Plot: John MacReedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off a train in a tiny, dusty little Western town. It is rare for any stranger to come to the town; it is the first time the train has stopped there in four years. The town residents move from suspicion of the one-armed man in a suit to open hostility when MacReedy enters the local hotel and asks about a local farmer named Komoko. Pete Wirth (John Ericson), the hotel manager, refuses to give him a room, saying they are all booked. When MacReedy takes a key anyway, a bully named Hector David (Lee Marvin) insists that it is his room. MacReedy takes another room. Hector and most of the rest of the town report to Reno (Robert Ryan). When he tells them to push MacReedy without giving him information, they are happy to oblige. But the town doctor (Walter Brennan) tells MacReedy how to get to Komoko’s farm, and Liz Wirth (Anne Francis), Pete’s sister, rents him a jeep to get there. MacReedy finds the farm deserted. Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), another of Reno’s henchmen, chases MacReedy back to town, driving him off the road and slamming into the jeep with his truck.
MacReedy realizes that Reno will never let him get out of town alive. He tries to make a phone call or send a telegram, but Reno has cut him off. When Trimble harasses him at the diner, he refuses to fight, then finally, when Trimble persists, MacReedy devastates him with a karate chop to the neck. That buys him some time, but MacReedy is cornered and he knows it. He persuades Liz Wirth to drive him out of Black Rock. But it is a trap. Reno is waiting for them. As Liz runs to Reno, he shoots her; he no longer trusts her to keep his secret. MacReedy puts the jeep’s leaking gas into a bottle, stuffs it with his tie, lights it, and throws it at Reno, who is killed.
MacReedy had come to Black Rock to give Komoko the medal his son had been awarded by the U.S. Army for heroism. Komoko’s son had saved MacReedy’s life before he was killed in battle. But Komoko was also dead. Reno and his henchmen killed him at the start of World War II because he was Japanese.
The doctor asks MacReedy if he will leave the medal in Black Rock. MacReedy gives it to him, then puts out the flag so that the train will stop in Black Rock again, for the second time in four years.
Discussion: “A man is as big as what makes him mad.” MacReedy says this to Reno in one of this movie’s key scenes, and it is a concept children (and parents) should think about. It is also interesting that Reno killed Komoko after he was found ineligible to enlist in the Army. His hostility toward Komoko was based on displaced of his anger and frustration as much as it was based on racism.
MacReedy did not choose this battle, but he never turns away from it. A man who had no direction, and no goal beyond the presentation of the medal to Komoko, becomes a man who will not allow Reno and his thugs to win. He is fighting them not just for Komoko, but for himself, and in doing so finds a pride and dignity that enables him to go on.
This is a good movie to use for a discussion of prejudice, not just about race, but also about disabilities.
Questions for Kids:
· What does it mean to say, “a man is only as big as what makes him mad?” Think about a time you got mad. How big was the thing that made you mad? How do you measure?
· The people in the town had different reasons for obeying Reno. What were they?
· How did MacReedy change? What did he learn about himself?
Connections: Compare this to “High Noon,” another movie about a lone force for justice. Anne Francis, known to baby boomers as television’s “Honey West,” plays opposite Robby the Robot in the science fiction classic “Forbidden Planet.” In both movies, she is the only woman in the cast.
Interestingly, MacReedy’s handicap, so central to the story, was a last-minute addition in order to make the character challenging enough to attract Tracy to the role.