By Charles Culbertson
Let's say you're watching TCM at 8:00 a.m. ET on April 9 and you settle in to watch 1959's The Hanging Tree, starring Gary Cooper. I mean, who wouldn't? Gary Cooper. Western. Knockout title. It just sounds like a good movie.
And brother, is it, thanks to taut performances by Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, Ben Piazza and, in his film debut, George C. Scott; crisp direction by veteran producer-writer-director Delmer Daves; the raw beauty of Washington state's Oak Creek Wildlife Area, captured in Technicolor by master cinematographer Ted McCord; and Max Steiner's big, pulse-pounding musical score, which recaptures the freewheeling boldness of his glory days at Warner Brothers.
Steiner's score was supported by a Mack David/Jerry Livingston theme song performed by country-western artist Marty Robbins at his best. Robbins' rendition of The Hanging Tree ballad was nominated for Best Song at the 32nd Annual Academy Awards, and even today has an electrifying quality not unlike Gene Pitney's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Of course, headlining it all was two-time Oscar winner Gary Cooper, whose role in The Hanging Tree was different than anything he'd done before. In this saga set in an 1873 Montana gold mining camp there is no trace of the simple backwoodsman of Sergeant York or the noble, outnumbered hero of High Noon. As Dr. Joseph Frail, Cooper portrays a frighteningly violent man who is paradoxically sensitive and compassionate — providing you don't push him too far. It was easily the most multifaceted character Cooper had played up to that point.
Taken all together, these factors make The Hanging Tree one of Cooper's best films, and such a good movie overall that I think it ranks right up there with Shane and The Searchers. Yes, it's that good.
Even though the movie made money at the time and received positive reviews, for many years it was simply overlooked in any discussion of Cooper's best films; that, however, has steadily changed until, today, The Hanging Tree has a significant acceptance among both fans and critics.
Not your usual horse opera
One of the things that sets The Hanging Tree apart from the usual Western fare is its meshing of multiple story lines, each of which is complex enough to stand on its own as a movie plot.
Dr. Joseph Frail rides into the fictional gold mining camp of Skull Creek in the summer of 1873 carrying little other than a medical bag and a gunfighter's pistol on his hip. He buys a ridge-top cabin with the aim of setting up shop — and forgetting (or gaining redemption for) a dark and violent past.
Soon after arriving, Frail saves the life of Rune, a young gold thief. Shot by a mob while trying to steal gold from another man's sluice, Rune is taken in by Frail, who tends to his wounded shoulder and hides him from the mob. The doctor's bill is high: he forces Rune to be his manservant for life. A bitter Rune agrees, only because Frail can reveal him as the sluice thief.
It is here that Frail exhibits the first of his many complexities. He walks onto the porch of his cabin, and throws away the bullet he dug out of Rune — the one physical piece of evidence he has that Rune is the wounded sluice thief. Not knowing that the doctor has done this, Rune begins his life of servitude.
Frail is unlike most other fictional Western doctors. During the day he tenderly cares for the camp's sick and injured; at night he perches grimly at a poker table in the camp's saloon, gambling with his cards in one hand and his six-gun in the other. When he has to use the gun, he does so terrifyingly. The tall, dark-clad doctor becomes an angel of death, dealing it out with the cold violence and efficiency of a practiced gunman. He is equally dangerous with his fists.
Frail's character seems a cross between real-life gunfighters "Doc" Holliday and "Wild Bill" Hickok, with a little Clara Barton thrown in.
The plot continues to build with the introduction of Swiss immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell). She arrives in the camp burned and blinded from exposure to the sun after surviving an attack by outlaws on her stagecoach. She is cared for by Frail in the cabin next to his — something that doesn't sit well with the ladies of the camp, who fear she may be "paying" the doctor with sex.
Elizabeth does develop feelings for Frail, who rejects her. Later he explains why, revealing an emotionally damaged past. He tells her his wife had been unfaithful to him with his own brother. He says he found their dead bodies together—apparently a murder/suicide situation — in his house. He burned the house down with their bodies in it.
But wait… there's more
Yes, there is — enough to fill a couple of Westerns and too much to relate, blow by blow, in a single article that should, simply, be a review. You should know that all the events that follow the ones just described lead to a single moment of redemption, which is really what The Hanging Tree is all about. The press loved it.
"The film is articulate testimony to the limitless resources of the frontier West for wonderful story-telling and it presents new and resounding evidence that Hollywood can easily whip television at its own game — namely, the western drama," wrote reviewer Led Boyd in February 1959. "Oddly enough and despite its vigorous action and moments of ruthlessness and cruelty, The Hanging Tree is a picture with surefire appeal."
One final note on the film's production:
Skull Creek had been built with great care and attention to detail by more than 200 carpenters and craftsmen. In the end, it had to be burned by a mob of raging miners. On the final day of shooting, Delmer Daves had four cameras set up in strategic spots to get the best, most dramatic angles for the fire. More than 250 actors took part in the true-to-life scene where Skull Creek goes up in flames.
"Before sundown," noted the Ventura County Star-Free Press, "Skull Creek was a smoldering ruins. The next day a cleanup crew went to work. By nightfall, they had erased every trace of the town, leaving only the new dirt road to remind residents that The Hanging Tree had been filmed there."
Charles Culbertson is a freelance writer with a lifelong interest in the early days of film, television and radio. He has written and published extensively about American history, and has republished many lost and forgotten historical works. His Clarion Publishing Company has also produced the popular, three-volume set, The Pulp Western Anthology. Culbertson has also just published a collection of his short fiction, Siege at Fort Lyautey and Other Stories. He lives in Waynesboro, Virginia, with his wife, Janet.