Eastwood survives lynching, but ‘Hang ’Em High’ leaves me cold

October 2, 2012

Many many (many many) years ago, when I was a student, my college had a film program called Sunday Night Flicks. (Films were also shown with varying frequency on Monday and Tuesday and Thursday nights, but be that as it may.) The movies were a mix of recent hits, usually light fare, and classics.

One of those classics was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the seminal 1996 “Spaghetti Western” directed by Sergio Leone and memorably scored by Ennio Morricone. It was a gritty but humorous adventure film, and — for a few hours, at least — it kindled some interest in me about Westerns.

The star of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, of course, is the iconic actor Clint Eastwood. A celluloid immortal for his performances as a Western white hat and later as Dirty Harry, the violent San Francisco cop, Eastwood has also crafted an impressive career as a director, with 35 films to his credit. (He starred in many but not all of those movies.) Eastwood’s odd ad-libbed speech at this year’s Republican National Convention, of course, also secured the former California mayor a permanent footnote in the annals of American politics. 

But that’s a post for some other blog. In a recent canvass of second-hand bookstores, I came across a Clint Eastwood Western twofer DVD and snapped it up. The first of the films that I watched on the disc was a 1968 Eastwood picture I had never seen before, Hang ’Em High. (In truth, I’ve seen very few of his movies.)

Eastwood stars here as cowboy Jed Cooper, who has just driven a newly purchased herd of cattle across a river when he is accosted by a posse. They accuse him of killing the cattle’s rightful owner and rustling the herd; Cooper, a former lawman, protests his innocence. He produces a bill of sale and describes the man who sold him the herd. But the description doesn’t match that of the dead man, and the posse strings up Cooper.

He sways from a tree, unconscious, for a few minutes when Providence intercedes. It takes the form of Marshal Dave Bliss, who happens to ride by the gruesome scene of the lynching moments after the hanging party has left. Bliss cuts down Cooper and takes him, as a prisoner, to Fort Grant, the seat of the Oklahoma Territory.

There Judge Fenton — effectively the territory’s governor — frees Cooper, since the murderer of the cattle’s rightful owner has been found and is about to be hung. Fenton offers Cooper a marshal’s badge and a choice: Capture the members of the hanging party and bring them in for trial under the color of the law or answer to the law for whatever you do to the men who hung you.

Cooper takes the badge and begins his quest for vengeance. One of his former persecutors surrenders; another dies trying to gun down Cooper; a third is killed by a different lawman.

But as single-minded as Cooper is, he is diverted from his hunt by another case involving cattle rustlers who have also left bodies in their wake. This leads him to a villain played by Bruce Dern and his accomplices, the teenaged brothers Ben and Billy Joe. Cooper prevents the enraged locals from lynching the trio, but they leave him alone to attempt to bring the three suspects to Fort Grant for trial.

The marshal survives the trek — barely. Before he returns to active duty, he spurns a would-be bribe from the remaining members of the hanging party. Posse members confer. A few light out for faraway places. The rest agree that their conflict with Cooper will end in bloodshed.

Cooper is a compelling hero — a man of few words but strong convictions, a lawman willing to use deadly force but not eager to do so. And I was curious to see how his quest for vengeance (or justice, if you prefer) would play out, especially after Cooper becomes disillusioned with Fenton’s application of the law. I was also curious what would become of Cooper’s relationship with the beautiful shopkeeper Rachel Warren, who appears to be Fort Grant’s only single woman who is not a prostitute.

I enjoyed parts of the journey and was moved by a long sequence in which some convicted men are prepared for their hanging. Ultimately, however, I didn’t feel that there was much of a payoff to the nearly two-hour movie. I credit the writers, Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg, for not wrapping up all the story strands in a neat bow. But the climax — a nighttime battle with Cooper standing down three villains — seemed a letdown.

It’s worth noting that this film has a few recognizable actors in bit parts, including Dennis Hopper as a psychotic criminal (go figure), Dern as the rustler, and Mark Lenard (whom I knew from his Star Trek roles, mainly as Spock’s father, Sarek) as a prosecutor. It was fun to see these faces as they appeared many years ago.

Any viewer with an interest in Westerns, or Eastwood, will likely want to see this picture, which Ted Post directed. Otherwise, alas, I don’t find much reason to recommend Hang ’Em High.

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