A band of vigilantes catch Jed Cooper and, incorrectly believing him guilty of cattle rustling and murder, hang him and leave him for dead. But he doesn't die. He returns to his former profession of lawman to hunt down his lynchers and bring them to justice.
Clint Eastwood ... Marshal Jed Cooper
Inger Stevens ... Rachel Warren
Ed Begley ... Captain Wilson, Cooper Hanging Party
Pat Hingle ... Judge Adam Fenton
Ben Johnson ... Marshal Dave Bliss
Charles McGraw ... Sheriff Ray Calhoun, Red Creek
Ruth White ... Madame 'Peaches' Sophie
Bruce Dern ... Miller, One of the 3 rustlers, and murderer
Alan Hale Jr. ... Matt Stone, Cooper Hanging Party
Arlene Golonka ... Jennifer, the Prostitute
James Westerfield ... Prisoner
Dennis Hopper ... The Prophet
L.Q. Jones ... Loomis, Cooper Hanging Party
Michael O'Sullivan ... Francis Elroy Duffy, Prisoner
Joseph Sirola ... Reno, Cooper Hanging Party
This was Clint Eastwood's American Western debut that I had never really seen all the way through until now. At first I thought it would be another ride 'em high, cowboys n' indians flick that was popular in America those days... before Sergio Leone shook the genre down to its raw and merciless possibilities.
The film was pretty good, and the moral undercurrent of justice "by a dirty rope on the plain, or a judge in a robe standing before the American flag" is rather striking. The Federal judge is by far one of the most interesting characters I have seen yet in a Western.
Indeed, the grittiest and most barbaric scene is not the lynching of an innocent man, but the public hanging on the eve of statehood... to prove that Oklahoma Territory executed the sort of justice required of a "civilized" state of the Union. It is made a public spectacle with beautiful hymns and cold beer. And just the way each of the condemned faces his execution is tongue in cheek.
Then there was the campfire scene where Captain Wilson confers with his employees regarding their options: irony, fear and desperation. They put a human face on their culpability, similiarly echoed decades later by Little Bill's "I don't deserve this, I was building house." And the few who chose not to run chose a desperate and violent option.
A dillemic "no one wins" justice spiralling into graphic violence... and ultimately an undiginified and graceless death. What was perfected into poignant brevity by Unforgiven was born in Hang Em High's exploration of two men's differing approaches to an unforgiving justice... a justice that led either to the end of a noose, or the end of a gun.
Clint Eastwood's most underrated film, Hang 'Em High is a throughly enjoyable movie. It has the feel of a John Wayne western, as opposed to the spaghetti western formula in which Eastwood with Sergio Leone combined so magnificently with each other in the Dollars trilogy.
Eastwood gives a very worthy performance as Marshall Jed Cooper. The central dilemma of having to operate within the law in conflict with his own personal view of justice is executed very well by Eastwood. On the whole, Eastwood's performance is certainly a strong point of the film and a great performance in its own right.
The storyline itself is relatively well structured with interesting elements relating to the law and the justice system. However, a rather pointless, rushed and half baked romantic subplot by Inger Stevens (who is sadly woefully out of her acting league alongside Eastwood) adds nothing to the story and becomes rather annoying on repeat viewings.
However, special mention must go to both Pat Hingle and Ed Begley who both give some excellent performances, perhaps even superior to Eastwood himself.
Hang 'Em High is a great Eastwood western, provided you don't expect something magical like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly or Unforgiven. Entertaining and more complex than you would expect but sadly, greatly underestimated. Every Eastwood fan should at least give it a chance.
Overall I give it a solid and well deserved 8/10. Be sure to get a copy of this hidden gem.
