I’ve finally realized the reason why I have always assumed that I am not a fan of Westerns. It’s because I’m not really a fan of John Wayne or John Ford (sacrilege, I know), and their Westerns were mostly the ones I’d seen. But I am a fan of Gary Cooper and I’ve found yet another Western that I like. It is Gary Cooper’s 1959 film, The Hanging Tree, directed by Delmer Daves and based on a novella by Dorothy Johnson.
What made me want to see the movie was actually a clip on youtube that I found so striking that I was determined to see what led up to it. And it was exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s a striking movie, not a typical shoot-em-up, with an ending that is all the more romantic and redemptive for the stark background of noose and drunken, gold-lusting mob. There’s also a seriously catchy title song by Marty Robbins that I guarantee will lodge itself in your head…but in a good way.
The setting is 1873 in Montana, during a gold rush. Waver-thin mining towns are set up and abandoned as the miners roam around the state searching for gold. Into the new camp of Skull Creek – which has already set up the obligatory hanging tree – arrives Doc Frail (Gary Cooper), who sets up shop as a doctor, despite the angry and dire prophetic warnings of the local “healer” Grub (George C. Scott), who always keeps a whiskey bottle in his back pocket.
Doc Frail is a taciturn and slightly mysterious man who most of the miners mistrust, though they know something of his background, which is never fully revealed in the film. And they all know that Frail is not his real name, but only what he calls himself. He is both controlling and distant, but also capable of great kindness and gentleness. He treats a young girl suffering from malnutrition for free and loans his cow to her parents so she can regain her strength. He takes in a wounded young man who was shot trying to steal gold from a sluice. His name is Rune (Ben Piazza), who Frail forces to work as his servant in lieu of payment for Frail’s professional services in removing the bullet. Rune initially refuses, but Frail points out that he has the bullet and that if anyone in the town found out that Rune was the sluice robber they shot, he would be hung.
Despite Rune’s sullenness, he can’t help also admiring him at times. Frail also takes in Elizabeth Mahler, a Swedish immigrant who is badly injured when the stage-coach she is in is robbed and her father is killed. The horses bolt and go over a cliff and she is left out in the sun and cold for days, suffering from burns and temporary blindness. Frail, with the help of Rune, gently nurses her back to health.
The trouble is that he’s so much of a controlling man that he keeps everyone away, including the respectable female members of the camp, that he inadvertently gives her a reputation of being a loose woman and people assume he is keeping her for himself.
And when Elizabeth recovers, she wants to show her gratitude to Frail and assumes that he does care about her, only for him to suddenly become cold and remote. Pushed away by him, Elizabeth and Rune join together with another miner named Frenchy (Karl Malden) to buy a grub stake and look for gold.
One of the things I appreciate about Gary Cooper is how he seems to express so much with his body language and face that by the time he speaks it seems to be an afterthought, as if he’s only speaking for informational purposes and not to communicate his real feelings, which he’s already indicated through other means. He’s laconic, as most leading men in Westerns are, but he has an unspoken eloquence about him.
And The Hanging Tree provides a good role for him as the silent and controlling and even manipulative man capable of making people love him, but who feels compelled to push them away as soon as they do. He’s incapable of receiving anything from anyone. As soon as they don’t need him, he pulls back. There is a wonderful scene where Frail is standing with Elizabeth on a cliff’s edge and encouraging her to open her eyes and see (she’s been temporarily blinded). When she does, she finally sees his face, but he instantly loses his gentle tone and coldly pulls away.
But as good as Gary Cooper is, Elizabeth Schell is really who I think makes the movie wonderful. She has that perfect blend of sweetness, friendliness and strength. It can be difficult to portray, in movies and books, sweet characters who also have inner strength. As soon as she realizes that Frail is pushing her away, she doesn’t try to hang on, but determines to work and she is not afraid of hard work. She is unfailingly friendly, but draws the line with Frenchy, who has been fascinated by her from the moment he first found her half-dead in the woods and has been lusting after her ever since. And she has one of the sweetest, most radiant smiles ever seen on film, but never in a naive or childlike way, but as a woman
Karl Malden is also good as Frenchy, who seems to feel a kind of possession over Elizabeth because he was the one who found her and he calls her “Lost Lady.” His contribution wasn’t only reserved for acting, however. When the director, Delmer Daves became ill, it was actually Karl Malden who finished the film, with a lot of support from Gary Cooper.
And what ultimately sells me on the movie is the ending (Spoilers!). Doc Frail is a man who is only comfortable when people owe him something, if they in a sense belong to him. He must be in control. But in a reverse at the end, it is Elizabeth who is now in control and whom he owes something to. When he shoots Frenchy (who attacked Elizabeth), there is a drunken mob of miners who witness it and decide to hang him, just because they feel like it and don’t like him much. They are drunk because they are celebrating Frenchy, Elizabeth and Rune’s discovery of gold. And where are the respectable citizens, while the drunken ones try to lynch Frail? They’ve formed a bucket brigade and are trying to put out all the fires that the drunken mob started.
But Elizabeth buys Frail’s salvation when she and Rune offer their gold to the angry mob. And now Frail owes her and discovers that it’s okay to be in someone’s debt. In a sense, he now belongs to her and it’s actually a liberation. It’s a beautiful ending and completely satisfying.
The theme song was written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David and sung by Marty Robbins. It was nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards and essentially summarizes the film’s story and theme. The musical theme is woven in and out of the film’s score by composer Max Steiner