“Every nation gets the government it deserves,” noted the French counterrevolutionary Joseph de Maistre. This elegant observation has been applied – and applied and reapplied ad infinitum – to popular culture. Thus, we read that every generation gets the James Bond, the Daredevil, the Sherlock Holmes, the Woodstock, and even the Counting Crows, it deserves.
The same is true for Marshal Will Kane, Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning role in High Noon. The latest remake is Fist Fight. But if that remarkably trashy movie shows us the Will Kane our generation deserves, then we have a lot to worry about.
The basic plot device underlying the Will Kane role is the hero compelled to confront a looming, formidable foe. As time passes and the minutes dwindle, he looks in vain for assistance or escape. All exits being closed, the hero finally faces his nemesis alone … and prevails.
High Noon depicts in realtime Marshal Will Kane’s last morning on the job. He is about to retire and leave town on his honeymoon with his Quaker bride Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). At their wedding, Will and Amy learn that Frank Miller, a murderer arrested 5 years earlier by the Marshal, has been pardoned and is heading to town to join up with three outlaw confederates. The wedding guests urge Will to leave. He and Amy head out – then the Marshal turns the wagon around. When Amy asks why, he says of Miller: “I expect he’ll come looking for me.”
Will tries to enlist help against the impending danger. The Judge who sentenced Miller packs up and leaves. Will’s deputy, resentful at having been passed over as Will’s successor, deserts him. Will visits the saloon, but the locals refuse his request for help. He interrupts the church service to seek deputies. None of the congregants will volunteer. The mayor tells him that a gunfight will hurt the town’s image, and blames him for not leaving when he could have.
As the minutes tick by, shown by the clock in his office, Will writes his last will and testament. Then he goes out to the street to face his enemies.
Will prevails, with the help of his bride, who overcomes her pacifist scruples to play an unexpected role in the fight. With the outlaws dead and the town safe, the citizens rush out to the street to thank their savior. Wordlessly, he tosses his tin star into the dirt and departs with his bride.
Contemporary commentators differed on the meaning of Marshal Will Kane’s solitary courage. Some saw his heroism as a stand against McCarthyism. Others saw the film, released during the Korean War, as representing America’s stand against international communism. Presidents as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton have praised the film (perhaps seeing themselves as Kane), and screened it at the White House.
A generation later, High Noon was repositioned from the Old West to Outer Space in the movie Outland. While Frank Miller’s gang of gunfighters were the villains of 1952, Consolidated Amalgamate, a mining company, is the villain of this 1981 version.
Marshal William O’Niel, played by Sean Connery, is assigned to a one-year tour of duty at a titanium ore mining outpost on Jupiter’s third moon. The local supervisor proudly relates that productivity is at a record high. Marshal O’Niel discovers why. The supervisor is involved in a scheme, sanctioned by Con-Amalgamate, to distribute a drug that allows the miners to work nonstop until they burn out and turn psychotic. When O’Niel threatens to publicize the scheme, the Company sends assassins to eliminate him. O’Niel learns of the plot. Instead of having 85 minutes to wait, O’Niel has 70 hours before the space shuttle bearing the killers arrives. He tries to organize resistance but, like Marshal Will Kane, he is rebuffed at every turn. Ultimately, he must confront the assassins alone. Or almost alone. Just as Marshal Kane had crucial help from his Quaker wife, Marshal O’Niel receives timely aid from the outpost’s female doctor.
Will Kane and William O’Niel both confront the lonely challenge of upholding law and order on the frontier. They are the heroes their respective generations deserve, and their villains tell us much about their times. In the aftermath of America’s victory in World War II, in the flush of economic post-war expansion, Americans had faith in their government and their institutions. The villains in High Noon are outsiders who threaten the established order of the town. In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, Americans saw their government and institutions as part of those dark forces. So Con-Amalgamated, the villain in Outland, is no outsider threatening the established order. Rather, it is the establishment and Marshal O’Niel is the outsider.
High Noon and Outland were serious movies. Three O’Clock High, released in 1987, takes the same plot device and moves it from the frontier West to a modern high school, and transforms the heroic Marshal Kane into the nerdy anti-hero Jerry Mitchell.
The action takes place in a single school day. Jerry arrives as his classmates gab about a new student Buddy Revell, a juvenile delinquent so fearsome that he is rumored to have pulled a knife on his football coach, and to have put a science teacher in the hospital for three days just for touching him. Jerry is assigned to write a story for the school newspaper about the newcomer. They meet by chance in the restroom. After some painfully awkward interaction, in which Jerry succeeds only in antagonizing Buddy, Jerry tells him to forget the whole idea, and then casually touches his arm. Big mistake. Buddy is “a touch freak,” and Jerry has crossed the line. Buddy slams him into the urinal and tells him that they are going to fight after school.
