Saturday, February 14, 2009

Doing What Has to Be Done – Against All Odds

High Noon

The first time I saw High Noon as a kid, I told myself that when movies became available to the public, this one would be the first in my library. It wasn’t, but I do own a copy and it remains one of my favorites. The reason? The practicality laced sense of duty displayed by Will Kane, the movie’s main character.

I’ve found this admirable trait in many other movies but I will only discuss two others here – the classic World War II drama/romance Casablanca, and the depiction of the Spartans’ suicidal stand against eastern invaders in 300. In all three, although the heroes faced daunting odds against success, they risked their lives to do what had to be done.

The western High Noon (released in 1952 in black and white), begins with the wedding of Will Kane, the marshal of a small town, to Amy Fowler, a beautiful, peace-loving Quaker. But the joy of the day is shattered with news that Frank Miller, a man who the marshal sent to prison years ago, has been released and is arriving on the noon train to meet three of his friends and then gun down the marshal before taking over the town.

The story line in Casablanca (1942, b&w) revolves around the love affair between Rick Blaine, the owner of the most popular nightclub in the French colonial Moroccan city, and Ilsa Lund, who abandoned him when they were supposed to leave Paris together right before the Nazi occupation of the city – and then shows up in Casablanca with a husband. Victor Lazlo, a well-respected Czech resistance leader and Ilsa’s husband, has escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and, with Ilsa, is trying to reach Lisbon, Portugal, where they can get a flight to the United States. But to get to Lisbon, they need letters of transit, which allows the holders to travel unimpeded through Nazi-occupied territory – and, coincidentally, a pair of which find their way into Rick’s possession.

In 300 (2007, combines color and sepia tones), King Leonidas from the Greek city-state of Sparta, leads of force of 300 men at the Battle of Thermopylae against tens of thousands of invaders from the Persian Army, which is led by the Emperor Xerxes. The movie is fictionalized account of the historic event and is a remake of the 1962 color picture, The 300 Spartans.

High Noon’s Will Kane is urged to leave town by its citizens – and initially, he takes their advice. But as he and Amy are riding off in their buckboard, Will realizes that he is only postponing the inevitable – knowing that Frank Miller will come after him no matter where he goes – and shirking his duty to the town. Upon his return, he seeks help from the townspeople. But for various reasons – from support for Frank Miller, to infirmity, to ego, to cowardice under the guise of protecting their town and families, to fear of the odds – he finds no one willing to stand beside him against the four gunslingers.

In the end, Kane survives the gunfight with the help of Amy – who had threatened to leave him and was on the train going out of town before having a change of heart and eventually killing one of the bad guys. Amy answers the plea of the movie’s theme song and does not forsake her husband. When the dust finally settles and the townspeople crowd around to congratulate him, Will takes off his badge and – with what appears to me to be contempt – tosses it to the ground at their feet before getting on the buckboard with his wife and leaving for his new life.

Casablanca is an outstanding movie on so many levels. This is the story of a heartbroken man who manages to contain his grief until the reemergence of the love of his life. Rick, a one-time journalist who now owns Rick’s Café Americain, is admired by friends and foes alike and displays his generous nature for anyone who needs help – except the Nazis. For instance, a young woman and her husband are trying to leave Casablanca but do not have enough money to pay for the bribe demanded by Louis Renault, the Vichy French prefecture of police, for the required traveling papers. (During WWI, the Vichy French government collaborated with their Nazi occupiers) The woman goes to Rick, who is a close friend of the prefecture, and asks if Renault will keep his word and give them the papers if she submits to his romantic overture. She also asks Rick if she thinks her husband would ever forgive her if he found out about it. After learning that the husband is at a roulette table trying to win the needed money, Rick goes to the table, stands over the husband’s shoulder and proceeds to give him advice on what number to place his bet. The man working the table follows Rick’s cue and allows the husband to win three straight times. Afterwards, the prefecture, who watched the event, lightheartedly chastises Rick for interfering with his “little romance” and remarks that he has always suspected that Rick was a romantic.

