Francis P. DeStefano
Francis P. DeStefano is a long-time subscriber to the St. Croix Review. He holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Periodically, my wife and I watch “High Noon,” the great 1952 Western directed by Fred Zinneman that starred the legendary Gary Cooper. Unfortunately, the film lost out in the best picture category that year to “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a circus drama that is virtually unwatchable today.
I call “High Noon” a great film for the simple reason that it can be viewed over and over again, not only with enjoyment but with total involvement. It is not just that repeated viewings bring out things you might have missed originally. It is not the nuances or the background that makes a film great, but the central core, the thing that the director most wanted the viewer to see and know.
Any great story or work of art works in that way. As children when we heard a story like Goldilocks or Red Riding Hood we wanted to hear it over and over again. We knew the characters, what they would do, and how it would end, but every telling seemed new. We know that most great literature works that way also. The Homeric epics were meant to be told repeatedly to audiences who were totally familiar with them. Year after year we can hear in church the stories of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan and be totally engaged.
I can’t say how many times I have seen “High Noon” since I first saw it as a thirteen-year-old back in 1952. In those days we went to the movies practically every Saturday for a double feature with five color cartoons and a newsreel. We must have seen countless Westerns but “High Noon” was something different.
It was, and still is, a gripping, compelling drama of a small town marshal who is forced to confront four vicious killers. I must have sat open mouthed in the darkened theater as one by one the marshal’s friends refused, for various reasons, to come to his assistance. In the end he was left alone on the deserted street of the town to face the killers whose leader was arriving on the noon train.
Gary Cooper, a veritable American icon, played Marshal Kane. Maybe he was a little old for the part, especially since his new bride was played by young and beautiful Grace Kelly in her first major role. Nevertheless, I can’t think of any other actor of that time, or any time, who could have played the role of the abandoned marshal as well. He won a well-deserved Oscar.
Cooper was surrounded by an outstanding cast. Grace Kelly was fine as a young Quaker bride whose wedding to Cooper takes place a few minutes before the news comes of the impending arrival of Frank Miller and his gang. However, Katy Jurado was magnificent as a Mexican woman of the world who had once been Kane’s lover. She won a Golden Globe in 1953 for best supporting actress. I’ll never forget her rebuke to Grace Kelly, whose Quaker principles prevented her from helping her new husband: “What kind of a woman are you?”
Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney, Jr., and a young Harry Morgan were all excellent in supporting roles.
As a young teenager I could not realize that the real stars of the show were Fred Zinneman, the director, and Carl Foreman, the writer. For some reason Zinneman decided to do the film in black and white and omit any colorful Western scenery. The sky is hardly visible in the film and the town seems isolated in a kind of haze. Along with his cameraman, and editor, Zinneman produced a film of incredible pace and tension. It never drags and the tension is heightened by the constant references to clocks ticking in the background as the hands approach high noon.
Carl Foreman’s script was taut, adult, and free of the usual Western clichés. Characters were able to appear as human and many-sided and each had a chance to state his or her case.
Back in 1952 I had no idea of the controversy that surrounded this film and that still crops up in most critical evaluations. I was certainly not aware of Cooper’s womanizing off screen, nor could I have imagined the tragedy that awaited Grace Kelly. I would not have know that Fred Zinneman was an Austrian Jew or wondered why he would make an American Western. Neither was I aware of the investigation spearheaded by the House Un-American Activities Committee to track down Communists in the American film industry.
Carl Foreman had been called before the Committee and admitted that he had been a Communist years before but had become disillusioned with the Party and left. Nevertheless, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and eventually left the country to settle in England. He only returned a couple of years before his death. In a commentary that accompanied the DVD, Foreman’s son said that his father told his own story in High Noon. He felt that he had been deserted by all his former friends and employers in Hollywood and left alone to face his critics.
I’m glad that I didn’t know any of this background information back in 1952, and today, more than 50 years later, I don’t think it matters any more. The film is still a great film. The director, writer, cameraman, editor, and cast all came together to make a work of art that transcended their personal lives and politics.
I should not fail to mention the haunting ballad, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling” that was sung by Tex Ritter and that provides most of the musical background. How could a film that includes these lyrics be un-American?
“I do not know what fate awaits me.
I only know I must be brave.
For I must face a man who hates me,
Or lie a coward, a craven coward;
Or lie a coward in my grave.” *
The Spanish Inquisition
Francis P. DeStefano
Francis P. DeStefano holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Editor’s Note: Francis P. DeStefano is one of our subscribers — and we hope he continues to send us essays. We do encourage our subscribers to submit essays for publication, because we know we have an exceptionally well-educated and patriotic subscribership.
The Spanish Inquisition has become a code word for human cruelty and injustice. During his term even President Obama equated the Inquisition with the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS Moslem fanatics in devastated Iraq.
Some years ago I pored through Benzion Netanyahu’s massive study of the Spanish Inquisition. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it is because he was the father of Bibi Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel. Although Benzion Netanyahu took a leading role in the founding of the State of Israel, he will perhaps be best remembered as a great scholar. His field of study was the Spanish Inquisition and his masterpiece, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, revolutionized the study of the subject.
