Watching High Noon: A Case Study in Christian Film Criticism

Pay Attention

       “Pay attention.”

       It is a fascinating expression. Like “give attention,” it visualizes attention as something that passes from a subject (a person) to an object: another person, a lecture, a picture, a flower, a film. But “pay” is more interesting than “give” because it implies more. If I am told to pay attention, it means that attention is going to costs me something: time, patience, and mental or even emotional energy. If I am told to pay attention, it means that attention is owed. When someone speaks to me, I am obligated to pay attention in the same way that, when a fruit vendor gives me an apple, I am obligated to pay money. If I do not pay attention, I have robbed someone of what is due. 

       Moreover, paying attention implies risk. I may not get a satisfactory return on my investment. My paid attention could become lost attention that could have been spent somewhere else. When I do not pay attention, I am in effect saying that someone or something is not worth that kind of risk. When I do not pay attention, I forfeit any claim I could have made on what was being offered to me when I was told, “Pay attention.” However, not paying attention then could cost me a great deal later. If I do not pay attention to a sign that says “DANGER,” my refusal to pay attention could cost me my life.          

       This is the first rule of film viewing, and then, of film criticism: “Pay attention.” This seems so obvious. We pay for a movie ticket, a DVD, or a Netflix subscription, and then give two hours of our lives to the story enfolding before our attention-paying eyes. Nevertheless, it needs to be said, with all the more emphasis, “Pay attention.” We must pay far more than the admission price and the two-hour span of attention. We must pay attention to a plethora of details in a film—story, dialogue, cinematography, editing, production design, sound design, music—and, what is more, to the ideas and beliefs being communicated, implicitly or explicitly, by a film. Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige opens with the words, “Are you watching closely?” If you are not, you may be—to quote the very last word of the film—“fooled.”

Truth and Love

       When we approach the acts of watching a film and then critiquing it as Christians, we should pay close attention for two reasons: for the sake of truth, and for the sake of love. We should pay close attention for the sake of truth, because, again, we do not want to be fooled. As people of the Word and guardians of the gospel for future generations (2 Timothy 1:14, 2:2), we must be very careful where we give our approval (Romans 1:23, 14:22; Philippians 1:10), lest the gospel be lost by our failure to distinguish between lies and the truth. 

       We must pay attention to how our fallen natures and our embedded-ness in particular cultures can sneak unbiblical assumptions into our understanding of our message. J. Mack Stiles writes that “we must be so thoroughly biblical, so steeped in Scripture, that we can smell out cultural conditions attaching themselves to the gospel. . . . Be humble about the way your particular culture may have blended with the message of the gospel.” [1] 

       Albert Mohler, writing about the popularity of The Shack, a novel (and now a film) marked by heresy yet popular among Christians, laments “a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment . . . [that] can only lead to theological catastrophe.” Mohler prescribes the same antidote as Stiles: We must know the Scriptures. [2] The author of Hebrews warns us, “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (2:1). [3] For the sake of the truth, and thus for the sake of our souls, we must pay attention.

Suspicion and Charity

       However, we must also pay attention for the sake of love. A concern for truth and a concern for love must be exercised at the same time. Love without truth leads to an acceptance of falsehood under the pretense of tolerance, and ceases to be loving. Conversely, truth without love leads to hearts that are hardened toward others, and the truth is lost in the midst of an obsessive quest to always be right and to prove others wrong. If we are not “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), both truth and love will be lost. 

      Today, in our universities, our politics, and our communities, a “hermeneutics of suspicion” runs rampant. [4] The church is not immune to this temptation either. When suspicion reigns, neighbors are seen as threats and declared guilty until proven innocent. 

       Of course, suspicion does have its place. The evangelical embrace of works like The Shack shows that some more healthy suspicion would do us good. However, to use Andy Crouch’s terminology, suspicion is an appropriate gesture at appropriate times, but a terrible posture when it becomes our only gesture. [5] We are commanded to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39), but we cannot love our neighbors, or speak hard truths to them in a loving way, if we are perpetually in a defensive position, with our fists raised high. If we are always expecting a fight, we will not pay attention to the sign of a neighbor’s unclenched, open hand, asking for our help or offering us a gift. 