Rick’s generosity also extends to Ugarte, a man who Rick doesn’t particularly like. Ugarte had murdered two Nazi couriers and stolen two letters of transit. He was going to sell them that evening and asked Rick to hold them for a little while. Rick agrees but before he can return them, Ugarte is gunned down by police in Rick’s nightclub – a demonstration orchestrated by the prefecture that was meant to impress Major Strasser, the highest ranking German officer in the area. The letters of transit are not found.

Ilsa and her husband, Victor, are apparently the couple to whom Ugarte was going to sell the letters. They enter Rick’s nightclub after the fireworks. Their presence naturally leads to the reunion of Rick and Ilsa. It is at this reunion where the role of music becomes an intricate part of the storyline. Ilsa sees a black piano player named Sam, who had been Rick’s friend and traveling companion during their earlier acquaintance. Back then, the song “As Time Goes By” was there song. Ilsa asks Sam to play it. After several attempts to avoid it, he gives in. When Rick hears it, he rushes over to the piano to complain – and then sees Ilsa. Sam hurries away and Rick joins Ilsa and her husband. Louie, as Rick calls the prefecture, joins them and it becomes obvious to both Louie and Victor that Rick and Ilsa have a history.

After finding out that Ugarte is dead and the letters of transit are missing, Victor and Ilsa conclude that Rick has them. First Ilsa, meeting later with Rick in private, tries to coax the papers out of him. But Rick is too bitter about what happened in Paris. Later, Victor tries to get Rick to give him the papers and Rick again refuses. When asked why, Rick tells Victor to ask his wife. Ilsa then tries again, this time with a gun. But she eventually breaks down and tells Rick that she loves him and will stay with him. She explains what happened in Paris and about her marriage to Victor and then asks Rick to give the letters to Victor so that he can get out of the reach of the Nazis. Rick agrees and hatches a plan for Victor’s escape.

When it comes time to carry out the plan, Rick gets Louie, against his will, to drive him, Ilsa and Victor to the airport. At the airport, Rick tells Victor that Ilsa had agreed to stay with him but that he couldn’t let her. Here, Rick gives one of the most memorable speeches in the history of cinema, telling Ilsa that what happens between them is nothing compared to what is happening to the world, how important Victor’s role is to it and making her understand that not only does Victor need her, but she would someday regret not getting on the plane with her husband. When Strasser arrives at the airport and tries to stop the plane from leaving, Rick shoots him, ensuring the escape of Ilsa and Victor. He and Louie, who knows he would face reciprocity for allowing Victor to escape, then walk off into the mist to join the fight against the Nazis.

One more thing about Casablanca: It contains one of the most unusual battles in motion picture history. Strasser, in Rick’s nightclub, has commandeered Sam’s piano and is leading a group of Nazis in loudly singing a German song, much to the consternation of the rest of the nightclub attendees. Victor Lazlo then rises and, with Rick’s approval, leads the rest of the people in the nightclub, even the French woman who keeps company with Nazi soldiers, in singing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” The Lazlo-led singers soon drown out the Strasser-led group, winning the battle of the vocalists.

Leonidas and the Spartans of 300 held off the Persian Army for several days in 480 B.C. in what has to be considered one of the greatest – if not the greatest – last stand in history. For several days, this group of warriors defended to the death of the last man a narrow pass that blocked the Persian advance to Sparta and the rest of Greece before they were betrayed by a Greek named Ephialtes, who showed the Persians another route into Greece that allowed Xerxes’ army to get behind the Spartans and wipe them out. But by delaying the Persians, the 300 allowed the rest of Greece to consolidate its other fighting forces, which would eventually frustrate Xerxes’ plans for conquest and keep the Greek democracy alive.

In these three movies, the call of duty – and honor – led Will Kane, Rick Blaine and 300 Spartans to step up and face dangerous circumstances not of their choosing. But they all knew someone had to face those circumstances, regardless of the consequences for the individuals involved. That requires a kind of selflessness that we, as a country, are thought to possess – just ask the families of military personnel, police officers, firefighters, and the passengers aboard United Flight 93, who on Sept 11, 2001, overwhelmed the highjackers of their plane as it crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside rather that somewhere in Washington D.C., as the highjackers intended. When needed, the United States has always risen to the occasion – and, hopefully, always will.

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