SALT LAKE CITY — The Wild West is an American creation. Right?
As it turns out, that’s a really hard question to answer.
Artistic depictions of the American West, whether in film or literature or paintings, emanate rugged, untamed beauty, majestic grandeur, poetic solitude. It is about the unknown and the seemingly limitless opportunities therein. Imagining America’s persona without it feels nearly impossible.
That this very image was largely shaped by “outsiders” — foreign immigrants, or those with immigrant ties and traditionally European ideals — gets overlooked. Hindsight is 20/20, though. Some of America’s most classically “American” works are being viewed with new eyes, and in the case of the Utah Symphony, heard with new ears when the symphony presents “High Noon in Concert” on Saturday, Feb. 17 at Abravanel Hall.
A hidden meaning, finally revealed
“High Noon,” the classic 1952 Western film, will be shown at Abravanel Hall while the symphony performs its accompanying score. The event is in collaboration with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibit, “Go West! Art of the American Frontier.” Its collaborative nature, and the symphony’s performance of “High Noon,” is apropos.
“Everything about ‘High Noon’ is a bunch of professionals at the height of their skills,” explained Glenn Frankel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.”
Frankel’s book details how “High Noon” and its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, became caught in the crosshairs of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia. While the film has come to represent Wild West ideals at their finest, Foreman actually wrote “High Noon” as a blacklist allegory. Its star, a lone marshal played by screen legend Gary Cooper, represented Hollywood’s blacklisted writers, while those coming to gun him down represented Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Foreman’s interpretation remained relatively secret for decades, and Frankel’s book got major attention in literary, political and filmmaking circles upon its release. Vanity Fair, the Washington Post and even Utah’s RadioWest profiled the book’s revelations last year. That a film criticizing fascism and political fearmongering could be interpreted the opposite way for so long raised real questions about how Americans view themselves.
“What is an American these days?” Frankel asked during his interview with the Deseret News. “Is it someone who is suspicious of anyone outside of their community? What are our values? Our democracy is more fragile than we’d like to think. And I think that’s one of the lessons of that era, and it’s one of the lessons of the era we’re in now.”
Long before writing “High Noon,” Foreman was born to Russian parents. Their socialist heritage, and Foreman’s upbringing during the Great Depression, makes his association with the American Communist Party — a group that actively courted Hollywood’s young writers — seem less radical in hindsight. When he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Foreman claimed to no longer associate with the party, but refused to reveal names of others involved. His silence got him blacklisted. This all occurred as “High Noon” finished filming — an odd case of life imitating art.
“I think it’s one of the reasons why we still love this movie,” Frankel said, describing both the real-life Foreman and Gary Cooper’s “High Noon” character as reluctant heroes. “It says something about a character under pressure, when you don’t really have a choice.”
A brand new audience
The music in “High Noon” garnered acclaim in its day, winning Academy Awards for best song and best score. Its music, Frankel said, became replicated — albeit unsuccessfully — by Westerns for the next 20 years. This, too, has immigrant roots: Dimitri Tiomkin, the film’s composer, was Russian-born. The film’s theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin',” is said to be based on a Ukrainian folk song.
Paul Meecham, Utah Symphony president and CEO, pointed to the Italian-made “Spaghetti Westerns” produced in the years following “High Noon” and their legendary scores by Italian composer Ennio Morricone. For being seen as American, Westerns sure have a lot of foreign DNA.
“Some of the great scorers are American, but I think after the war, in particular, because of all these émigrés, there were a lot more European composers around in Hollywood,” Meecham said.
Utah Symphony, he explained, already had the “High Noon” event in the works before he knew about Frankel’s book. Exhibit organizers at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts wanted interdisciplinary companion pieces to their “Go West!” exhibit, and “High Noon” seemed like the ideal fit.
Accompanying film screenings is a relatively new endeavor for the Utah Symphony. Ten years ago, Meecham said, it just wasn’t possible, since these events require a copy of the film sans music. Digital advances have since made it possible, and Meecham said it’s been “a revelation on a number of fronts.”
“(Audiences) know the movies, but it’s almost like hearing the movies in Technicolor,” he said. “It’s attracting people to the symphony in a way that I don’t think any other new kind of offering has done in a very long time.”
The truth beneath the myth
Leslie Anderson, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ curator of European, American and regional art, said Western films utilize much of the same iconography as the paintings in “Go West!”
“There’s a large degree of mythmaking here by the artists on view,” Anderson said. “And I see great links to the types of mythmaking that you have in the genre of Western film … that looks at the West through this very nostalgic lens.”
The ideals in Western art, she explained, draw heavily from 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas became a kind of justification for colonialism.
“It can be tricky to discuss, but you really need to contextualize it within this way of thinking, and understand there’s artistic license taken,” she said.
French philosophers, Russian composers, socialist-leaning screenwriters — America’s vision of the Old West (and its vision of its own abiding ethos) has many external influences to thank.1 comment on this story
“That’s the sort of genius of America, that we are a country of outsiders,” Frankel said. “It’s a place where you not only recreate your own story and your own identity, but you add to and help change the identity of the place itself.
“But it’s a great movie, no matter what your politics,” he added of “High Noon.” “You could interpret the marshal as Joe McCarthy standing up to the Commies coming to town if you want to.”
If you go …
What: “High Noon in Concert”
When: Saturday, Feb. 17, 7 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$44