       For the sake of love, we must pay attention to our neighbors, and we will show our love by that attention. The failure to pay attention is a failure to love. Alan Jacobs, in his book A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, quotes the Russian literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin: “Lovelessness, indifference, will never be able to generate sufficient attention to slow down and linger intently over an object. . . . An indifferent or hostile reaction . . . always . . . impoverishes or decomposes its object.” [6] Building on Bakhtin’s writings on attentiveness, and proposing an alternative to the toxic “hermeneutics of suspicion,” Jacobs argues that a hermeneutics of charity should be the driving force behind how Christians read books. The same should be true for how Christians watch films. 

       We should love books and films as if they were our neighbors because they were made by our neighbors and offered to us as gifts, and the work of “hermeneutical charity” begins when we “receive” them as such. [7] These gifts will not be perfect. Coming from fallen creators, they will to greater or lesser extents be tainted by impure motives and theological errors. That is why we must be charitable, extending grace toward the gift and the giver of the gift, just as Christ extends His grace to us and accepts our most feeble offerings. Paying careful, loving attention, we must separate the true for the false, the good from the evil, the beautiful from the ugly, and give praise and encouragement where praise and encouragement are due, and warning and exhortation where warning and exhortation are due.                             

       There are some gifts we should reject outright. There are some gifts that are really not gifts at all. Just as in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), there are weapons of destruction stuffed in boxes and wrapped in ribbons. Our attention to such false gifts should only go as far as recognizing them for what they are and avoiding them. However, this is not an essay about choosing what gifts to receive or reject, but about how to pay attention to the gifts we have already received. One gift that I received, and that I have dedicated much attention to, is director Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 western, High Noon. I now present High Noon as a case study of how I have failed to pay sufficient attention to a film, and how I am learning to pay greater attention to it, for the sake of love and the sake of truth.    

High Noon

       High Noon is the story of sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and what happens to him, and the town of Hadleyville, on one day—more than that, in the span of an hour and a half. In that hour and a half, Kane marries a Quaker, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), retires from his post and surrenders his badge, and learns that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), one of the men he sent to prison, has been released. Miller is returning on the noon train to fulfill the vow he made to kill Kane. In that hour and a half before the train reaches the depot, Kane resolves to stay and fight, and Amy abandons him. Her abandonment is the first of many. As the clock ticks on, all of the people Kane counted on as friends and allies refuse to help him, for reasons varying from the well-intentioned to the petty, and Kane is left to face Frank Miller and his trio of friends alone.      

       This synopsis is simple enough, but the challenge of thinking and writing about High Noon is that there is so much to pay attention to in watching it. The viewer must pay attention to the information- and rhetoric-heavy dialogue of Carl Foreman’s screenplay. Each speaking character in the film is approaching the crisis from a different angle. All of their opinions must be weighed. All of their appeals—some based on reason, others on emotion—must be evaluated. The viewer must also pay attention to the smallest inflections and mannerisms of the actors. Each word and action is delivered with intention and is an integral part of the greater whole. The viewer must pay attention to all the visual information packed into the film through the stark, sharp cinematography, the tight editing, and the place-making production design. (For example, what, I wonder, is the significance of signs in the film? Consider the “War is Declared” poster in Kane’s office, or the sign that tells us the clock maker’s shop is two doors down from him.) The viewer must pay attention to other significant details, like the hymn sung in the Hadleyville church, and the parson’s chosen sermon text. The viewer must pay attention to the words and melody of the ballad that runs like a thread throughout the film and comments upon the action. The viewer, like Kane, must pay attention to the clocks. Finally, the viewer must pay attention to what High Noon, through all of these elements, is saying about human nature, law and order, justice and violence, pride and masculinity. 

       High Noon is a formidable achievement in filmmaking for how well every thematic, dramatic, and aesthetic element of the film works together. This is why I have paid so much attention to it, have learned more from every viewing, and consider it one of the finest films ever made. 

       My attention to High Noon has been long-lasting. I think I first saw the film in middle school. I wrote a glowing review for the school paper in high school. I have had the privilege of teaching Foreman’s screenplay in a classroom. In college I wrote an essay comparing the ways High Noon and On the Waterfront (1954—released two years later) portray the church and the clergy. My attention to High Noon has not faded, but has only increased with age.          

