Warner Bros. has released a 1959 Technicolor Western, The Hanging Tree, starring Gary Cooper in high definition, nearly sixty years after the film’s release and Cooper’s death. Snatching it up to cover for #TBT, I grabbed some sandwiches and headed to a retirees’ house for a lunch date. I was astonished to find that this couple had never seen this Cooper masterpiece, given that High Noon is just one of the westerns that highlight his repertoire. Hoagies in hand, we dove into this tale of Western hustling, violence, justice, and ultimately redemption.
In an 1870s Montana gold mining community, Dr. Joseph Frail (Cooper) quickly becomes a lightning rod for public opinion. To some, he’s the medical savior; to others, Frail’s involvement in the life of the town is troubling and off-putting. To a few others, his image is more complicated. For Rune (Ben Piazza), a gold thief who Frail saves from a gunshot wound (and a hanging), and Elizabeth (Maria Schell), an immigrant left for dead in the wilderness outside of camp who he nurses back to life, Frail is salvation but also maddening order and criticism.
In the midst of all this, George C. Scott’s faith healer Dr. Grubb stirs up trouble in the name of religion against Frail, while the outside observer can see that Frail’s matter-of-fact cures cut into Grubb’s profit from hocum remedies. [Aside number one: I’ll momentarily note that the back of Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray calls Grubb a “hellfire preacher,” even though he rarely preaches – and only incites.] Somehow, Grubb’s words hold power in the town, much like the nefarious/mental gold miner Frenchy (Karl Malden), who stirs up periodic outbursts against Frail. [Another aside: Malden’s bulbous nose nearly convinces us that the evil desires bubbling just below the surface are harmless, until they’re not. And the film thrills and terrifies us with the implication rather than today’s obsession with over-the-top gratuitousness.] It’s clear from the dangerous elements simmering in this town that Frail is order out of chaos, but he’s up against a violent, unruly sprawl of western expansion.
And still, the more interesting elements of The Hanging Tree come from the personalities within Frail, Rune, and Elizabeth. Each has their dark secrets, their insecurities and strengths. They are jockeying for position with each other, even while somehow recognizing that their viewpoints are more similar than the mob in the mining community below. Could there be love and family? Maybe. Could this experiment in community explode or dissolve in the face of the mob mentality below? Absolutely.
While film explores the mob mentality in a way that can be maddening, there’s a deeper thread about the way that Frail’s past haunts him and drives him to the points it does in service of Rune and Elizabeth. It’s a pay-it-forward/redemption strain where the moral ethics, and some unspoken code, drives him to do better and be better than he’s been before. We’re held captive in director Delmer Davies’ spell, wondering if the trio of more saintly souls has the capability to strengthen each other against the rising tide. All of it culminates in the foreboding that’s been promised from the opening, almost lackadaisical shots of that darkest of images, the hanging tree.