Shooting From the Hip: Gary Cooper’s Freudian Gun-Cock in High Noon

The Freudian Western

Western legends and childhood development have a subtly linked history, demonstrated by the amount of characters, both real life and fictional, who bear a post nominal epithet describing their level of maturation. William Bonney becomes Billy the Kid, dead at eighteen having killed one man for every year of his life. The Apache Kid, the Sundance Kid and Kid Curry are other notable examples and the generic prevailing term cowboy with its indicator of age is noteworthy.

There has been much study into Freudian theories and film theory as it relates to the Western[1]. Freud understands sexuality as being primitive. Strange and aggressive it is a ‘dark continent’ needing to be brought to order by a strong hand in the same way that the ‘virgin land’ of the frontier was conquered and tamed by the ranchers and cowboys of the old west by bringing the rule of law to the new settlements[2]. It is this connection between primitive sexuality and the outlaws of the old West which this essay hopes to highlight.

If the historical truth which is the basis of the Western genre is Freudian in scope, then so too is the retelling of that history. Melinda Szaloky writes that just as Freud believes that dreams allow us to see personal memories which have been repressed to allow us to live normally, film fulfils the same function for a society. Film is society’s ‘dream’ of its shared history, allowing a nation to relive its past glories and also to expose its hidden history in order to heal sub conscious shame[3]. It is therefore imperative to understand the portrayals of men in these films as some project an idealised view of history and its heroes while others show the counter. To that end this investigative content analysis has been performed.

High Noon[4] was chosen as it straddles both the idealised Western, being made during the classical Western period, but it also shows critical elements more characteristic of the later revisionist Westerns of the next decade[5]. With the combination of these two binary opposite sub-genres, the male lead, played by Gary Cooper, should be a fuller and more realistic character incorporating traditional elements of the male hero and also free of any exaggerated tropes.

The Representation and Utilisation of Gender in High Noon

There are two elements to High Noon to look at in order to establish the role of masculinity in the western. The first is to show that part of the male function is sex. The assertion comes from the primary male sexual characteristic being the penis and its Freudian connections with the gun, one of the most common identifiers of a western movie[6][7]. This sexual definition of the male is supported by the counter definition of women also in sexual terms.

Femininity

In the film five women are present. Two are primary characters, one is a very minor character and the final two are only mentioned by other characters. Of the two primary female characters, both are defined sexually. The first is the newly married wife of the main character, their marriage opens the film and her sole driving motive from then on is to begin married life. Marriage shows the taming of primitive female sexuality and also has connotations with bearing children, the product of sex.

The other primary female character is a hotel owner, effectively a brothel in the frontier of the ‘wild west’. The dominance of sexuality in her character is obvious. The minor female character is the wife of another character, her sole function in the movie is to provide an excuse for why her husband cannot join forces with Gary Cooper. She is solely defined by her relationship with her husband.

The final two references to women in the film are to women solely defined as wife and prostitute, two sexual definitions as we have seen.

When the initial complicating action of the plot occurs, the male lead having his life threatened has to make a choice; he can either run or he can stay and fight. The wife character chooses to run while the male character chooses to stay. Thus is determined a clear division between the sexes, separate from the biological. Man fights, woman flees. When the male character stays to fight, he ceremonially arms himself with gun and holster, creating the link between the biological male with a penis and the masculine symbol of the gun. The female’s decision not to fight was the first such instance in the movie and so all subsequent refusals to take arm and fight which follow on are linked to the initial female response and the refusal to take up a gun. When a male character does this, he is in effect relinquishing his penis.

Masculinity

If femininity is thus defined as primarily sexual, in the world of the movie where homosexuality is never acknowledged, it is clear that at least part of the male role must also be sexual to fulfil the female function and so it is now important to establish unequivocally the link between penis and gun. The male characters need a penis to fulfil their part of the gender defining sex act and the driving point of the film is that only true men carry guns; the ability to handle a gun was explicitly verbally linked to masculinity on four occasions and is never refuted showing another clear link.

The most striking link between gun and penis in the movie is how although the gun was used solely on other men, these men had mostly symbolically become women or had been emasculated. This is the promotion of a hetero centric world view in which a man can only have a gun/penis used upon him if he has ‘become’ a woman.