Troublesome Details

       Even so, in recent years I have been brought to the conclusion that I have not been paying close enough attention to High Noon. The trouble is that, from over-familiarity or an idealized vision of what the film is about, I have glossed over or overlooked certain troublesome, complicating details that would threaten to undo my simplified interpretation. 

       Simply put, my original understanding of the film had been that Will Kane is the innocent party in this community-spanning conflict. It seemed to me that Kane really was doing the right thing and that everyone else was clearly in the wrong to abandon him. I saw Kane as the self-sacrificing martyr—a Christ figure, even. (More on that later.) Moreover, I felt sympathy toward Gary Cooper’s introverted, socially-awkward outcast, a man of few, faltering words who has the hardest time finding someone who understands him. I knew what that felt like—and what viewer doesn’t identify with the outcast hero? Indeed, the audience is meant to side with Kane instinctively. Carl Foreman wrote the film as “an allegory of the cowardly HUAC proceedings” during the Red Scare. [8] Kane is a type for Foreman and all those in Hollywood who refused to identify themselves or others as communists, while the rest of the town, like the citizens of Hadleyville, turned the other way (or turned others in). There was nothing strange about my initial interpretation of the film. I was responding exactly as I was supposed to, as if on cue.

The Mark of Kane

       My viewpoint on High Noon began to change a few years ago when I read Jonathan Sircy’s analysis of the film at Christ and Pop Culture. [9] Sircy calls attention to something that even “the movie won’t tell, something no one dares say out loud: that Will Kane hasn’t been too good of a sheriff lately.” Using ample evidence from the film, he makes the compelling argument that much of the tragedy of High Noon is of Will Kane’s own making. The consequences for Kane’s past mistakes—sins of both omission and commission—all fall upon him and Hadleyville in one day. Perhaps the greatest tragedy, aside from the town’s moral collapse and uncertain future, is that Kane never confesses his faults. There is no indication he sees his complicity or intends to make amends. Instead, the film ends with Kane disgustedly throwing his tin star into the dirt while his neighbors gather round. It is his way of cursing the town and proudly vindicating himself. 

       Speaking of proud self-vindication, I showed the film to a group of friends recently, and they, too, called my attention to something I had not considered before: the film, in the character of Will Kane, glorifies a toxic form of masculinity. The film is preoccupied with the question of what it means to be a man, and presents multiple versions of failed masculinity. On one side of the spectrum are the respectable yet cowardly men who lead the town. One of these men hides in the back of his house and has his wife lie to Kane so that he won’t have to face the sheriff himself. On the other side of the spectrum are the unprincipled men of violence, both those who are out to kill Kane and those who are openly rooting for his death. The most prominent portrait of failed masculinity is Kane’s deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), who wants so much to be a man like Kane, he in fact wants to replace Kane: he not only covets Kane’s job, but is also seeing Kane’s old mistress. However, Harvey remains trapped in a perpetual adolescence of arrogance and immaturity. The mistress, Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), tells Harvey, “You're a good-looking boy. You've big, broad shoulders. But [Kane is] a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.” Thus Kane, in contrast to the cowards, the lawless, and Harvey the boy, is presented by the film as the ideal man: courageous, principled, and mature.  

       However, Kane’s masculinity is likewise flawed. His is a masculinity that is self-made, strong-willed, and will not cede ground to anyone. The more I consider the film, the more I sympathize with the concerns of the townspeople who do not want Kane to face Miller, and the more I question Kane’s motives for staying. However, Kane says more than once that he doesn’t like others telling him what to do, and the ending justifies his stubborn refusal to follow the counsel of others. Though he does apologize to the bartender when he punches him in a sudden fit of anger, we do not find Kane apologizing for his actions anywhere else. 

       Kane’s proud masculinity is best expressed in the words of the Western legend John Wayne: “Never apologize and never explain, it’s a sign of weakness.” [10] When we consider how God calls men to humble themselves and confess their sins, we should recognize that Wayne’s words are false, unbiblical, and damnably dangerous. If Wayne’s mantra describes Kane’s own tacit philosophy, then we would do well not to rush to valorize Kane’s example as praiseworthy or worth imitating.        

