HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968)
“All right, now that makes three mistakes we’ve made. The money, we hung an innocent man, and we didn’t finish the job.” – Captain Wilson
Clint Eastwood spent three years in the 1960s filming the “man with no name” trilogy under the direction of Sergio Leone, then another two years after that recording his dialogue for the English language releases. The whole process left him frustrated and stalled, but it also made him an almost immediate superstar. Following the consecutive American releases of the Leone films (which all hit the states in 1967), Eastwood would release no less than three films in the following year.
Amidst the release of the Leone trilogy, Eastwood was given two scripts almost simultaneously. One was a larger scale western adventure starring Gregory Peck called Mackenna’s Gold. The other was a lower-scale revenge piece (also a western) called Hang ‘Em High. Eastwood preferred the latter script, and even launched his own production studio to see it made. Sergio Leone was approached to direct, but he was already deep into production of Once Upon a Time in the West (with which he finally got the chance to work with Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson). So Eastwood called on an old friend of his, Ted Post, who had directed him in more than 20 episodes of Rawhide.
Hang ‘Em High begins when Jed Cooper (Eastwood) is taking a newly purchased herd of cattle across the plains. He is suddenly accosted by a posse of nine bloodthirsty vigilantes who, mistaking Cooper for a murderous cattle rustler, lynch him without trial on the basis of flimsy circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately for them, they do a sloppy job of it and Cooper survives. Later deputized as a US Marshal, Cooper sets out on a legally sanctioned quest to bring his nine assailants to justice.
For the majority of its runtime, the film treats its elements very directly. The narrative, the conflict, and the character’s motivations and morals are all very simple, almost superficial. Adding some thematic flavor to the whole piece is a hanging-hungry town judge (played by Pat Hingle) and a beautiful owner of the local general store (played by Inger Stevens). While these two characters influence the plot in ways you’d easily predict, each of them also hides a painful darkness that provides some unexpected momentary thematic exploration. For example, Judge Fenton is so protective of the ideal of just punishment that he is willing to hang two younger boys caught up over the heads in associative crime than provide them the opportunity for rehabilitation (a decision that puts him in direct odds with Cooper). Likewise, Rachel Warren (the store owner), who is openly benevolent and sympathetic to hanging victims, is secretly waiting for the opportunity to watch the man who assaulted her years earlier hang for it.
Eastwood’s acting is solid, of course, but there is a bluntness to his performance that feels almost amateurish at times. After three straight films under a decidedly different visionary director than his Rawhide days, working under a Rawhide veteran for this film may have reverted some comfortable habits. The mystique of the “man with no name” is replaced by an only slightly modified version of the heroic “white hat” character that Eastwood had taken on the Leone roles to flex away from in the first place. Perhaps Eastwood saw this film as a blend of comfort and challenge, by playing a more familiar and safer role to which he was more accustomed but obtaining more creative control by sending the film through his newly formed production studio.
But this is not to say that Hang ‘Em High is by any means a low-quality film. It’s skillfully structured, has a frequently gripping and suspenseful script, and features a collection of high-caliber performers (including Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, and a cameo appearance by the then-unknown Dennis Hopper). If you pay attention, you’ll locate Jonathan Goldsmith – the “most interesting man alive” from the Dos Equis commercials – as one of the nine vigilantes. It definitely lacks the flourish and grandeur of the spaghetti westerns, but still serves up an entertaining, well-told story.
Hang ‘Em High does not by any means reinvent the western wheel (and rabid fans of the Leone trilogy may not immediately acclimate to the more blunt, direct tone of its style), but it is a solidly entertaining western classic well worth the time of even a moderate fan of the genre.
Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.