“Every new mining camp’s gotta have its hanging tree. Makes folks feel respectable.”
These are the opening words of The Hanging Tree (1959), spoken by some guy driving a wagon along the bustle of the Gold Trail in 1873 Montana. During the credits, we’ve seen that one man attracted by the bustle is a mysterious horseman, played by Gary Cooper, dressed all in black like a preacher.
First, he rides along the high, lushly forested ridges of the mountains and valleys, and then he’s framed within the trees from a shot high above, looking down at him through the branches just after Marty Robbins finishes singing the title song. This camerawork announces to all who can read movies that Cooper’s character will have an appointment with that dark tree, its noose hanging ready.
Thus The Hanging Tree begins on the mythic, folkloric level where it will continue, abetted by Max Steiner’s score of robust Americana. The most curious element is the human factor since the characters show a confusing lack of moral clarity that’s part of a strategy designed to make us uncertain of who can or cannot be trusted, just as the dark tree may be put to positive or negative use in a lawless territory. As the characters revolve around each other, they shift their spots in the new angles of light. The movie itself keeps changing its face.
Cooper’s character is called Doc Joe Frail, an assumed name for one who claims his spirit is frail. He’s tall, gruff and self-possessed, and his first act is to rescue a stray Roan (Ben Piazza). The blond teen, cut from a cloth similar to other sullen rebels of his cinematic era, was shot in the chest while filching a nugget of gold from a wooden sluice. The shooter was Frenchy (Karl Malden), who raises the alarm of a “sluice thief” for the hanging tree.
According to the mob’s code, Frenchy’s in the right, and Roan is wrong, yet Doc Frail treats and hides Roan in return for keeping the boy as his “bondservant” indefinitely. More to the point, the audience likes Roan and doesn’t like the obnoxious Frenchy, so already, it’s possible for personal preference to trump moral codes. The boy is suspicious and resentful of Doc, who’s just as pugnacious in his way as Frenchy.
The other character is Elizabeth Muller (Maria Schell, in a very good performance), a foreigner introduced in a disorientingly shot and edited, almost abstractly presented stagecoach robbery of the horrific incident. She’s initially sunburned and temporarily blinded and must be nursed back to health by Doc, who commands her literally to stand on her feet and “see clearly”. She’s the only character who’s not morally ambiguous, but to make up for that, the camptown ladies – not the highly visible prostitutes but the calico housewives represented by the trader’s wife (Virginia Gregg) – assume she’s the Doc’s “harlot”.
A sign of the story’s ambiguities lies in the fact that Elizabeth goes into partnership with Frenchy, whose salacious remarks and lascivious glances at the “lost lady” make even the other men look askance. He’s profoundly flawed, yet not always entirely negative.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is consistently a strong, hard-working woman who speaks her mind while retaining her dignity. Her solution to the climactic problem is almost disappointingly practical and telling of human nature. It’s a way of paying Doc back for her multiple rescues from the sometimes literal brink.
Her insistence that she’ll pay Doc “in full” resembles the attitude of Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the original short story on which the film is based. Wikipedia states that she prided herself on being self-sufficient after a failed early marriage and that she stated her epitaph should say “Paid In Full”; it says “PAID”. Johnson is one of the most celebrated writers of Westerns. Her stories of the ’50s include “A Man Called Horse” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, also made into films.
The Hanging Tree is the final film in a string of ’50s-era westerns directed by Delmer Daves and belongs to the decade’s growth industry in what were advertised as adult psychological westerns with “A” budgets. While Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann get more critical notice, Daves was their equal, often a triple-threat writer, producer, and director. In The Hanging Tree he served as director only, essentially a hired hand for Cooper’s production company. The script is by Wendell Mayes, in the same year he wrote his Oscar-nominated Anatomy of a Murder, and Halsted Welles, who’d scripted Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957).
The Technicolor film was shot in the forests of Washington state by Ted McCord, who was only about five years away from getting as big as all outdoors on The Sound of Music (1965). It’s not hard to make the locations look good, but Daves and McCord don’t stop there. Both exteriors and interiors are staged with compositions that layer different elements across their own planes of foreground and background, while interiors parcel light and dark according to the nature of the characters. Elizabeth is often in angelic light, while the archetypally demonic and tricksterish Doc Grubb (George C. Scott in his debut role), who rants Bible quotes and heralds doom, is etched in shadows even outdoors.
The result is a brooding, sometimes rowdy western that looks good while presenting a fundamentally unattractive picture of how the frontier is defined by greed and hunger and populated by those with unsavory pasts and often very little future. The Hanging Tree‘s final shot encapsulates the story in a posed silhouette of misfits and tree.