The World of the Western

       Moreover, if there is indeed a connection between Will Kane and John Wayne, the quintessential cowboy of the silver screen, this points to a larger issue in High Noon. The film is part of the long tradition of the Western genre, a genre that Christians need to recognize is not compatible with Christian morality. Jane Tompkins, writing about High Noon and Westerns in general, claims that “the discourse of love and peace . . . [that] belongs to the Christian worldview the Western is at pains to eradicate.” [11]

       One of the reasons my view of High Noon has shifted is that I have become more aware of the way the typical Western portrays how the world works. The Western worldview revolves around two concepts: crime and punishment. Westerns begin with a crime committed, and end with punishment. That seems right at first, but the trouble is that the punishment, on closer viewing, is not always the punishment of justice but the punishment of revenge. The other problem is that, in the strict, inflexible rule of law of the Western, there is no room for grace. In the Western, every bullet is met with more bullets, and no one turns the other cheek. Christ, the only truly innocent one, in grace took the bullet meant for sinful man, and tells His disciples to love their enemies and entrust their cause to God who is just. It seems John Wayne and the average Western movie would call that “weakness.”

       Granted, I have found that the greatest Westerns—and I think this applies to all of the best genre films—are aware of the tropes and flaws of their genre and seek to highlight and question them. In The Searchers (1956), John Wayne’s protagonist seeks punishment for the crimes against his family, but his seemingly justifiable quest for justice is exposed as a coverup for rage and racism. In The Magnificent Seven (1960), it is the farmers who cultivate life who are truly courageous, not the gunslingers who can only take life. In True Grit (2010), the punishment for a crime is a blurred mix of justice and vengeance and, as the muted, downbeat ending suggests, the punishment comes at far too steep a price. In No Country for Old Men (2007), another Coen Brothers Western, the punishment never even arrives. 

       Alan Jacobs, in his reading of Tompkins, writes that there are “voices within the discourse of the Western who challenge the validity of that discourse.” [12] One of these voices can be found in High Noon in the character of Will Kane’s wife Amy—played, ironically, by a woman named Grace. Both Tompkins and Jacobs highlight how Amy’s words are critical of the culture of the Western. Amy says,

I've heard guns. My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn't help them any when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That's when I became a Quaker. I don't care who's right or who's wrong. There's got to be some better way for people to live.

The attentive viewer needs to be aware that Westerns are built on an unbiblical foundation of violence, and that Westerns are often themselves aware of the instability of this foundation. However, lest we think that these words from Amy redeem the violence of the film by denouncing it, we need to be reminded (as one of my friends reminded me) that by the end of the film, Amy will grab a gun and kill one of Will’s attackers. There is a moment where Amy stands opposed to Will and has the moral high ground. There is a moment when she invites him, and the viewer, to escape the cold, merciless logic of the wild West, and find “some better way for people to live.” That moment, unfortunately, is fleeting. Amy, though she is motivated by the desire to save her husband, nevertheless becomes a part of the killing machine. 

       All told, High Noon is far more complicated, and far more problematic, than my original reading of it allowed. I was not paying closer, more critical attention to the film’s presentation of Kane’s choices, its treatment of masculinity, and its adherence to the violent Western ethos. When I approved of the film’s message, I was inadvertently approving of things which the Christian must reject. This is the cost of inattentiveness. 

Christian Shortcuts 

     Inattentiveness does not necessarily mean that no attention has been given. After all, I was studying High Noon closely long before I came to these new conclusions. Not paying attention at all is one version of inattentiveness. Another, more subtle version of inattentiveness is paying attention in a hurry and rushing to poorly-formed conclusions. Again, “pay attention” suggests sacrifice. Attentiveness, rightly done, takes time. To quote Mikhail Bakhtin again, “Lovelessness, indifference, will never be able to generate sufficient attention to slow down and linger intently over an object” (italics mine). [13]

       Films, like people, are complicated. We should not rush to explain away their complexity, lest we pigeonhole them. Jacobs explains that “lovelessness fails to account for either plurality or unity.” In contrast, “Loving contemplation . . . [will not circumscribe] a work within rigid boundaries, ignoring all elements of a work that cannot be assimilated to a presupposed theoretical schema.” [14] It would be easy to dismiss the troublesome details of High Noon, or any other film, in order to establish a neater interpretation that better suits us. However, this is neither honest nor loving. Just as we would not want our neighbors to make hasty judgments about us based on selective evidence, we should not make hasty judgments about the films made by our neighbors.    