The main purpose of the gun in westerns is to shoot and to kill. By looking at the circumstances in which this purpose was put to use we can see how the gun and the penis are linked. There were four deaths in the film, three of which saw the death of a symbolic female. The most illuminating example is presented by a male character, who having donned female clothes is shot by his aggressor. A second male character is shot in the lower stomach, the location of his womb had he been a woman. Another male character’s death occurs when he runs out of ammunition, clearly highlighting the loss of his masculinity before being shot. The middle instance of the gun/penis hitting a victim in the abdomen/womb is particularly striking and the frequency of this theme’s occurrence in the Western makes it all the more poignant.

It is these three deaths, occurring within minutes of each other, which firmly show the dual male role of sex, the symbolic penis being used against the symbolic woman, and also the role of tamer of women. The outlaws represent the unlawful Wild West, equivalent to the dark continent of female sexuality; by bringing outlaws to justice in the one instance, the male is also shown to be conquering female sexuality.

The biological function of the male has clearly been given prominence as evidenced by the male characters relationships with the female characters being based predominantly on sex. A man becomes biologically male when he grows from a boy into man. How then is this transition of boy to man displayed in High Noon? There are three references to boys during the movie in which adolescents are compared to grown men. The first involves the deputy visiting his lover, the owner of the brothel, and they are shown eating breakfast post coitus. It is made clear that the deputy is old enough to engage in sex and thus a boy grown into a man. The female lover however says to him, ‘You’ve got broad shoulders,’ a reference to his physical growth, ‘it takes more than (that) to be a man.’ The indication being that just because he is fully grown does not make him a man. Masculinity is linked to something more than biology; the deputy’s refusal to fight and to take up a gun is in this scene shows him to still be a boy. Therefore the gun is more indicative of masculinity than the penis. Violence and fighting are clearer indicators of masculinity than the sex which began the film as the male defining function.

The only occasion in High Noon in which biological boys feature is when a group of young boys appear playing with toy guns and shooting each other, complete with verbal ‘bang’ sounds. By taking the now firmly established trope of the gun/penis and looking at elements of Freud’s psychosexual development we see how the use of a gun and masculinity is enforced. The group is pre-pubescent and lacking any girls, the boys are in the latency stage[8]. Their guns are not real and unable to fire real bullets just as their genitalia are still growing biologically; when they are old enough to handle real guns which fire real bullets, so too will they be old enough to use their genitals for their biological function; the gun and penis are synonymous.

The final occurrence of the biological boy not being old enough to wield a gun comes when a fourteen year old boy offers to stand by the main character and asks him for a gun to use. He is refused because he is too young. This again reiterates that the gun is linked explicitly with age and with sex.

It is now quite clear that in High Noon the male is predominantly a sexual being; his role is to ‘tame’ women. This is shown primarily with the imagery of the gun which is used in a symbolic way to calm the land of the Wild West and also to kill outlaws, both symbolising the taming of the female.

[1] Mulvey, L., 1999. Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946). In: S. Thornham, ed. 1999. Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh, pp.122–130.

[2] Freud, S., 1926.The Question of Lay Analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XX (1925–1926): An Autobiographical Study, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, The Question of Lay Analysis and Other Works, 177–258. London: Hogarth Press.

[3] Szaloky, M., 2001. A Tale Nobody can Tell. In: J. Walker, ed. 2001. Westerns: Films Through History .New York: Routledge, pp.47–69

[4] Kramer, S., Foreman, C., Zinnemann, F., Cunningham, J. W., & United Artists Corporation. (1952). High Noon. Los Angeles: United Artists.

[5] Graham, D., 1980. The Women of High Noon: A Revisionist View. Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 34 (4) pp 243–251

[6] Kanzer, M. 1952. The Transference Neurosis of the Rat Man. Psychoanalytic Quarterly., 21:181–189.

[7] Greenberg, R. P. & Fisher, S., 1980. Freud’s Penis-Baby Equation. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 53 (4) pp333–342.

[8] Rutter, M., 2006.Normal Psychosexual Development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 11 (4) pp 259–283.

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Sam Cossey

I wasn’t cool in the 90s. Now I am writing about wrestling, comic books and movies at night while everyone is asleep.