Why remake a classic western like Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon"? After all, who could hold a candle to Gary Cooper as Will Kane, the sheriff deserted by the town he saved from the chaos of crime?
Well, a TV remake (TBS, Sunday, Aug. 20, 8-10 p.m., repeated Saturday, Aug. 26, 8:05 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 2, 4:05 p.m.), turns out to be well worth seeing. Even if it's not quite perfect, this new version of High Noon leans heavily in that direction. Like a revival of a great play, it can and does pack universal messages.
But then the new screenplay, updated intelligently by T.S. Cook ("The China Syndrome") and Carl Foreman, follows fairly closely the 1952 original by Foreman. And that's really why the new version works as well as it does.
The story is about an honorable man who stands against evil, while all around him cower. The morning that Sheriff Kane (Tom Skerritt) marries a young Quaker woman, he learns that a sociopath he had once arrested has been pardoned and is returning to town on the noon train.
Kane realizes that he must face down Frank Miller (the appropriately menacing Michael Madsen), who has sworn to kill him, and tries to enlist the community's support. But each and every good citizen has his reasons for refusing to stand up with the sheriff.
Kane's new bride (played persuasively by Susanna Thompson), has genuine religious reasons for eschewing violence. She pleads with Kane to run. But Kane's sense of honor and duty are greater than his growing skepticism about the town.
What fans of the original will miss is Dimitri Tiomkin's driving soundtrack that made the approach of the noon train so intimidating - the suspense was powerful, and it is utterly lacking here. Then, too, this version is not so tough on the town as the original, nor so revealing of Kane's strength of mind.
Mr. Skerritt may not have Gary Cooper's quiet intensity or emotional range, but he brings his own brand of thoughtful restraint to the role. As in the theater, a different performer brings out different nuances in the character and in the story.
"As a kid I loved the film," Skerritt says. "It made quite an impression about what I came to recognize as principle and accepting responsibility for what you may have set in motion. This is a pretty severe situation [for Kane], maybe confronting his demise. He can leave with this beautiful wife. But he realizes they'd be alone in the wilderness and that the gunmen will come after them.
"These guys are crazy. He has no choice but to go back, for her sake, for his sake, for the town's sake, for the sake of principle."
Skerritt is aware that some critics will question his taking on Gary Cooper's respected role.
"At the core of the story - sticking to principle, recognizing your responsibility in the face of adversity and facing up to that - that's something I've had to do in my own life.
"And I certainly can relate to that material - so it doesn't become for me a comparison to something Gary Cooper did."
In Cooper's day, the film was controversial - some critics thought it was an attack on McCarthyism.
But now, Skerritt says, what's most relevant is the idea of shouldering one's own part of the responsibility for a free society.
The best westerns (before revisionist films like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Little Big Man," and the like) had a mythic dimension.
Even though "High Noon" cast the western town as rotten, when it was largely a symbol of a promising civilization in most other westerns, the figure of Will Kane is a true western hero. He is courteous to women, wise, physically and morally courageous, accomplished with the tools of his trade, and loyal to his town (however unworthy it is).
Kane is a knight transplanted to the Old West, and those qualities he possesses are still admirable. That's why his story still works for us.
While history was re-imagined by films like "High Noon" that made myths of the Old West, This Week in History (History Channel, Fridays, 9-10 p.m.) is out to clear up historical myths of all kinds.
The fascinating new series, which began last Friday, takes a kind of magazine format - jumping about in the past during a given seven days.
Says executive vice president and general manager of the History Channel, Abbe Raven, "We wanted to do it as an in-house production so it would have the History Channel stamp on it.
"We used the conceptual idea of the calendar - this week in history - but we also wanted to put a face on history. These are personal stories that have a connection to all of us personally."
The show, which will run 52 weeks a year, tracks down rare archival footage and rare eyewitness interviews - like the man who actually drew the line with paint between East and West Berlin just before the Wall went up.
Ms. Raven points out that it's part of the channel's mission to track down eyewitnesses, thereby contributing to the collection of oral history.
"We also felt this could be a signature series for the network," she says. "[It's] chock full of entertaining information folks could talk about at the water cooler at work.... There is really a face to every story."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society