       I am encouraged whenever I see Christians seeking to interpret films under the light of the Word of God. These Christians, I am glad, do not want to be inattentive. However, I am concerned that Christians sometimes rush to either condemn a film as antithetical to Christianity, or receive a film as compatible with Christianity, by taking interpretive shortcuts. These interpretive shortcuts rightly seek to apply Christian theology to a film, but do not fully account for all that a film contains. As a result, the interpretation may not be a thoroughly Christian response. 

       One of these shortcuts in Christian film criticism is worldview analysis, that is, seeking to identify the underlying worldview of a film in order to counter it with the Christian worldview. Yes, Avatar (2009) is marked by pantheism and Interstellar (2014) by secular humanism. But then again, films are complicated. Sounding a lot like Bakhtin and Jacobs, Joshua Gibbs writes, 

Don’t try to figure out what kind of worldview the filmmaker espouses. Movies are like people because they are made by people. People are not incarnations of worldviews. People claim to believe this, but they practice that. People claim to be existentialists, but they’re inconsistent. The point of watching a movie is not to reduce it to a particular –ism and then condemn that –ism because it isn’t Christianity. [15]

If we seek to identify a film as an example of a particular worldview, we may overlook the ways in which it does not correspond with that worldview. We may turn the film into a straw man,  making the film represent something it does not, only to show how that something it does not represent is false, and therefore, how the film is false. The actual film is forgotten in the process. The analysis is no longer about the film, but the worldview. 

Is Kane a Christ Figure? 

       A second shortcut in Christian film criticism is the search for Christ figures. Seeking to find connections between the narrative of the story and the biblical narrative of redemption, Christians look for a character, often the protagonist, who resembles Christ somehow. When a Christ figure is found—a character who dies and comes back to life, for example—the film is considered to be at least partially compatible with Christianity, and is then used as a parable to explain the gospel message. However, as Remy Wilkins notes in his excellent article, “Neopagan Christ Figures,” there are potentially harmful consequences to this kind of interpretive model. [16] Certainly, there is a problem with identifying High Noon’s Will Kane as a Christ figure. 

       The film itself probably wants us to think of Kane as a Christ figure. Both Kane and Christ are abandoned by all in their greatest hour of need. Amy is like the Apostle Peter, who pledged never to leave his master’s side, yet denied him within hours. Amy makes marriage vows to Will, but denies those vows within half an hour. Perhaps Harvey Pell is also like Peter, or even like Judas. Stretching the analogy still further—as those determined to make the film a biblical allegory may do—there are characters who wash their hands of the situation like Pilate.   

       However, even if the film treats Kane as a Christ figure, that does not mean the Christian should accept him as one. Wilkins writes that a Christ figure must be “sacrifical,” “suffering,” an “outcast,” give a “call to virtue,” experience “humiliation,” suffer “defeat,” and have an element of “mystery.” Considering that list of criteria, and all Kane’s flaws and sins mentioned earlier, I have a hard time saying Kane is Christ-like. 

       The trouble with calling a not-Christ-like character a Christ figure is that we have to downplay or even excuse his or her faults. Worse still, we encourage a false understanding of Christ. Wilkins concludes his article with words that remind me of Jacobs and Tompkins’s critique of Westerns. He writes, 

I find it troubling that we see Christ more readily in the deathdealers that die in the slaughter of enemies . . . . We need to remember that the great majority of Christ figures recognized by the church are not warriors, who seed the world with the corpses of their enemies, but rather martyrs, whose blood is the seed of the Church.

While it is right to engage with films in a distinctly Christian way, with an eye toward worldviews and echoes of the gospel, we must be careful that we do not rush to make an interpretation that is inadvertently un-Christian. A Christian interpretation must practice loving attentiveness toward our neighbors, and must be marked by careful faithfulness to the truth of the gospel. To call Kane a Christ figure, and to justify his actions as righteous, is a failure of Christian interpretation on both fronts.   

Love Know Speak Do

       A friend once taught me how to relate to others in four words: Love Know Speak Do. We must start by wanting to love our neighbors. Out of love we proceed to know our neighbors. Only once we love and know them and their situations can we speak truth into their lives. Our love-driven and knowledge-based words can then be backed up with compelling actions. 

