High Noon on the Waterfront and the Red Scare

Joseph J. Green

Northern Arizona University

The endings of the films “High Noon” and “On the Waterfront” are both a product of their times. They have highly significant themes that seem to be an echo of the battle between communism and capitalism, or more precisely, the mob and the individual. It’s also clear that if both these films were similar to fables, where the goal is to have some special moral to teach people, that we would find them to be very similar. Though, both films seem to come across it in slightly different ways.

At the end of “High Noon”, our hero, if you will, Will Kaine has a showdown with his enemy Fred Miller and his gang. Ultimately, Kaine wins the fight and prepares to ride off into the sunset. It is in this scene where Kaine represents how being an individual, despite how others may behave, is how to win the lady and save the day. Prior, it was made clear that the townsfolk wanted nothing to do with this fight. A few were ready to jump for a gun at first, but the rest of the community managed to talk them out if it. They decided that it would be better for Kaine to simply leave town, and that it would be better for both Kaine and the town. However, Kaine stood his ground, he wasn’t ready to give up, and as the individual in defiance to the mob, he won the day. This idea was further illustrated when his wife, who had previously adopted the Quaker religion in an effort to swear away violence at any cost, decided to think for herself, instead of simply following the thoughts of her religion, and help Kaine by killing one of the men when she had the chance. Both Kaine and his Wife decided to pursue the concept of the individual and won, in spite of the mob. The clear moral of the story here is that people should do what they believe is right, even if it’s against the consensus of the mob.

At the end of, “On the Waterfront” Terry Malloy, after having been beaten up by the boss, Johnny Friendly, and his gang. was encouraged to stand up and walk to the docks to work. The significance here was to inspire the men to go work for themselves, that they didn’t need the union bosses to tell them who can and can’t work, and that they didn’t need to stay D&D (deaf and dumb). That they could do an honest days work, and get an honest days pay. That they should do what’s right, instead of falling in with the mob. We again see the rise of individualism in defiance to the group, or capitalism beating out communism. They even have the union boss say, “The ones who work, are the ones I pick,” further trying to tell the audience that this is what communism looks like, and how it will never win against capitalism. The moral-like ending here is almost the same as that of “High Noon”, the mob isn’t always right, don’t just go along with whatever they are doing, do the right thing.

Well, as it has been shown, if we think of things in terms of a fable with a specific moral, they both seem to be saying the same thing. “The individual is the right thing.” Which, of course, is about as far from the ideas of communism that you can get. One of the main differences in the endings, though, is that “On the Waterfront” has a bit of a happier ending. Here, our main character ends up helping the community by being willing to stand up for what’s right. Almost being a martyr, as several others were before him.

In the case of “High Noon”, we’re led to believe that Fred Miller and his gang may cause trouble for the town, with no evidence. Perhaps this was a criticism of McCarthyism? Either way, we are outright told that violence in the town will be bad for the town’s ability to get funding from the northern states, as it’ll stain their reputation. Furthermore, it is made clear that there likely will be no violence if Kaine leaves the town. Kaine, having refused to leave town and pursue his fight there, doomed the town by giving it a worse reputation by having killing in the streets. Then, after he finishes, he prepares to leave town. All he did was destroy the hopes of the town and leave. A sad ending indeed, alowing a horrible person to get away with his misdeeds. In both cases, however, the message of the time was clear. Communism is bad and will lose, capitalism is good and will win.

So what’s the moral of the story in these two “red scare” era films? “Communism is scary and we should purge it from our country before it dooms us all.” The films certainly find somewhat different ways to describe that message, but it’s there in both “On the Waterfront” and “High Noon”. The films clearly demonstrate how mob rule will only lead to chaos, and end on a similar moral note of the wonders of the individual and the horrors of the mob.


High Noon. (1952). [film].

On the Waterfront. (1954). [film].