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Last month, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox offered the Lone Star State a lesson in the mythology of the American West. Refusing to travel to George W. Bush’s ranch for a meeting, Fox became the highest-profile notable to boycott Texas because of its appalling record in the administration of the death penalty. Most Texans, like Bush and Gov. Rick Perry, dismissed Fox’s stand. But no populace — and certainly no people who relish playing cowboy as much as Texans do — can long ignore an act of resistance that is so clearly the stuff of the quintessential Western: In every frontier classic, the time comes when a decent man must ask himself why he has acquiesced in an obvious evil — and whether he has the courage to challenge what he knows to be wrong. For Texas, and for the American lawyers who do business there, a comparable hour is upon us. Its name is “High Noon.” One of America’s best-loved movies, Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” is 50 years old this year. Appropriately, fall entertainment schedules already feature specials targeted to the film’s anniversary. Even more fittingly, the commemorations promise ideological controversy: “Darkness at High Noon,” a documentary by conservative commentator Lionel Chetwynd, is drawing threats of legal action from the families of disparaged liberals. (“Darkness” airs on KQED-TV Channel 9 at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17.) The discord is apt because “High Noon” itself was born of bitter dissension. In truth, the maelstrom that surrounded the film and consumed its artisans ultimately transformed what might have been a conventional horse opera into Hollywood’s most compelling political film. Today, we have little recollection of the period that historians call the American Inquisition. Recriminations of “McCarthyism” are so overused — often by the very demagogues with whom Joseph McCarthy would have been most comfortable — as to be meaningless. But in the Hollywood of “High Noon,” the relentless suppression of political critique was hardly abstract. One of the crackdown’s most conspicuous casualties would be the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman. A former Communist Party member, Foreman in 1951 had refused to “name names” for the House Un-American Activities Committee — that is, to offer up other former activists as targets of investigation. The result of Foreman’s reticence — blacklisting and the end of his professional career — was inevitable. By the time “High Noon” opened — a box office sensation and nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Screenplay — Foreman had fled McCarthy’s America for exile in England. He would write nothing openly for Hollywood for the next 19 years. Yet in “High Noon” Foreman had bequeathed his countrymen an excruciating record of that era, a exact measurement of the chasm between real Americans and their images of themselves. Most everyone knows “High Noon’s” archetypal story. A U.S. marshal (Gary Cooper’s Will Kane), having transformed an uncivilized frontier town into a thriving community, plans to retire into comfortable middle age with a breathtaking young bride (Grace Kelly). But even as Kane and his gorgeous Amy exchange vows, word spreads that Frank Miller — a gunslinger whose very name reduces the townspeople to simperers — has been released from prison and will arrive on the noon train. Foreman’s metaphors aren’t hard to deconstruct. With the end of World War II, anti-New Deal conservatives seized the opportunity to redress two decades of powerlessness at the hands of unions, writers and progressives: By analogy, Miller blames Kane for his loss of authority and plans to settle old scores. Kane, like the battle-weary vet who has just won the fight against extremism in Europe, has no official obligation to return to arms. But Kane simply cannot walk away from the confrontation he knows will define his time and his town. So Kane turns for support to the colleagues who have seemed to share his notions of the American community. But like Foreman, Kane learns that America is not what he thought it to be. Kane’s search for someone to stand with him yields a portrait of the community that did nothing to prevent an American atrocity. “High Noon” parodies the studio heads who grew rich on the talent of progressive writers and directors, only to renounce those same craftsmen when trouble arrived. (“It’s better for you to leave,” the mayor tells Kane.) It evokes Hollywood’s ubiquitous opportunists, willing to ally themselves with Kane, but only if doing so will enhance their reputations as powerbrokers. (“All you gotta do is tell the [town's elites] that I’m the new marshal,” Kane’s deputy barters.) And it exposes cowering industry leaders who lacked the courage either to help or to openly deny their support. (When Kane knocks, a timorous councilman whispers, “Tell him I’m not home” — a parody of the night a friend sought the assistance of Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan.) In fact, “High Noon” is so precise an allegory of the American ’50s that we may see it only as that. But Foreman’s film has never been simply an admonition to