THE HANGING TREE. Warner Brothers, 1959. Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg, with Ben Piazza as Rune. Screenplay: Wendell Mayes & Halstead Welles, based on the novella by Dorothy Johnson. Music by Max Steiner. Title song sung by Marty Robbins. Directed by Delmer Daves and (uncredited) Karl Malden.
The Hanging Tree was Gary Cooper’s last western other than the documentary The Real West, and appropriately it is one of the best of his career, and one of the best of the 1950‘s, the golden age of the Hollywood Western. It’s based on the novella by Dorothy Johnson (A Man Called Horse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), or it was supposed to be directed by Daves until he fell ill and Gary Cooper, whose company was also producing the film, asked Karl Malden to take the helm. It proved a remarkable collaboration and the start of a friendship and mutual admiration society that lasted until Cooper’s death.
Like most good westerns the story is simple, Doctor Joe Frail follows the 1873 Montana Gold Trail to a small mining community, mostly tents and mud, where he sets up practice. When a boy, Rune (Ben Piazza) is shot for stealing from a sluice Frail saves him and makes him his bondsman, a virtual slave, blackmailing him with the bullet that proves he was the sluice thief.
It’s a rough little town not improved by glad-handing backstabbing miner Frenchy (Karl Malden) who knows Doc Frail from another mining camp, knows how fast he is, and about the fire Frail may have set that burned his wife and her lover alive.
This is a very adult adult western.
When Frail wins a gold claim from gambler Society Red (John Dierkes) all seems set, and no one much listens to Grubb (George C. Scott) a fanatic faith healer who hates Frail and knows his history. There is only one element left, and that arrives when the stagecoach is held up and the horses panic. Everyone dies but a young woman who suffers severe wounds and exposure, Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a Swiss immigrant come west with her now dead father.
Frenchy finds her and feels a proprietary interest in her, as well as undressing her with every lewd look. Frenchy has other bad habits than backstabbing. But Doc takes on her care with young Rune, and while Doc seems a hard man there are signs he is more than that. Frankly Rune just can’t read him and neither can Elizabeth: a man with secrets like he carries becomes remote, even his name is false. He took the name Frail because he figured all men were frail and he was the frailest.
When Elizabeth is well she tires of Frail’s bossiness, especially when he tells her he is sending her back to Switzerland because he can’t live near her. She runs away, Rune rebels, and Doc secretly backs them through store owner Tom Flaunce (Karl Swenson), the only decent man in this little mud hole Sodom of the west despite his shrewish wife, Edna (Virginia Gregg).
Backed by Doc Elizabeth and Rune team with Frenchy who knows gold digging though he isn’t very good at it, and though they find nothing Doc keeps backing them whenever they need money.
When a rainstorm fells a tree on their claim they find the glory hole, a vein of nuggets in the roots of the tree and beneath. Now they are rich and rush to town to celebrate.
But Frenchy hasn’t forgotten Elizabeth and when he tries to rape her, Doc arrives just in time and kills him. No, that’s an understatement, because in one of the most brutal scenes in any American western of its era, Cooper empties his gun into the fleeing Frenchy, who dies at the edge of a cliff, and Doc then kicks his corpse over.
The grim Frail as he coolly walks down the pleading running Frenchy putting bullet after bullet in him is a scene you won’t soon forget. Perhaps only Cooper’s brutal beating of Jack Lord in Man of the West and throwing Cameron Mitchell into the fire in Garden of Evil come anywhere near it. And, I’m little ashamed to admit it, it is a very satisfying scene as well, Malden is always a very killable bad guy.
Grubb and Society Red and a group of drunken miners drag Frail to the hanging tree to lynch him, and have the rope on his neck and Grubb at the horse’s reins when Elizabeth and Rune arrive and buy his life at the cost of their claim. As the drunken miners battle over the claim Rune frees Frail and Elizabeth turns to leave but Frail calls her back and kneels in the buckboard to embrace her. Fade to the Marty Robbins theme. He literally found his love at the hanging tree.
The Hanging Tree has more than enough virtues and might be Cooper’s best if not for High Noon. Frail is a complex character who is never just a hero, just a good man, just misunderstood. Life and fate have bred a rattlesnake mean streak in him and it is clear he fears it though he fights it more successfully than he knows.
It is not until he comes clean that the viewer knows for certain he did not set than fatal fire. Malden, fresh off his Oscar, is quite good as Frenchy, but as a director he is a revelation. This film is as well directed as any major western of the era, a worthy rival for Ford, Mann, Hawks, Daves, or any of the other iconic Western directors. IMDb says he finished the film, but Daves became sick early, and Malden directed the bulk of the film
Ben Piazza as Rune is a little lost in this cast of veterans, but not badly lost, and Schell is fine in a tough no nonsense non-glamorous role that is both physically and emotionally demanding. And then there is that New York actor making his Hollywood debut on screen, George C. Scott. He has only a little time on screen, but he makes the most of every scene as the fanatic, cowardly, venal, murderous Grubb. If he had never done anything else you would remember him from this. I did for years, though I didn’t really know who he was or connect the star of television’s East Side, West Side with the part.
But like almost any film he is in this is Gary Cooper’s film and there is never a moment you don’t know it, whether he is on screen or not. I recall seeing this on the big screen (it was the debut of Technirama) and being bowled over by Cooper. He’s still impressive on the small screen though in this one, Malden seems to have staged it to shoot Cooper from a lower angle making him seem even taller and more commanding than he was to begin with.
The Max Steiner score is fine, and surprisingly, considering the title, the Marty Robbins theme song turns out to be one of the best of the era and one of the best western themes ever. “To really live/ You must almost die …” proves haunting if you may not want to think about it too much and “I found my love at the hanging tree” is a tough lyric to pull off even in a western song but Robbins succeeds.
Brian Garfield suggested they should have stopped making westerns when Cooper died and this should have been the last of its kind. I don’t know that I agree with him, but his point is well taken. In many ways this is the last and one of the best of its breed. Screen westerns never really reached this height again; in my opinion, they were never this good again, not at this level. Whatever Cooper brought to the western, went with him.
If you have never seen this one then find it. It shows up on TCM now once in a while and is available from the Warner’s Archives to own or watch on line if you are a subscriber. You can also listen to the Marty Robbins song and see the titles and end scene on YouTube.
This is quite simply one of the best westerns of the 1950‘s and one of Gary Cooper’s best westerns, which makes it one of the best westerns ever made.