In early February my Aged Parent and I watched “High Noon.” (We were joined for part by my sister.) “High Noon” is a famous 1952 film. It starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The movie had seven Academy Award nominations, and had four wins, including the superb “The Ballad of High Noon.” Here is a link to the version which opens the movie; it is sung by Tex Ritter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5an9OuXKxBw.
The movie held our interest well. However, Wikipedia makes clear that the movie was controversial at the time. No less a person than John Wayne called it ‘”the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”‘
To summarize the plot very briefly, Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) has just gotten married to his beautiful young Quaker bride Amy (Kelly). But he hears that Frank Miller and three of his gang are heading to Hadleyville to take revenge on Kane. He doesn’t cut and run; his duty requires him to defend the town and himself rather than leave. He tries to get support among the townspeople to help him defeat the Miller gang. But they all (with unimportant exceptions) find excuses, including the people at church. The brave Kane is going to have to face the four vicious men all by himself.
Grace Kelly, a Quaker, tries to leave her new husband due to her religious beliefs, but at the last moment she decides to help him. She wields a gun at a crucial moment; see the movie for how that turns out. I don’t want to give the plot away. It is a movie worth seeing, even if you end up agreeing with John Wayne. Any movie which features the beautiful Grace Kelly is worth seeing.
What might make the movie un-American? Well, it portrays the townspeople as refusing to fight bravely for their town and their friend the marshal. They refuse to pull out their rifles and pistols and fight beside him.
Years ago I heard about a town named Northfield, Minnesota. If memory serves, the writer Frank Gruber alerted me to Northfield. I didn’t follow up on that hint for many decades, until seeing “High Noon” made me think about Northfield again. What happened in Northfield, Minnesota on September 7, 1876, is that the James-Younger gang (eight men), tried to rob the Northfield bank.
The townspeople did not know that the men were the famous James-Younger gang. But they figured out very quickly that some men were trying to rob the bank. Their response? They pulled out their weapons and began shooting. (Some people even threw large rocks!) Two of the gang were dead very quickly, others wounded. They robbed the bank all right–of about $20.00.
The man who had the combination to the safe refused to open it, despite the gang’s threat to murder him. So he was shot down in cold blood, probably by Frank James. He died. His name was Joseph Lee Heywood. When his widow learned that he had given his life rather than permit the robbery, she reportedly said, ‘”I would not have had him do otherwise.”‘ (Shot All to Hell, p. 99)
The gang, out in the streets, also shot one other man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; he too died, four days later on September 11.
Once the seven to ten minutes of chaos had ended, the gang was very far from home free. The people in the town, and from other towns (alerted by telegraph) immediately formed posses to track down the James-Younger gang. Pretty quickly they had figured out who the bank robbers were. The gang was far from their usual stomping grounds, but they were in Minnesota, and Minnesotans were not amused. They were probably “Minnesota nice” even then, but their instinct was to join in the pursuit and try to hunt down the James-Younger gang. Men joined the pursuit in droves.
The three most famous members of the gang were Jesse James, Frank James, and Cole Younger. The other five men were not novice outlaws.
The search took approximately two weeks, and Jesse and Frank James finally escaped by the skin of their teeth. The other four were either killed or captured.
All this, as you can well imagine, was front page news for a very long time. We still remember Northfield, Minnesota, and they have a festival each year commemorating the robbery and the shootout.
How do I know all this? Well, I just finished reading Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape, by Mark Lee Gardner. The book was published in 2013. It is absolutely riveting. Mr. Gardner has done an astonishing amount of research. He wants to get the story completely right. Where he is unsure, he says so. This is history writing which informs, moves, and causes us to think. The book is reasonably available on the Internet. This morning I saw a price for a used copy of $5.39 (free shipping, but sales tax will be added) at AbeBooks.
While Joseph Lee Heywood was acclaimed a hero by most, one dissenting voice arose in Minnesota. The editor of the Spring Valley town paper had a different take. I have removed the italics, and the ellipsis is Mr. Gardner’s:
“Do the demands of the employer of the employee extend so far? Is not an employee’s life of greater value than a few thousand dollars of the employer’s gold? We would not detract one iota from the dead man’s laurels, but we fear he gave his life from a mistaken motive or demand of duty. He was a husband and father, with a wife and children looking to him for care and protection, whose demands cannot be measured by gold and silver; and was not his duty to them more sacred and of far greater importance than the treasure for which he sacrificed his life? . . . The coldhearted, selfish employers will look with secret satisfaction upon his sacrifice, and the thoughtless world will plaud it as heroic; but a more thoughtful tribunal will judge that in dying for others’ gold he transgressed a higher and holier law, and cruelly wronged his wife and children.” (Shot, p. 130)
Put me down on the side of that dissenting voice. While I join in honoring Joseph Lee Heywood for his courage, I think the wiser course would have been to open the safe. But that is just my opinion.
Frank James lived to die of old age. Late in life, a reporter asked him if what he had done with his life had been ‘”worthwhile.”‘ Frank was slow to respond, but when he spoke his answer plainly came from the depth of his spirit.
‘Finally, Frank answered: “If you’re not a quitter, anything you’ve done has got to be worthwhile. You can make it worthwhile. I guess, if I had it all to do over, and had the choice, and had to make the choice as a young man, I’d rather have all the pain and danger and trouble than to be just a plain farmer. If I had an old man’s head, I would choose different.”‘ (Shot, p. 241)
That is an honest answer. He would do it all again. Working a simple job for a lifetime would never have been enough for the young Frank James. Only if he were thinking as an old man would he choose differently. The misery he had caused others (and his own family, if we learn from Mr. Gardner’s book) was worth it, because he enjoyed the exciting life more than quiet peacefulness and honest, simple work. This is a valuable look into the thinking of a sociopath. I’m glad that the fictional Mattie Ross told the discourteous Frank James, ‘”Keep your seat, trash!”‘ (True Grit, p. 188)
Shot All to Hell is a superb book. Many pictures are scattered throughout, and add to the value of the text. I hope to live long enough to read Mr. Gardner’s book on Billy the Kid entitled To Hell on a Fast Horse.
“High Noon” versus Northfield, Minnesota? The people of Northfield ran toward danger, weapons blazing. The complete story of the chasing down of the James-Younger gang included plenty of folly, plenty of bad and sad decisions, and not everybody was as intrepid as Joseph Lee Heywood, as we would readily expect given the varieties of human nature. But the people of Northfield and their Minnesota neighbors give us a picture of pioneer people whom we can respect and admire.
Don’t believe too readily that the townspeople of Hadleyville in “High Noon” represented the people on the frontier. A whole bunch of those people, our ancestors, were brave, and were quite capable of giving bad guys a warmer reception than they wanted or expected.
Remind me never to try to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota.