What "High Noon" and "Casablanca" Can Teach Us About Struggle

In a post earlier this summer, "Struggle and the Battle for Imagination," I argued that art and story-telling can play a pivotal role in helping to reframe struggle as something positive. I suggested that, given the disorders of our cultural situation, what is required is a type of "imaginative apologetics" that leverages the power of art to reorder human affection.

To be sure, art is often invoked in the discourse on struggle, yet often on the wrong side of the debate. For example, much contemporary country music presents a struggle-free life as the summum bonum of existence, pandering to a life of ease and self-gratification. Despite the latest scientific research showing that a certain degree of hardship is actually good for us, and that we are more fulfilled when we sacrifice ourselves for others, the media often presents a different message. For example, movies like the 2010 hit Eat Pray Love, promote a life of utter selfishness as truly therapeutic and fulfilling. More recently, the movie Barbie culminates, not in the main character maturing from girlhood to womanhood, but in finding order in the self-centered independence of perpetual immaturity (see Annie Crawford's article "Existential Barbie.")

However, many contemporary novels and movies do inspire us with the glory of appropriate struggle and even hardship. Attention to these novels and movies offers an opportunity to push back against the cult of self-gratification. In this article, however, I will not be exploring contemporary film and literature, but two movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood that do a particularly good job portraying the beauty of struggle.

High Noon: The Glory of Struggle

The first movie I'd like to discuss is the 1952 film High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The film opens on the morning of Marshal Will Kane’s wedding to Amy Fowler, who is a Quaker. Because a new marshal will be arriving in town the next day, and because of the pacifist convictions of his bride, Kane hands in his badge and gun, planning to start a new life as a shop owner. But as the couple is preparing to leave town, word reaches Kane that the vicious outlaw, Frank Miller, is on his way to town on the noon train, and that Miller’s old gang have congregated at the station to wait for him. 

Miller had been sent to prison some years earlier when Kane was cleaning up the town. But while serving time in prison, Miller vowed to avenge himself on Kane. Knowing that Miller’s quarrel is with Kane alone, and that a new marshal will be arriving the next day, the townspeople hustle the new bride and groom out of town. But a sense of duty calls Kane back to defend himself and the town against the coming threat. He expects his friends in the town to stand by him and help, yet one by one they desert him until Kane is left to face the entire gang all by himself.

Cooper does an amazing job playing Kane. He has none of the bravado or fearlessness of someone like Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies, or Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible remakes. Unlike the macho man trope, where a hero never shows the fear and vulnerability that is a precondition to courage, Marshal Kane is genuinely scared. Yet this very fear becomes the birthplace of authentic courage. 

Whereas in contemporary tough-guy movies it is usually the outcome that is rewarding, in High Noon it is the struggle itself that we find rewarding, exhilarating, and glorious.

Casablanca: The Beauty of Self-Sacrifice 

Another film that offers a positive valuation on struggle is the 1942 movie Casablanca. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, it tells the story of American expatriate Rick Blaine, who operates an American style nightclub in the North African city of Casablanca during WWII. Amid the political tensions and intrigues of the Vichy-controlled city, Rick walks a fine line of neutrality, cynically declaring that he cares for no one except himself. Yet through flashbacks, we learn that Rick once did care for someone, a woman named Ilsa Lund that he met in Paris before its occupation by the Nazis. Rick and Ilsa had a whirlwind romance until, on the eve of their escape from impending occupation, Ilsa mysteriously disappeared, leaving a note declaring that she was finished with the relationship. Confused and heart-broken, Rick became transformed into the selfish, cynical nightclub owner we find in Casablanca.

Rick’s life becomes disrupted when Czechoslovakian resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, enters Rick’s cafe with his wife, who is none other than Rick’s former lover, Ilsa. Assuming that Ilsa ditched him for Laszlo, Rick refuses to help the pair escape to the west even though it lies within his power to do so. But as Ilsa and Rick have the opportunity to interact, their old love is rekindled, and Ilsa explains what really happened when she mysteriously abandoned him in Paris. When she had fallen in love with Rick, she had believed her husband, Laszlo, was dead, yet she could say nothing about him to Rick since her role in the resistance had to remain secret. However, on the eve of her planned departure with Rick, Ilsa received word that Laszlo was alive and in hiding waiting for her.

The more they interact, the more Rick and Ilsa’s love is rekindled, until she declares she cannot leave him again, and they make plans to escape to freedom in the West. It is easy to root for the success of their relationship because Ilsa shares a bond with Rick far deeper than anything she feels toward her husband, despite the fact that Laszlo is a good man. Rick risks his life to organize a daring escape, yet at the last minute it becomes clear that his plan is for Ilsa to escape with her lawful husband, while Rick will stay behind to face the consequences.

One of the reasons I think Casablanca resonates with audiences throughout the decades is because it shows that the struggle to live sacrificially is ultimately more exciting and romantic than the “follow your heart” trope in so much contemporary film. As we watch Humphrey Bogart transformed from a self-serving cynic to a sacrificial hero, something deep within us soars. We come away from watching a film like Casablanca with a fresh enthusiasm to embrace our own struggles, and to throw ourselves fully into the life of virtue.

Timely and Timeless 

High Noon and Casablanca show that art and storytelling can be a powerful tool in retraining our affections. Even though these movies do not have explicit Christian content, they offer a type of imaginative apologetics by portraying virtue as lovely, and showing how beautiful it is to perform one's duty when faced with pressure to follow the path of least resistence. During a cultural moment when so much art and music disorders our affections by pandering to a life of ease and comfort, these movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood offer a timely and timeless antidote.

Further Reading

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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