Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Into the West: The Hanging Tree--A Harbinger of Hope

As Marty Robbins sings the foreshadowing lyrics of The Hanging Tree, Joseph “Doc” Frail (Gary Cooper) rides into a small Montana gold mining town, laden with sluices and poor, yet hopeful, townspeople. As Frail stops for a moment to regard a large malformed tree, another settler remarks that a “hanging tree” makes a town seem respectable.

The same could be said for having a real physician in this make-shift town (in lieu of a self-proclaimed healer named Grubb). On the surface, Doc Frail fits the bill. When a young girl’s illness turns out to be nothing but malnutrition, Frail loans the poor family his cow to provide milk. His only payment: a kiss on the check from his young patient.

But there’s a dark side to this quiet physician that wears his holster like a gunfighter. There are rumors about his past involving a man and a woman killed when a house burned to the ground. There’s also his treatment of Rune (Ben Piazza), a young man shot while trying to rob a sluice. Frail saves the embittered young man’s life, only to make him work as his bond-servant for payment—threatening to turn over the bullet he removed as evidence.

When a stagecoach is robbed, the townspeople divide into groups to look for its crew and passengers. They agree to fire two shots if someone has been found dead and three shots if alive. Karl Malden plays the sleazy prospector Frenchy, who finds the only survivor: an attractive young woman named Elizabeth (Maria Schell), who has been badly sunburned and temporarily blinded. Frenchy fires twice, waits for dramatic effect, and then fires a third shot in the air with a sly smirk on his face. This sets the tone for Frenchy’s questionable character, which comes into play again.

As Elizabeth recovers under the care of Doc Frail, she, Rune, and Frail form something of a modern family—complete with the usual frictions. The “father” has trouble expressing his emotions. The “son” thinks he hates his strict father. The “mother” tries to make peace between the two of them. Still, it’s a functional unit until Frail’s stubbornness—and perhaps guilt from the past—breaks up the family.

The Hanging Tree shares many similarities with the great Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns like Winchester ’73, The Far Country, and Bend of the River. The hero is a man with a questionable past who is given another chance at life. In the Mann-Stewart films, the heroes are often redeemed by communities (as in Far Country and Bend of the River). In The Hanging Tree, redemption comes in the form of a woman’s love and, to an extent, a boy’s respect for his father figure.

The Hanging Tree is also a well-developed portrait of a community that exists solely because of the gold mines. There are no elaborate saloons with musical performers as in many Westerns. The “town” is littered with make-shift buildings and tents filled with prostitutes and self-serving men like Grubb. As in Mann’s Westerns, the townspeople are an important part of the overall fabric of the film. They are sketched in carefully crafted vignettes where we get to know the kindly storekeeper, his suspicious wife, the vengeful gambler, etc.

Yet, while it plays like an Anthony Mann picture, The Hanging Tree is a testament to its underappreciated director, Delmer Daves. A graduate of Stanford University’s law school, Daves broke into the movie business as a highly-successful screenwriter, working on the scripts of The Petrified Forest, An Affair to Remember, and many others. As a writer and later director, he proved capable of making great films in almost any genre. Who else could take credit for making a war film with Cary Grant and John Garfield, a film noir with Edward G. Robinson, and a big screen soap with Troy Donahue? What Daves brought to all those films—and The Hanging Tree—was strong story-telling and an eye for great visuals. (He also seemed to have a knack for working with great composers like Max Steiner.)

The cast of The Hanging Tree is impeccable, led by Cooper’s simmering restraint and Maria Schell’s understated charm. George C. Scott, in his first film role, makes a strong impression in his brief scenes as Grubb. Karl Malden shows his versatility once again, revealing Frenchy’s sliminess in subtle layers.

There are plenty of Westerns with great title songs, such as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and 3:10 to Yuma. My favorite, though, is the Oscar-nominated The Hanging Tree, which was written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David. It nicely summarizes the moral of this Western tale: that “to really live, you must almost die” and “when a man is gone, he needs no gold.”

The Hanging Tree is a Western without shootouts at the bar, although guns point the way to life and death. It is a story of survival in challenging times, where sometimes you have to lend a hand, regardless of the cost. And where, in the end, family and love are more important than a lifetime of riches.


  1. It's great to see another review of yours, toto. I haven't seen many Westerns, so I feel like I've been unable to post many comments on the wonderful write-ups this month. But this film I have seen, and your post is superb. I, too, love the title song. It's a perfect way to open such a movie, slow and soothing, but strong. Toto, I hope your write-up encourages anyone who hasn't seen this film to grab a copy as soon as possible! Thank you for sharing it with us. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go hang my dreams on the hangin' tree.

  2. Toto, this was a wonderful review of one of my all-time favorite Westerns! I agree that it shares several similarities with the Anthony Mann Westerns (including MAN OF THE WEST, also with Cooper). That said, I don’t think Mann could have done a better job than Daves. The visual of the three leads at the hanging tree is just awesome! One of my favorite scenes is when someone explains to Rune that Joe Frail isn’t really the good doctor’s name. He took it because “hope was frail” (or something like that). I agree that the title tune warbled by Marty Robbins is a classic, but I also love the superb Max Steiner score. Great pick for our Western month.

  3. Toto, I have to admit this is one western I have not seen, your post makes me want to correct that. Thanks

  4. Toto, this movie sounds very familiar to me, but I'm not so sure I've seen it. However, your review has encouraged me to watch it again. Great review.

  5. Toto, Loved reading your review. I do not think I have seen, The Hanging Tree. It sounds like a really good movie.

  6. This looks like a great one. And Marty Robbins singing the theme song? Awesome.

  7. Thank you, all, for your encouraging comments! I hope that one day, Paul, Kim, Dawn, and Tom, you are all able to see "The Hanging Tree." I thought that Rick would like this choice. And I am tickled that you enjoy this selection, too, Sark. It is an interesting thought for one to hang one's (faded) dreams on the hanging tree.

  8. excellent review toto, I just saw the hanging tree tonight for the first time. The problem was trying to locate it, I guess this one has not been released on dvd yet and people want to gouge you for a used vhs. This movie ranks on my top 10 westerns of all time, and I just love Gary Cooper. For those of you who haven't seen it, you are missing out, take the time to watch it.

  9. Thank you, Anonymous, for sharing your experience. I know what you mean about trying to find copies of movies and TV shows not yet available on DVD. I am glad you persevered and were able to enjoy "The Hanging Tree."

  10. Thank you for bringing this amazingly wonderful movie to light. The cinematography is magnificent, actors so real and perhaps most of all, a believable story. Without exaggeration, or fistfights, shootouts, or subjugation of women!