       I think Christian film criticism should work in much the same way, albeit the “Do” part is less relevant. (You can’t really do anything to a film except speak well or ill about it.) We begin with love, exercising Bakhtin’s loving attentiveness and Jacobs’s hermeneutics of love. We keep truth and love in balance, and exercise caution while entertaining hope. As we patiently watch and consider the film, we seek to know it for what it is in all its complexity, avoiding reductionistic interpretations. Once we have done our loving best to come to know the film, then—and only then—can we speak (and we must speak) the truth of God’s Word to it. We listen to understand, and once we understand, we take what we understood, compare it with what we know of God and what He has said, and respond with His words. 

       I do agree with those Christians who search for worldviews and Christ figures in films, that we must eventually speak God’s Word to the films we watch. The lies we find must be repudiated with the truth, and the truths we find must be claimed as belonging to the domain of Him who is Truth. However, just as it is unloving to a grieving neighbor, and reflects poorly on the truth, if we indiscriminately quote Scripture to them in their pain without first loving and knowing and hearing them out, I think it is unhelpful to hastily meet films with censure or approval. Instead, I believe the closer we watch, and the more we love and know a film, our applications of the Word to the film will be more accurate and appropriate, and organic instead of forced. When I hear a friend complaining about something, I may think they need to hear one thing, and turn out to be completely wrong. However, if I listen closer, and discover under the complaint a larger underlying issue, I will better know what to say.

       My experiences in failed High Noon criticism show a breakdown in the sequence of Love Know Speak Do. I hope this essay models a better way to watch and think about the film. I hope that my love for High Noon is obvious, and I hope that my love for the film has led to a sufficiently true knowledge of it, so that what I have now said at length is truthful to the film’s content, loving to its makers, helpful to the reader, and ultimately honoring to God.

When Kane Went to Church

       In closing, I want to note that the film is itself about breakdowns in Love Know Speak Do, and issues a call, particularly to the church, to Love Know Speak Do rightly. High Noon is about a man discovering that he has not paid attention to the true nature of his neighbors. Kane is confident he can rally a posse and that Hadleyville’s leadership will stand behind him, and he realizes too late that public opinion has shifted. Indeed, as Sircy observes, public opinion has been shifting for some time now. Sircy writes, “The movie’s central tragedy is not that Kane can’t convince anyone to come help him. It’s that he has to discover — much to his own chagrin — that everyone has already decided not to help him.” [17] Again, much of this is Kane’s own fault. If he had been more attentive to his duties as sheriff earlier, perhaps things could have been different. His attempts to speak and do now are betrayed by his failures to love and know his neighbors earlier. 

       High Noon is also about a town that abdicates its responsibility to Love Know Speak Do in its relationship with its sheriff. Imagine the conversations that should have been had about Kane’s performance record long before the film begins. Imagine what would have happened if the town had made contingency plans with their sheriff about what to do when enemies of the peace come back for revenge. Instead, the town’s silence is finally broken to reveal hard truths that should have surfaced long ago, and now it is too late. The film is not just about Kane’s moral failures, but about the moral failures of an entire community, and it is suggested the community will never recover. Helen Ramírez says at one point, “When Kane dies, this town dies, too.” The town abandons Kane to die. Though I am not saying they should have gone along with his plan, I do think they could have stepped up to provide an alternative that didn’t involve one man facing off against four in the middle of the street. Their failure to do so is unloving to Kane and harmful for everyone else.  

       Troublingly, it is particularly the local church that abdicates this responsibility to love Kane. The story takes place on a Sunday morning, all during the span of a church service. In the middle of the film, Kane interrupts the parson’s sermon to ask the men of the church to serve as deputies. The parson, Dr. Mahin (Morgan Farley), reveals a bitterness toward Kane in his immediate response, criticizing him for not being a church-going man and for getting married outside the church. When Kane explains that he did not marry at the church because Amy is a Quaker, Dr. Mahin apologizes. At least here he recognizes that he spoke un-lovingly without knowing Kane’s circumstances. However, after a lengthy debate between the churchgoers about what should be done about Kane and Frank Miller, when Dr. Mahin is finally asked for counsel, he commits the opposite error. Instead of speaking before loving and knowing, Dr. Mahin now abdicates his responsibility—indeed, his God-given charge as a pastor—to love, know, speak, and do entirely. In perhaps the film’s most tragic words, Dr. Mahin says, 

The commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but we hire men to go out and do it for us. The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you're asking me to tell my people to go out and kill and maybe get themselves killed, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say. I'm sorry.