"Hang 'Em High" is a fictionalized account of Hangin' Judge Parker's court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Judge Parker had jurisdiction over a large chunk of Indian Territory (Oklahoma today). The house of ill repute in the film is a fictionalized version of Miss Laura's Social Club which still stands in Fort Smith and has the dubious distinction of being the only whore house on the National Register of Historic Places. In the movie, Fort Smith becomes Fort Grant but a few of the place names used are actual names of towns nearby, such as Alma, Arkansas, and Poteau, Oklahoma. The river in "Hang 'Em High" is too small (even before the locks and dams) to be the Arkansas River but could stand in for the Poteau River; the confluence of the two rivers occurs at Belle Point in Fort Smith. Most of the movie was shot in California and New Mexico (certainly not eastern Oklahoma) but the scenes of the gallows and the judge's court and office look very much like Judge Parker's Court in Fort Smith that is also on the National Register of Historic Places. If not actually filmed there, then the producer and director did an excellent job recreating it as a set. Even the dungeon jail is correct.
This was Clint Eastwood's first American western following his triumph in Sergio Leone's spaghetti western trilogy. Eastwood wanted Leone to direct this one but he was already committed to another project. From what I read neither Eastwood nor director Ted Post worked well with the producer/writer Leonard Freeman.
"Hang 'Em High" starts out with a bang, a lynching that backfires. To show the audience that Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) is a good guy, Cooper rescues a calf from drowning. This ploy was later used in "Tombstone" when Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), on his first appearance on screen, aids a horse that is being mistreated. Wyatt gives the perpetrator a taste of his own medicine reprimanding him, "Hurts, don't it?" Veteran actor Ben Johnson, who was from Oklahoma, happens on the scene while Cooper is still dangling, cuts him free, then throws him into the "tumbleweed wagon" full of thieves and cut throats bound for Fort Grant and justice. After lingering in the dungeon jail awhile, the judge clears Cooper and makes him a federal Marshall, warning him to bring the nine men in who attempted to hang him, but bring them in alive. The rest of the film deals with Cooper rounding up the nine plus a few other killers along the way. There is also emphasis on the different interpretation of justice by Cooper, a former lawman, and the judge. This leads to several dramatic confrontations. There is a parallel story of a search for justice by Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens)who falls for Cooper and visa versa. They have a thirst for vengeance in common.
Much of the movie is fiction, but parts are based on history. The circus atmosphere that accompanied the public hangings in Fort Smith during Judge Parker's rule is shown basically as it has been reported. There were vendors present, hawking all types of goods and goodies. Children wandered around with or without their parents. The fathers would sometimes place their children on their shoulders so the tads could get a better view of the executions. And there were multiple hangings recorded, similar to the one in the film.
The viewer may enjoy seeing a lot of familiar faces in the cast. Veteran actor Bob Steele plays Old Man Jenkins, a member of the lynching party. Bruce Dern is as ornery as they come. He is not only a member of the lynching party but a cold-blooded killer as well. Alan Hale, Jr. (The Skipper to his Little Buddy), one of the lynching party, is a blacksmith who seems apathetic to the incident. Dennis Hopper has what could be labeled a billed cameo role. The viewer barely sees his face at all. L.Q. Jones is a member of the lynching party turning in his usual fine performance. Charles McGraw plays the sheriff of Red Creek (possibly Garrison Creek, which today is Roland, Oklahoma) who has a back problem--or is it a spine problem? James MacArthur makes a solemn preacher extracting final confessions from the condemned.
Pat Hingle portrays the hanging judge in fairly realistic terms. The real hanging judge never watched the condemned swing. Judge Adam Fenton not only watches but nods to the hangmen when to pull the lever. The masterful Ed Begley is the vicious leader of the lynching party who is determined to make amends for his botched hanging of Cooper by hanging him even higher next time. The lovely and sexy Inger Stevens turns in a winning performance as a supplement to Cooper's vengeance. And Clint Eastwood, well, he's Clint Eastwood. Need I say more?
# Sergio Leone was approached to direct this film, but he turned it down since he was working on C'era una volta il West (1968) at the time.
# The first film produced by Clint Eastwood's Malpaso Company.
# Reportedly, producer Leonard Freeman clashed with director Ted Post during production. One day Freeman showed up on the set, issuing orders and taking charge. Post wanted to confront him, but Clint Eastwood intervened. Eastwood spoke to Freeman, and Freeman left the set and didn't return. What he said was, "If you show up on this set again, there won't be a set ... won't be a cast, won't be a crew."