resist Red-baiters. Instead, the film speaks to any generation whose members refuse to stand against the practices that will condemn them to history. And nothing will engender our children’s contempt more certainly than American lawyers’ collaboration in Texas’ system of capital punishment. “High Noon” is clear about what it disdains — not ideology per se, but the use of belief as an excuse for accepting what is patently wrong. Challenging Texas’ killing machine isn’t the same thing as giving up one’s support for the death penalty, after all; what Foreman’s film condemns is passivity — averting our eyes, suspending our judgments, refusing to step forward when a practice has gone too far. “High Noon” warns that a community is doomed when nothing will stir it. And Texas’ capital punishment policy suggests there is nothing so egregious that lawyers will risk their profits or pleasures to oppose it. Is there anything that would move us to stand against what’s happening in Texas? Certainly, we aren’t inspired by thegenuinely stunning numbers of the dead: From January 1, 1997-January 1, 2003(projected), the state will have executed one inmate every 11.9 days, along-term record unmatched in the legends of frontier killing. We aren’t provoked by the mockeries of ethical practice that lubricate the death process: A 2000 Dallas Morning News survey showed that one in four doomed Texas inmates had been represented by a lawyer disciplined by the State Bar. We’re not engaged as Texas takes the lives of children and the childlike: This summer Texas executed three young African-Americans, all juveniles when charged with capital crimes; and Texas prosecutors have ensured that Johnny Paul Penry, the mentally disabled man whose death sentence has been twice reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, is back on Death Row. And we remain passive when legitimate legal questions earn no answer but arrogance: “The justice system in the state of Texas is for Texans,” Gov. Perry responded when questioned about the Supreme Court’s June ban on executions of the retarded. “I don’t agree with that. The lawyers in Texas are looking at that ruling.” There are plenty of reasons not to act, and “High Noon” shows us using them all. We have other responsibilities (“I got a wife and kids,” Kane’s ally begs off); or we have other issues (“This is personal trouble between Kane and Miller,” an abstainer rationalizes); or we dislike the way things are being done (“You’ve handled this wrong from the beginning,” a nitpicker carps). If Kane believed that our institutions provoke us to a more refined sense of obligation, he soon learned he’s wrong. “High Noon’s” church conditions its resistance to evil on the piety of its potential allies — much as the Christian Right has limited its objections to the Texas death mill to born-again killer Karla Faye Tucker. Kane’s justice system enshrines symbols — whether original intent, or state’s rights, or the half-dozen other philosophical tokens first advanced by the folks who thought slavery was a good idea — and political survival. (“I’ve been a judge many times in many towns, and I hope to live to be a judge again,” the magistrate says in farewell.) Ultimately, defensiveness creates Kane’s most aggressive opponent. Kane’s protegee Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) recognizes the justice of Kane’s cause; and he understands that Kane’s stand calls his own passivity into question. Pell inevitably loathes himself for his own inaction, as we eventually may come to repent our own: in the firms that refer business to Texas offices and attorneys, in the organizations that schedule conferences in Texas cities, in the law schools that offer its teams to Texas competitions. In the last five years, a number of Bay Area firms have opened Texas branches to pursue growing intellectual property revenues, ignoring that the state’s death tolls have escalated during the same period. (“Open ‘er up, Joe. We’re gonna have a big day today,” the saloon keeper says in eager anticipation of Miller’s return.) We remove ourselves from involvement because Texas is — well, Texas. (“You know what he is,” “High Noon’s” characters say of Miller. No more need be said.) But Foreman’s most interesting character, Vicente Fox’s countrywoman Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), recognizes what Kane’s constituents cannot: That the responsibility for atrocity belongs to the larger American community; that our submission to evil is a greater threat to our humanity than is evil itself; that lassitude in the face of what we know is wrong is fatal to American law. At film’s end, it is acquiescence that has killed Kane’s community: He drops his badge into the street and rides away. Vicente Fox’s brave stand probably won’t live in the legends of the West. But we should hope more for history’s respect than for its reverence. Eventually, those with the will to oppose America’s worst execution scheme will walk out into the dusty street. The question for the rest of us is whether they’ll go there alone. Contributing Writer Terry Diggs teaches courses on law and film at Hastings and Golden Gate University law schools..

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