       Dr. Mahin should know that though God commanded, “Thou shalt not kill,” He also instituted the state to bear the sword in a fallen world, and that Kane and his deputies are appointed by the people to bear that sword (Romans 13:4). Ironically, Dr. Mahin’s sermon text, and the hymn the church sings before the sermon—“Battle Hymn of the Republic”—are both about God’s righteous fury and His coming judgment on evildoers. Though Dr. Mahin has a theology of justice in an eschatological future, he does not have a theology of justice for the present moment. 

       This is not to say that if Dr. Mahin had known the Scriptures better, his answer to the crisis would have been simple. Even with a proper knowledge of biblical principles, determining the right application of those principles to particular situations is still difficult. In the particular situation presented by High Noon, there are no easy answers or clean solutions to the conflict. However, just as Jacobs warns against forcing an interpretation, he also warns against refusing to make one. [18] Both the rushed interpretation that does not allow for complexity, and the refusal to interpret because of complexity, are failures to respond in love. Dr. Mahin first fails by rushing to criticize Kane, but then he fails more seriously by not giving Kane and the town the biblical counsel they so desperately need. “I don’t know what to say.” 

       Screenwriter Carl Foreman’s implication here is a sobering accusation leveled against the church in the real world. The existence of this scene communicates that, in Foreman’s experience, the church does not have any wisdom to offer society, only moral platitudes, in the midst of its most bewildering moral quandaries. Just as the Hadleyville church can sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” but does not know how to think about local law enforcement, Foreman suggests that the church, as the saying goes, is too heavenly-minded to do any earthly good.

       However, the church, when it is faithful to the truth of the Word and faithful to love the world, is never too heavenly-minded to do any earthly good. Exactly the opposite. It is only when the church is heavenly-minded that it can do any earthly good. The church must preach God’s Word to the world, and the Word is truly “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” no matter how messy life may be (2 Timothy 3:16). Of all the places Kane sought for help, it should have been at the place where the Word is preached that he found people who would love him enough to know his situation, who would speak to his situation with godly wisdom, and who would then act upon their own counsel for his sake and the sake of their town. Kane should not have been turned away empty-handed.  

       High Noon is thus a warning to the church that the world is aware when it fails to Love Know Speak Do. High Noon is also a fitting allegory, not of Christ’s sufferings, but of what happens when His people don’t Love Know Speak in the act of Christian film criticism. When Christians watch a film, it is like the meeting of Kane and the Hadleyville church that fateful Sunday morning. Will we be attentive to both the Scriptures and to the film, and speak accordingly? Or, like Dr. Mahin and his congregation, will we rush to ill-formed judgments or fail to speak at all? I am absolutely convinced that the Word has a word for every film. If we are watching, it is our responsibility to follow up watching with speaking that word. Let us pay far more careful attention, and let us love, know, and speak the truth in love to what we see.     

Special thanks to Vincent, Anthony, Christian, and Chris. Their insightful commentary on the film  was instrumental in the re-shaping of my own opinions and the writing of this essay. Thanks also to Jeremy, who taught me to Love Know Speak Do.

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  1. J. Mack Stiles, Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living, and Speaking the Gospel (IVP Books, 2010), 45.

  2. Albert Mohler, “The Shack — The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment,” Albert Mohler, March 6, 2017.

  3. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

  4. Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Westview Press, 2001), 80.

  5. Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP Books, 2008), 90–96.

  6. Mikhail Bakhtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, trans. Vadim Liapunov, ed. Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press, 1993), 64. Quoted in Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 53.

  7. Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 81.

  8. Jonathan Sircy, “Eat Your Vegetables: High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952),” Christ and Pop Culture, February 16, 2012.

  9. Ibid.

  10. John Wayne, “Quotes,” John Wayne.

  11. Jane Tompkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (Oxford University Press, 1992), 41. Quoted in Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 114.

  12. Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 115.

  13. Ibid., 53.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Joshua Gibbs, “How to Write a Movie Review,” FilmFisher, December 14, 2014.

  16. Remy Wilkins, “Neopagan Christ Figures,” FilmFisher, November 9, 2015.

  17. Sircy, “Eat Your Vegetables.”

  18. Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 53–54, 62.