Sixty years have passed since the release of Western movie favorite “High Noon,” starring Gary Cooper and co-starring Columbia.
Yup, our Columbia, which grew up a frontier town not unlike the one in which the movie is set.
Some would say a lot has changed since then. But in some ways, it hardly seems so.
We’re talking about the situation at Columbia Elementary School, just down the street, which is eerily reminiscent of the film’s themes and the time in which it is set — a time when ideas like “law” and “justice” were locally and crudely interpreted.
If you’ve never seen “High Noon,” or can’t recall the details, here’s the score.
Cooper plays Will Kane, the newly wed, just-retired marshal of Hadleyville, N.M. His plans are upended when he learns a murderer he sent to the gallows, Frank Miller, has been freed on a legal technicality. Miller is returning to town with his gang of outlaws to extract revenge on Kane and, likely, the townsfolk.
Kane is thrust back into a lawman’s role and, as the minutes tick down to Miller’s arrival, he writes his will and battles the obvious temptation to flee.
He puts honor and the town’s welfare above his own interests and attempts, fruitlessly, to muster support from the Hadleyvillers he had spent a career protecting.
He runs from storefront to storefront, house to house, and even interrupts a Sunday church service. Yet, he fails to get a commitment from the fearful, if supportive, residents. In some instances, they actually turn on him.
The train carrying Miller’s gang arrives, there’s a shootout, and Kane is hit. It looks like he’ll spend eternity pushing up daisies when his bride surprisingly shoots Miller, the remaining villain, in the back.
Kane’s relief is palpable, as is his frustration about how the day unfolded.
Surrounded by a grateful throng, he chucks his badge on the ground, hops on a wagon with his bride and leaves town in disgust. Hadleyville is stunned.
Film critics in the decades since have debated the film’s meaning — was it an allegorical jab at Sen. Joe McCarthy’s congressional witch hunts, as John Wayne believed? A dissection of the difference between the unctuous and the truly upright?
Or, maybe, it was just broadly pointing out that very few people — including the genuinely good ones — can put principle before self-preservation when the going gets really tough.
Flash forward to today and Columbia El — where the scandal involving the superintendent’s son (who had sex with a 14-year-old girl in his after-school program classroom) exposed the school’s questionable hiring and student-protection practices.
You could think of Kane as Jeff Tolhurst, the resigned Columbia school board member who was the only trustee with enough sense or moral fiber to stand up to the manipulative and discredited Superintendent John Pendley and his board majority.
But that’s a narrow interpretation. Kane is really a composite of the dozens of people, including Tolhurst, who questioned the Columbia El board and superintendent. They’ve demanded answers and accountability, risking strained community ties, backstabbing, rumor campaigns, and laryngitis.
Columbia El has reached a tentative settlement with the sex-abuse victim. On that news, the critics’ numbers at a school board meeting nose-dived.
The good news in “High Noon” is Kane survives and the town’s people are spared slaughter. But it’s not a clear-cut victory.
The townsfolk lose their marshal and are left to ask themselves: How come we failed to step up?
Character Martin Howe reckons: “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe it’s because, down deep, they don’t care. ... They just don’t care.”
That’s clearly not the case at Columbia El. We at The Union Democrat have fielded too many phone calls to count over the past two years from anonymous people questioning the board and superintendent, and cheering our coverage.
Their failure to step forward and speak their minds was mostly driven by fear. Fear a relative or friend will lose their school job. Fear their kids will be ostracized. Fear of rejection.
Unlike “High Noon,” the end of the Columbia drama is not yet written. The Kanes are ebbing but have not totally given up yet.
Columbia parents and staffers, plus concerned community leaders, really should step up and demand accountability from the school’s reckless, scofflaw “leadership.”
That includes Superintendent John Pendley who, still standing as the storm passes, should be still be urged to resign.
Standing up for what’s right can be tough. But failing to do the right thing can be harder.
Just ask the folks in Hadleyville.
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