Technically, Montana is not the Southwest. But it is the setting for The Hanging Tree, a Gary Cooper Western from Warner Bros., and that is close enough. Gold fever raged up north in the mid-to-late 19th century. The possibility of striking it rich drew people westward. As pointed out in the opening sequence, after a tuneful Marty Robbins song, the hanging tree kept them “respectable”.
Dr. Frail (Cooper) appears, morose and circumspect, on horseback at the outset with a checkered past. He gets situated on a hill outside a mining town just being built. Rune (Ben Piazza), a sluice robber on the lam, becomes his first patient. He removes a bullet from the young man and then gives him work with which to pay it off. A stagecoach crash brings in yet another patient. She is Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell). Frenchy (Karl Malden) takes a liking to her that is not reciprocated. An itinerant preacher (George C. Scott) asks if she is “loose-virtued”. The town’s spinsters are also inquisitive. By this time, Doc, who treats patients by day and plays cards at night, has a full plate.
Back in the day, movies were rarely seen in today’s terms as statements of various kinds on an assortment of issues. They have long since lost their innocence. And while it is always tempting to read into any cultural artifact, from cartoons to weird sculptures, it is equally rewarding to take in a movie without being telegraphed messages. This one has that long-lost matinee quality and is probably welcome in anybody’s home theater anytime.
The director, Delmer Daves, did not leave this world in 1977 without first putting together an enormous resume. In addition to The Hanging Tree, he directed Cowboy, 3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, Dark Passage, and Pride of the Marines in addition to dozens of other directorial and writing accomplishments. He may not have pleased the intelligentsia, but he worked on a number of memorable projects.
In the 1950s, it was entirely believable that a Gary Cooper character might appear just at the right moment to prevent a bad guy from plying his trade. In the film, all Cooper/Frail has to do is open a door, and the audience knows that it is curtains for the villain. Today, that sort of reliability has been subverted and undermined, at least on the screen. It pays to look back upon a world view somehow organized around solid principles and those who steadfastly upheld them.