In 1951, after 25 years in show business, Gary Cooper's professional reputation was in decline and he was dropped from the Motion Picture Herald's list of the top 10 Box Office performers. In the following year he made a big comeback, at the age of 51, with this film.
Gregory Peck, an activist liberal Democrat who strongly opposed blacklisting, later said that turning down this film was the biggest regret of his career, although he modestly added that he didn't think he could have played the lead character as well as Gary Cooper did.
Lee Van Cleef was originally hired to play Deputy Harvey Pell. However, producer Stanley Kramer decided that his nose was too "hooked", which made him look like a villain, and told him to get it fixed. Van Cleef refused, and Lloyd Bridges got the part. Van Cleef was given the smaller role of gunman Jack Colby, one of the Miller gang.
Its loss in the Best Picture category to the much-derided The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), by Cecil B. DeMille, is usually cited as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Academy Awards. This loss is often seen as an effort to satisfy Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as DeMille was one of his strongest supporters.
John Wayne strongly disliked this movie because he knew it was an allegory for blacklisting, which he and his friend Ward Bond had strongly and actively supported. Twenty years later he was still criticizing it in his controversial May 1971 interview with Playboy magazine. Inventing a scene that was never in the movie, he claimed Gary Cooper had thrown his marshal's badge to the ground and stepped on it. He also stated he would never regret having driven blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman out of Hollywood.
Director Fred Zinnemann said that the black smoke billowing from the train is a sign that the brakes were failing. He and the cameraman didn't know it at the time, and barely got out of the way. The camera tripod snagged itself on the track and fell over, smashing the camera, but the film survived and is in the movie.
Among other accomplishments, the film was a milestone in scoring. It introduced the idea of a theme song to be marketed separately from the movie, and to be a motif for the instrumental score throughout the movie. Tex Ritter--John Ritter's father--sang the song "Do Not Foresake Me", whose lyrics are from the point of view of the hero appealing to his new wife, Amy, to stay with him.
In the fight scene involving Gary Cooper and Lloyd Bridges, Lloyd's son Beau Bridges, then a youngster, was in the hayloft watching the filming. When water was thrown on his father after the fight, Beau could not help laughing, requiring the scene to be shot a second time. Cooper was not well and in pain but was gracious and understanding, according to Lloyd.
Until his death, director Fred Zinnemann fought not to have this film colorized, saying that he designed it in black and white and that it should be shown that way. He was unsuccessful, however. A colorized version was released by Republic Pictures Home Video, which acquired the film years prior, and was broadcast several times over the several cable outlets of Ted Turner, who was a strong advocate of the process.
Although the picture takes place between 10:35 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.. slightly longer than the 84-minute running time, this was due to the re-editing ordered by Stanley Kramer and Fred Zinnemann, both of whom were unhappy over the first assemblage. Editor Elmo Williams experimented by using the final portion of the material shot and condensed it to exactly 60 minutes of footage timed to real-time in the film. Thus the film we see is Williams' experimental version, which met with both Kramer's and Zinnemann's approval.
The film is set in Hadleyville, population 650, in the New Mexico Territory, on a hot summer Sunday. The 37-star flag the judge removes as he prepares to flee shows that the time frame is sometime between Nebraska's admission as the 37th state on March 1, 1867 and Colorado's admission as the 38th state on August 1, 1876.
Although John Wayne often complained that the film was "un-American", when he collected Gary Cooper's Best Actor Oscar on his behalf at the The 25th Annual Academy Awards (1953) he complained that he wasn't offered the part himself, so he could have made it more like one of his own westerns. He later teamed up with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo (1959) as a counter-response.
The 1980s were a tumultuous time in Poland. Workers' strikes in Gdansk led to the formation of the Solidarity movement. In 1980 Lech Walesa was elected chairman of this reform movement. The red and white Solidarity logo became an international icon that literally wrapped itself around the city, creating a visual momentum that led to a political revolution. Once again, posters played a pivotal role in defining the future. In 1989, the day before the country was to vote on the political future of Poland, a poster featuring an image of Gary Cooper from this film was plastered on kiosks and walls around the country. This landmark image of the famous actor strolling towards the viewer depicted him carrying not a gun, but a voting ballot, and wearing a Solidarity logo above his sheriff's badge that read, "It's high noon, June 4, 1989." As Frank Fox, former professor of Eastern European History, stated, "Indeed, an American Western was an apt symbol for a political duel that marked the beginning of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. Gary Cooper would have approved."