The rest of the movie – up until the climactic fight scene – depicts the increasingly desperate efforts of Jerry to get out of fighting Buddy. As the hours tick by (shown by the school clock), Jerry tries one expedient after another. He pleads with Buddy. He tries to plant a switchblade in his locker to get him arrested. He steals money from the school store to pay an older bully to beat up Buddy. He tries to seduce an English teacher in the hope that he’ll be thrown into detention. Each ploy fails, as time moves inexorably closer and closer to 3 o’clock.
Ultimately, Jerry offers the stolen money to Buddy as a bribe to call off the fight. Buddy disdainfully accepts. Then he says: “You’re the biggest pussy I ever met in my life. You didn’t even try. How does that feel?” This is too much, even for the nerdy Jerry. He goes up to the roof of the building to reflect. Then he returns to confront Buddy again, this time to demand the return of the money. When Buddy refuses, Jerry tells him that the fight is on.
The long awaited duel takes place as scheduled, and the outcome is what we expect. But the fight is not really the climax of the movie. The climax is the moment on the school roof, when Jerry realizes that he cannot live with Buddy’s contempt, that something in his inner being demands that he fight.
Three O’Clock High was not a commercial success, but it has held up well over time. Some consider it a cult classic. For most of the movie, Jerry Mitchell commands our sympathy, if not our respect: an innocent facing terror, in a world he never made. Near the end, in the final introspective moments before 3 o’clock, he even achieves a patina of heroism on the rooftop. He is more Ferris Bueller than Will Kane, of course; but that may tell us something of his time, the Age of Reagan, when charm could prove as potent as valor.
Whatever appeal may reside in transforming the heroic frontier lawman into a comedic dweeb disappears utterly in the latest remake of the plot device, the vulgar, vapid Fist Fight. Again, the setting is a modern American high school, but this is a high school as seen by a seventh grader with developmental issues.
The action takes place on Senior Prank Day, when students are allowed, and even expected, to play pranks on their teachers. A meth-ridden horse runs free through the corridors. Classroom white boards carry scatological messages about the teachers. None of this is particularly shocking (or funny) in this kind of puerile production. What is shocking is the teachers’ passive acceptance. This is all portrayed as normal.
The conflict pits Andy Campbell, a spineless white English teacher, against Ron Strickland, a black social science teacher. The latter character, played by Ice Cube, is an embarrassing racial stereotype: an explosively violent and menacing personality. Campbell witnesses Strickland chopping up a student’s desk with a fire axe. (Don’t ask why. It really doesn’t matter.) When the teachers learn that their department is about to be downsized, Campbell snitches on Strickland to save his job, which results in Strickland’s termination. Strickland then challenges Campbell to a fist fight after school.
Campbell spends the school day trying to get out of the fight, but his machinations are so absurd they really don’t merit retelling, especially when the viewer remembers that this is not a student confined to campus, or a space marshal restricted to a mining outpost. Campbell is an adult with a car and a driver’s license. Theoretically, he can get up and leave anytime. (Actually, he does, but only to buy a MacBook Pro to bribe a student to help in one of his escape attempts.)
In each of these movies, there is a moment when the protagonist realizes that he must rise to the challenge and fight, whatever the cost. In Fist Fight, that moment comes when Campbell arrives late for his daughter Ally’s talent show. They had rehearsed a number from Rent. When he shows up, her scheduled time slot has passed, and Ally is inconsolable at having been let down again by her father, especially since her most popular classmate has been making fun of her. To revive Ally’s spirits and redeem himself, Campbell encourages her to join him on stage for a rendition of Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck with You.” In what must rank as one of the most cringe-worthy scenes in American cinema, father and daughter join in dissing Ally’s classmate, calling out the little girl as “you little stupid ass bitch.” Somehow, this revolting act inspires Campbell to return to the school to fight Strickland. Apparently, the writers meant to convey the idea that any father brave enough to join his daughter in hurling obscenities at an 8-year old girl must be brave enough to fight a large black man. Or something like that.
The scene is not the only example of child abuse in the movie. Throughout the day, Campbell’s friend, guidance counselor Holly, repeatedly discusses her urgent need to have sex with one of the students. In a film larded with racial stereotypes, masturbation scenes, and animal abuse, Holly’s determination to get some “teenis” fits in unobtrusively, and lacks any shock appeal.
If the America of 1952 deserved High Noon, what in the world happened to the America of today to deserve Fist Fight?
It’s not difficult to guess. Our culture has coarsened. What passes for “music” today is often nothing more than profanity-laced diatribes against others. Our public institutions, notably our schools, have deteriorated as respect for authority has dissipated. The very concept of the hero – or even the endearing anti-hero – has vanished.
For the contemporary audience, there is no moral difference between the protagonist and the looming, inescapable threat. There is no Gary Cooper for whom to cheer. We watch the minutes tick by, bringing the action closer and closer to the inevitable conflict, and when the fight starts we hope against hope that both sides will lose.