Few people understand that the Inquisition in Spain was not directed against Jews in Spain but against Christians. The Inquisition had no authority to persecute or even investigate the Jewish population. It was specifically chartered to deal with popular charges leveled against Christians of Jewish ancestry and their families who had converted to Christianity. These converts were known as “conversos,” and there were elements in all levels of Spanish society who suspected that the conversos were not sincere Christians, even if their families had converted more than a century before.
Periodically charges were made that the conversos had only converted to gain political or financial advantage. Indeed, they were often suspected of adhering to their Jewish beliefs and practices in secret, and even working to undermine Christian society. Some regarded them as a kind of “fifth column” in the struggle against the Moslem Kingdom of Granada.
It is true that many of the conversos had prospered during the century before the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. Some had risen to high places in the administrations of the various Kings of Castile. Aristocratic grandees who regarded themselves as pure-blooded Christians without any trace of Judaism in their veins were often jealous and contemptuous of these conversos in high places. Among the lower classes it didn’t help the reputation of the conversos that some of them had become tax collectors for the Royal government.
Netanyahu’s 1,000 plus pages demonstrated that the charges leveled against the conversos were false. He marshaled an enormous amount of evidence to show that the conversos were almost always sincere, even dedicated, converts to Christianity. Like many converts, before and after, these converts from Judaism to Christianity in medieval Spain could even be more zealous or committed than the cradle Catholics of the time.
Descendants of conversos often become theologians and clergymen. Some bishops and abbots of famed monasteries could trace their origins to converso forebears. Even Torquemada, the first head of the Inquisition in Castile and a favorite of Queen Isabella, had converso roots.
Nevertheless, in times of political turmoil, military defeat, or economic hardship the conversos were often blamed. Sometimes the charges erupted into mob violence and riots. It was to deal with these charges and riots in very difficult times, that Ferdinand and Isabella sought permission from the Pope to set up an Inquisition in Isabella’s Kingdom of Castile.
The young Isabella had inherited the throne under the most dangerous of circumstances. Castilian grandees or warlords disputed her right and authority. The King of Portugal put up a rival claimant to the throne and launched an invasion of Castile. Once these threats were somewhat subdued, she had to turn her attention to the constant border menace of the Moslem Kingdom of Granada in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.
Islam was a real threat. In 1480 an Islamic naval expedition had landed on the Adriatic coast of Italy and destroyed the city of Otranto. The invaders tortured and killed 12,000 of the 22,000 inhabitants of the city. Every priest was murdered and the Archbishop of Otranto was sawed in two. Those who were not killed were forced to convert or taken into slavery. In Spain there was constant border fighting and raids with Moslem Granada.
It was a time of great peril from both within and without and fear led to the inevitable outcry of charges against the conversos. Isabella established an Inquisition in Spain to deal with the charges directed against the conversos and to unite her country in the war effort. One modern historian has called the Spanish Inquisition “a disciplinary body called into existence to meet a national emergency.”
The word “inquisition” has the same root as the word “inquiry.” The inquisitors were to look into the charges, call witnesses, and take testimony. In its origins the Inquisition resembles the way in which President Obama ordered his Justice department to examine the causes of local unrest and riots in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. An outside body is called in hopefully to fairly and impartially examine the charges and counter-charges in an emotionally charged situation.
The fact that the great, great majority of the conversos accused before the tribunal of the Inquisition were released is a testimony to Netanyahu’s thesis that they were innocent, sincere Christians, and that the charges leveled against them were baseless. Since the publication of Netanyahu’s book, historians have had to alter their perspective on the Inquisition, its methods, and its results.
In many ways the Inquisition represented an enormous improvement in methods of justice prevailing throughout the European and Moslem worlds at the time. The proceedings of the Inquisition were carried out in public and not in secrecy. Its prisons were only temporary detention centers with conditions much better than in local jails. There were no pits with giant swinging razor-sharp pendulums. Torture was rarely used, in contrast to the methods almost universally used in other European and Moslem countries. Even when torture was applied, there was little danger to life and limb.
Studies of the Spanish Inquisition that followed upon the publication of Netanyahu’s masterpiece have shown that the “scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers . . . have little basis in reality,” and that the inquisitors “had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy.” Indeed, as one historian noted: “The proportionally small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal.”
Nevertheless, the Spanish Inquisition has become synonymous with barbaric cruelty and injustice. In the wars of religion that followed upon the Protestant Reformation, a “Black Legend” arose primarily in Protestant England, which found itself involved in a life and death struggle with Catholic Spain. The Black Legend has gained mythical status and is still used as a weapon to batter Spain and the Catholic Church. It was one of the factors behind the hatred engendered in modern history by the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
In one of history’s interesting footnotes, the bitterness and hatred engendered by the Spanish Civil War did not prevent Spain under Generalissimo Franco from standing almost alone in offering sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The Franco government maintained neutrality throughout the war, and insisted that all Jews who could claim Spanish citizenship be given safe conduct back to Spain from Nazi occupied countries. The Franco government even went so far as to offer Spanish citizenship and sanctuary to all Jews who could trace their ancestry back to the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
Benzion Netanyahu’s masterpiece is now recognized by scholars like Joseph Perez and Henry Kamen who have followed his lead. Nevertheless, their findings will probably never eradicate the myths still propagated today. Politicians and ideologues will still continue to grind their axes, as will popular TV shows like Monty Python. Who will ever forget the three red-robed cardinals breaking into someone’s living room shouting, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”? *