As Carl Foreman's script bore certain similarities to John W. Cunningham's story "The Tin Star", producer Stanley Kramer bought the rights to Cunningham's novel to protect the production against accusations of plagiarism.
Floyd Crosby recounted a different version of the camera versus the train. He said the camera was placed in a hole dug between the tracks because they wanted the angle to be upward as the train stopped at the station. The train missed its mark and annihilated the camera. The film, however, survived. Crosby said he always thought they should have used the footage.
The name of the town in the film is Hadleyville, which was likely intended as an indirect reference to Mark Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," a short story that has some thematic similarities to the film.
Frankie Laine had a million-selling record with the title song "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling)", though Tex Ritter's version of the song, heard on the soundtrack, has fared well over the years.
In one scene a posted bill for a production called "Mazeppa" is visible. Mazeppa was a literary character (written about by Lord Byron, among others) who was tied to the back of a horse by his townsmen/countrymen; the horse was then whipped and sent out into the country, carrying the helpless Mazeppa with it. In one version of the story, Mazeppa survives, joins his former enemies and returns with them to try to conquer his former town/country. This is somewhat reflected in the situation of Frank Miller--and even, perhaps, of Will Kane himself, who at the outset of the film is hastily sent off by his townsmen in a horse-drawn vehicle--with considerable reluctance on his part, before he decides to return (to little thanks from them).
Hadleyville is the name of the town. It is never spoken but is clearly visible on the train station wall. Hadleyville was also the name of the town in Gung Ho (1986) but was placed in the northeast U.S. In the west, there is a real Hadleyville, in Oregon.
Gary Cooper, "B" movie producer Robert L. Lippert and screenwriter Carl Foreman were set to go into a production company together, after the success of this film. John Wayne and Ward Bond ordered Cooper to back out of the deal, as HUAC was preparing to "blacklist" Foreman. Shortly afterward, Lippert was made "persona non grata" by the Screen Actors Guild, which destroyed his independent production company.
Audiences in 1952 were disappointed with the revelation that Ian MacDonald was portraying Frank Miller. With his eventual appearance in the film being built up for more than an hour, fans were expecting a more well-known actor. Surveys taken at theaters revealed that Ward Bond, a frequent face in westerns, and Walter Brennan, a frequent co-star of Gary Cooper, were the top names the fans would have liked to see as Frank Miller. However, MacDonald's casting has become more appreciated as the film's legacy has grown.
Jack Elam was not originally in the cast..After viewing the first full cut, the filmmakers realized the climactic gunfight didn't work. They resumed production with Gary Cooper and new cast member Elam. Elam recalled, "I knew him [Cooper] very well . . . They also had some extras in the bar. We went back to the jail cell and did a few shots of me in the cell with Cooper walking around and seeing me in there snoring. And then they did a shot where he lets me out of jail, and I go into the bar, people are coming out because it's high noon. They did about a full minute of me in the bar doing my drunken clown act. I'm taking drinks and putting drinks under my arms and all that. They were going to cut back and forth between me and the gunfight. But then they turned the picture loose with the regular gunfight before they added our stuff, and it got rave reviews. so they never put that stuff in. The only part they put in was to establish who I was. And the only thing you see of me in the bar was when I was going in and everyone else was coming out. The credits were already written up when I went to work. They didn't bother to put [his name] in and that's why I didn't get the credit. But I was very happy because I got to work two days, and there was about a half a day with Cooper and me. And what a gentleman he was! There was about a day of me going into the bar and then of me just wandering around the bar. I understand there are some videocassettes of "High Noon"--but I don't think you can buy them in a store--where those scenes of mine are included in the outtakes, but I have never seen them. The last thing you see of me in the movie is when I'm going in the bar and the people are rushing out".
In the showdown scenes, western film trivia buffs may notice a store called "Boyd's Hardware", apparently a reference to actor William Boyd, who played the title role in the Hopalong Cassidy (1952) TV series.