Playboy in 1971. As a result, he and Howard Hawks (who also disliked the feature) teamed up to make 1959’s Rio Bravo in response, which to this day is still considered their greatest collaboration. In contrast, many American presidents praised the picture, including Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Bill Clinton, who each had it screened at the White House during their respective terms. Additionally, it was Ronald Reagan‘s favorite film.

How Marshal Kane Became a Symbol of Liberty in Polandhigh-noon-03

But High Noon wasn’t just praised in America, it found success internationally as well. More than that, its narrative would eventually inspire a political campaign to encourage the citizens of Poland to vote in their first semi-free election since the 1940s, as stated in a study on the film from Louisiana State University. In 1989, a young graphic designer named Tomasz Sarnecki took the Polish variant of the poster and revised it. A ballot (with the Polish word for « elections » written on it) was featured in Kane’s hand in place of his pistol, and the Solidarity logo was featured both in place of his Marshal badge and in the background. More than this image ever could represent the Western genre, it represented the Western ideals of freedom and liberty for a nation striving to claim those as its own.

To clarify, Solidarity was shorthand for the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union « Solidarity, » the opposition group that represented nearly a third of the working class, rising against the Communist Party. Led by Lech Wałęsa (who would be elected as the first President of Poland since the 1920s), the Solidarity at first rejected Sarnecki’s poster idea, but soon came around. Eventually, the streets were littered with Marshal Kane posters prompting the citizens of Poland to rise and let their voices be heard. Under Kane’s feet was a call to action, reading « W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989. » The phrase translates to « High Noon: 4 June 1989 » in English, the date of the famed election.

Though folks like John Wayne and Howard Hawks claimed that High Noon espoused « anti-American » and « Communist » views (admittedly, screenwriter Carl Foreman was later blacklisted as a member of the Communist Party, much to Republican Gary Cooper’s protests), Polish audiences didn’t see Marshal Kane that way. For them, he represented a rugged and individualistic ideal that they hoped to emulate. To them, he represented the kind of hero they needed to take their nation back.

How Western Ideals Helped Deliver a Nation

Image via United Artists/MGM

Disliking Solidarity’s High Noon campaign, the Communist Party argued that the oppositionists wanted a « Wild West » type of system, promoting anarchist ideals while being influenced by the United States. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and, according to former President Wałęsa, backfired. « Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles, » Wałęsa wrote in The Wall Street Journal while eulogizing the late President Reagan. « Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom, both physical and spiritual. Solidarity trounced the Communists in that election, paving the way for a democratic government in Poland. »

In reflecting on that unprecedented election, the former Solidarity leader cited Reagan as one of the most important players in Poland’s freedom, which is a bit poetic given the former president’s favorite flick happened to be the literal poster child for the revolution. Of course, Reagan was also instrumental in the final fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 90s. « From the perspective of our time, it is obvious that like the pieces of a global chain of events, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and even Mikhail Gorbachev helped bring about this new age in Europe, » Wałęsa noted. « We at Solidarity like to claim more than a little credit, too, for bringing about the end of the Cold War. »

For all the good High Noon did long term, Gary Cooper never got to see the impact his image made internationally. The actor died in 1961 and was survived by his only daughter, Maria Veronica Cooper, who thankfully did. « Every time I hear the term SOLIDARITY what comes to my mind is the image that I know would make my father amazed and humbled, » Maria wrote on the official Gary Cooper webpage. « As that symbol of what was happening in Poland, I can only imagine how deep my father’s feelings would run and how happy he would be for his image even from a film, to be used as a symbol for freedom. » Indeed, there’s no doubt that the Hollywood legend would be proud that their work extended far beyond the boundaries of the theater.

Where Can You Watch High Noon?

Although High Noon was fairly controversial at the time, it’s since been regarded as one of the greatest Westerns ever made. No doubt, there’s a reason that audiences all over the globe still flock to this classic Western, and why Gary Cooper has since become a trademark lawman and a symbol of peace and justice. For those who haven’t had the chance to watch High Noon, hopefully, this will inspire you too. It is a solid piece of filmmaking that continues to delight and inspire with each new viewing.

Over 70 years later, High Noon continues to provoke and inspire audiences to rise and take action, even if nobody else follows. A timely and universal message, Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance was career-defining. No wonder the same year that his likeness appeared as a symbol in Eastern Europe the Library of Congress also selected High Noon for preservation as one of the first 25 films to be added to the U.S.’s National Film Registry.

High Noon can be streamed in full on Hoopla and with ads on PlutoTV. Additionally, the Western can be rented or purchased digitally on various platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube, and other providers. Despite being one of the biggest Westerns out there, it’s strangely not available for streaming on services such as Hulu, Max, Netflix, or Paramount+.

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