Film 2020: Hang ‘Em High

Hang ‘Em High was the fourth film in the ‘Man from Nowhere’ trilogy boxset I bought earlier this year. It was Clint Eastwood’s first American western, a 1968 production that followed hard on the heels of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in terms of release, and the first co-production with Malpaso, the company Eastwood created to control his career.

Before watching it this morning, I was under the impression I’d seen this film before at my old local cinema, the Burnage Odeon, but I remembered nothing of it, and recognised nothing I remembered of the film I’d gone to see (hardly surprising as it was actually High Plains Drifter I watched). I’d never seen it before, so it came as a surprise to view.

Ultimately, though I think the film enjoys the negative benefits of not perpetuating the worse of Sergio Leone’s excesses, I was still not satisfied with it. Like the Trilogy, it’s a very slow film without the benefit of deliberatenerss, and it’s story meanders. Overall, the film suffers for me from falling between two stools, two visions, embodied by the film’s two principal characters, Jed Cooper (Eastwood) and Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), standing for Revenge and Justice.

The film, which is set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1889, the first year of Benjamin harrison’s Presidency, begins with a lynching. Cooper, an ex-deputy seeking to settle down, build a spread, has bought a small herd of cattle. Unknown to him, he has bought them from a rustler who has killed the real owner and his family. A posse of nine men, led by local rancher Captain Wilson (Ed Begley) refuses to believe in Cooper’s innocence and hang him from a tree. After they ride off, Cooper is cut down still alive by Marshall Dave Bliss (Ben Johnson) and taken to Fort Grant, home of the Territory’s only Courthouse and only Judge, Adam Fenton. Fenton checks Cooper’s story and confims it; he is released as an innocent man.

Cooper is clearly going to seek revenge on the nine men who lynched him. Fenton warns him that to do so will result in his returning to Fort Grant to be hung. Only Justice can prevail if ever Oklahoma is to be granted Statehood, receive a Governor, a state Senate, the full panoply of Law and Justice. All it has for now is Fenton, one man standing for the power of Justice. And Fenton is a fanatic. The only way Cooper can have his revenge is as a Deputy Marshall, under obligation to bring them in alive.

This is the moment at which the film compromises itself fatally. We are meant to sympathise with Cooper, with Eastwood. He has the right to his Revenge and the moment the mantle of the Law is placed on his shoulders he can no longer have it. Yes, he shoots Reno, dead, but it’s in self-defence. Yes, he brings Miller (a young Bruce Dern, father of Laura) in to be hung, but any satisfaction he may have from that – and Cooper shows no satisfaction from any of his successes – is tempered by finding Miller with two teenage boys, companions in a rustling but not in murder. Cooper brings in all three alone, only because the boys refuse to join Miller in an attack on the Deputy Marshall.

For this Cooper wants to see mercy, two boys, eighteen and sixteen, easy to turn back to a righteous life, but Fenton will have none of it. The boys have to be convicted, have to be and are hung, because if the Law doesn’t do it, folks will say it is useless, and they will lynch, and Oklahoma will never become a State.

As for the others, various fates await. Stone the blacksmith (Alan Hale Jr, TV’s Casey Jones and the Skipper in Gilligan’s Island) goes into arrest easily but forces the Sherrif, Ray Calhoun, his friend, to shoot him. Jenkins, the old man, the only one to argue against the lynching, turns himself in. The other five, accepting they were wrong, attempt to buy Cooper off by returning him money, but he will still execute the Law. Two head off into the distance, two stand by Wilson.

Whilst a hanging is taking place at Fort Grant, Wilson and his two loyalists ambush Cooper in the hotel. His life is saved by the mysterious and beautiful Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens, genuinely beautiful) who nurses him back to health.

Rachel is an enigma. By Fenton’s order she is given access to look at every prisoner brought in. It’s hardly difficult to work out why but it’s not until she takes the recuperating Cooper for a picnic and he kisses her, very lightly, only for her to flinch, that she explains. Once she was married, to a Doctor. They were headed west, where he believed he wastruly wanted. One night, two drifters joined them at their campfire. They shot the doctor dead and both raped her. She is looking for them in each prisoner.

Cooper questionswhat Rachel will do afterwards if she finally sees them, or if she never sees them. They are trapped by a cloudburst, take shelter in a rackety shack overnight, and in the morning make love. That cures Rachel, but the same question poses itself to Cooper, who can’t answer if completing his restricted revenge will do the same for him. There’s very little room for women in this film but this touch comfirms a subtle misogyny is nevertheless present.

Cooper’s off after his would-be killers. Tommy and Loomis try to kill him and wind-up dead, Wilson, in fear of prison, hangs himself in his own house. It’s an ironic end but an unsatisfying one.

So Cooper hands in his badge. He wants the dying Jenkins pardoned but Fenton won’t do it. Cooper’s sick of Fenton’s Law, that demands death from the undeserving, that is no more than a legal lynching. Cooper is arguing for a more modern approach, a Justice tempered by Mercy, by sense, by rehabilitation, but that’s the future. Fenton’s Law is pragmatic: it has to be strict, it has to punish and do nothing but punish, it has to ignore its own mistakes, because only through the Law suppressing the will of the people to execute Revenge will Sttehood come, will checks and balances come, with Fenton be relieved of his awful, exclusive responsibility for life and death.

He sneers at Cooper and his future: marrying Rachel, buying a spread, aising cattle and kids. Jemkins willnot be pardoned. Unless Cooper puts the badge back on. Two futures, incompatible. Cooper puts the badge back on. Jenkins is pardoned. Cooper is handed two warrants, Maddow and Charley Blackfoot, the last of the nine. The Law still wants them. Cooper rides out. Rachel’s re-awakening, through love for (and sex with) him is at best put on hold, poor woman.

Within two years of making this film, Inger Stevens would be dead of a drugs overdose, which explains why such a beautiful, cool woman, already a TV star, in showsnever exported to Britain, never came to my attention before. Nevertheless, for all it amounted to, I’d have preferred it if her strand had been eliminated from the film. It serves no purpose in the overall story, lumpy and ill-formed as that is, except to make her further a victim, for no justfiable reason.

Overall, I prefer this film to any of the Leone trilogy, but I can’t say I’d queue up to see it again. Some of it is the difference between 1968 and 2020, and the increased pace of everything these later years, but for an action film I find Hang ‘Em High far too slow to hold my attention.

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