Underrated at the time of its release, The Hanging Tree (1959) is now considered a superior western from the waning years of that popular genre which coincided with the end of the studio era. It is also considered one of Gary Cooper’s best performances from his final decade in film, comparable to his fine work in High Noon (1952) and Man of the West (1958), and a late period achievement for director Delmer Daves (Broken Arrow, 3:10 to Yuma). I was encountered the film at a Saturday matinee in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when I was seven years old and remember being disturbed by it. This is an adult western. It is not a film for children.
Synopsis: Dr. Joseph Frail, a drifter who arrives in the mining town of Skull Creek, Montana and quickly sets up a practice in the rough and tumble community, is a man of mystery. While rumors abound that he murdered his wife and brother after discovering they were lovers, Frail remains an enigma to his neighbors. He proves to be a kind, compassionate physician, but he is also a shrewd businessman, a formidable gambler and card-player, and a man capable of swift, irrevocable violence. Frail offers refuge to Rune, a young, injured thief hunted by an angry mob, and later agrees to take in Elizabeth Mahler, the temporarily blinded survivor of a stagecoach attack, whom he nurses back to health. Once she has recovered, however, Frail dismisses her and Rune and they form a partnership with Frenchy, a fellow miner, calling their gold stake, the “Lucky Lady” mine. When the trio unexpectedly strike it rich, Frenchy throws a victory celebration for the entire town. Yet, in the midst of it, the drunken, lustful Frenchy tries to rape Elizabeth, setting in motion a chain of events that lead to a fateful encounter between Frail and a lynch mob.
Adapted by screenwriters Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles from a novella of the same name by Dorothy M. Johnson that won the Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award, The Hanging Tree was a Baroda Production, a company owned by Gary Cooper for the express purpose of selecting and producing hand-picked projects. Delmer Daves, who had helmed several other well-regarded Westerns such as Jubal (1956) and The Badlanders (1958), was selected to direct and the movie marked the film debut of George C. Scott in the small but scene-stealing role of Dr. George Grubb, a wild-eyed religious fanatic and alcoholic. (It might have been more than ‘Method Acting’ on display since Scott was going through a difficult period of deep depression and drunken rages in his personal life).
The film also marked the American film debut of playwright/stage actor Ben Piazza in the role of Rune.
The Hanging Tree was filmed on location near Yakima, Washington from mid-June to mid-August of 1958 on a budget of $1.35 million dollars. Part of this expense went toward the creation of the mining town of Skull Creek and the final result has an authenticity and rustic allure that evokes the unruly, makeshift mining towns that sprung up in the middle of nowhere during the gold rush era. Once production began, however, Delmer Daves became ill and had to be hospitalized for ulcers. Co-star Karl Malden, who had recently directed his first film Time Limit (1957) and had been a film actor since 1936, was approached to complete the film for Daves despite his reservations. Cooper encouraged him to do it and offered his support and Malden guided the film to completion. (Director Vincent Sherman has been credited in some sources as contributing his services to one day of production).
It turned out to be a good experience for Malden who became a personal friend of Gary Cooper as well as a great admirer of the actor’s working method. “I found that Cooper couldn’t communicate with me in words when I told him how I thought a scene should be done,” he recalled in Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper by Stuart M. Kaminsky. “He said, ‘Show me,’ and I did, acting out the scene with Maria [Schell], improvising. Then he took over and did exactly what I wanted him to do, not at all rigid as people have said. If there was a problem, it was with the directors who used him….Cooper knew himself and he knew the lens of the camera…Cooper knew what to avoid and what to do. He always relaxed in front of the camera and concentrated on the role. He knew what would appear on the screen and he played for it. People have often mistaken his ability to relax on the set for indifference, but he was very interested in the making of the film, the acting process.”
During the filming of The Hanging Tree, Cooper was not in the best of health either and suffered from hip pain from an earlier injury in his career. This made it difficult for him to ride a horse and explains his unusual riding style of leaning to the left on the saddle. According to biographer Kaminsky, Cooper incorporated his physical problem into a character trait of Frail’s: “Two hands on the horn of his saddle, Cooper would list to the left as if resting and move to a position in which he could pay rapt attention to the other characters in the scene.”
When The Hanging Tree was released, it received respectable reviews but was not a big box office hit. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “Delmer Daves has directed the gold camp action for a great deal of clatter and bang, and it all looks rambunctious and authentic on the vividly colored screen. Indeed, what with one thing and another, the story is absorbing to the end. It keeps you wondering and wishing — finally wishing it were a little better, that’s all.” The Variety review was more affirmative, stating, “There are fine performances from a good cast, but the main contribution comes from the director. The natural splendor of the Washington location is thoroughly exploited in Technicolor, but Delmer Daves doesn’t allow his characters to get lost in the forest or mountains.” The film would also earn an Oscar® nomination for the title theme song, written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David, and sung over the opening and closing credits by Marty Robbins.
After a span of more than fifty years, The Hanging Tree enjoys a reputation that separates it from the glut of routine Western programmers released during the fifties and looks ahead to Robert Altman’s lyrical frontier fable, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). The entry for the film in The BFI Companion to the Western best sums up the movie’s unique qualities: “This is Daves’ most complex and ambitious film and certainly his finest western. It was also his last…it is a brooding, romantic, opaque work of great dramatic intensity and breathtaking visual beauty. The film is an almost explicit critique of the Bildungsroman schema that underlies so many Hollywood Westerns and has certain interesting parallels with Andre Gide’s novel La Symphonie Pastorale and the 1946 film made from it. Where The Hanging Tree really scores, though, is in its style: few Westerns have been as successful in their dramatic use of space.”
If you haven’t seen it, the film is available on DVD from Warner Bros. Archive Collection and occasionally airs on TCM.
* This is a revised version of the article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper by Stuart M. Kaminsky (St. Martin’s Press).
Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (William Morrow and Co.)
George C. Scott: The Man, the Actor and the Legend by Allen Harbinson (Pinnacle Books)
The BFI Companion to the Western, edited by Edward Buscombe (Da Capo Press) http://www.afi.com
Other Sites of interest: