Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Hang 'Em High is a revisionist western film released in 1968 and was the first production of Clint Eastwood's own production company, the Malpaso Company. It stars Eastwood as Jed Cooper, a cattleman wrongly hanged by a posse who survives and becomes a lawman in order to track the gang down for revenge. The film also stars Inger Stevens, Pat Hingle and Ed Begley and was directed by Ted Post who had previously worked with Eastwood on the TV series Rawhide. It was designed to imitate the so-called spaghetti westerns like A Fistful Of Dollars which Eastwood had found huge success with as the iconic Man With No Name. The film was a huge success, becoming the highest earning film for United Artists; it earned more than any of the Bond films up to that point. The film remains one of the more respected western films of the period and was part of a trend at the time of films portraying the Old West in more morally ambiguous tones than seen previously.
What's it about?
In the territory of Oklahoma in 1889, Jed Cooper is moving his newly purchased herd of cattle across a stream when he is approached by a posse of nine men led by Captain Wilson. Cooper learns from the gang that the man he purchased the cattle from was actually an imposter posing as the rancher who later turned up dead. Believing Cooper to be the murderer, Wilson and his men tracked Cooper and the cattle down and quickly agree to hang him for the murder despite Cooper protesting his innocence. Swinging by his neck and close to death, Cooper is miraculously rescued when Wilson and his men leave him to his fate.
Arrested and taken to Fort Grant, Cooper recovers from his ordeal only to find himself pardoned by Judge Fenton who has been able to corroborate Cooper's story. But seeing Cooper thirsty for revenge, Fenton offers him a proposition - Cooper would become a marshal and help bring the posse to justice by bringing them to be judged by Fenton and hung in front of the townspeople. Reluctantly, Cooper agrees but is forced to abide by Fenton's assertion that the men are to be brought before him alive...
Judge Adam Fenton
Marshal Dave Bliss
Sheriff Ray Calhoun
Madame "Peaches" Sophie
Leonard Freeman & Mel Goldberg
Release Date (UK)
25th October, 1968
18 (2000 re-rating)
What's to like?
While it's no surprise to find the film sticking closely to the winning spaghetti western formula, Hang 'Em High actually offers several upgrades over Eastwood's earlier successes. The dusty but recognisable landscapes of Spain have been replaced by more authentic looking scenery and the sets have a familiar feel to them as well, doubtless due to their frequent usage in other Hollywood films of that genre. It's also nice to have background characters appear without the tell-tale awkwardness of having their dialogue dubbed over, an easy fix for a film featuring plenty of experienced actors like Begley in a film such as this. In fact, Begley is terrific as the morally conflicted villain of the piece - such as there is one. The film deliberately treads an ambiguous path while making political comments about capital punishment, justice vs the law and the dangers of vigilantism and these themes would be revisited by Eastwood in later films like Dirty Harry. I liked the blurring of the lines between good and evil and it makes the film feel more interesting.
You'd expect Eastwood to be good value as the no-nonsense hero and sure enough, he displays plenty of grit as the vengeful lawman looking to right his particular wrong in his own way. But he is ably supported by Begley (who doesn't get quite enough screen time for my liking) and Hingle, looking almost exactly as he did as Commissioner Gordon many years later in the Batman series of films. Full of theatrical fervour and having his own shady agenda, Judge Fenton acts as Cooper's conscience throughout and disapproves of the violence Cooper brings to his job. The film may have less of the action associated with spaghetti westerns but the film itself doesn't hold its punches. The hanging scenes are brutal to watch at times and the film demonstrates that wanton violence has consequences, both with the decline in Cooper's character and the cold emotionless state that potential love interest Inger Stevens displays as Rachel.
- Producer and co-writer Freeman clashed with director Post during filming, eventually being banished from the set by Eastwood himself. They had reconciled by the time they coincidentally found themselves alongside each other in rehab in 2013.
- The part of Judge Fenton was apparently based on a real-life individual, Judge Isaac Parker who served as the first federal judge in the western district of Arkansas. He became known as 'the Hanging Judge' due to the number of people he sentenced to death - 160 were sentenced in just 19 years with 79 of those being executed. Parker also appeared as a character in another influential western, True Grit and its 2010 remake.
- This film features cameos from Dennis Hopper as the crazed prophet seen near the beginning of the film and James MacArthur, who would find greater fame in the TV series Hawaii Five-O as Danny "Danno" Williams. Hawaii Five-O was written by Freeman and he remembered MacArthur's professionalism on set as the preacher, often nailing his scenes in just one take.
What's not to like?
It feels a tad unfair to judge this film alongside Eastwood's more successful outings in Leone's Dollars trilogy but the aspiration of Hang 'Em High to be an American version of a spaghetti western makes the film feel a touch lacking in some crucial areas. For starters, Post's direction lacks much of the inspired vision Sergio Leone brought to the screen and the film looks and feels adequate rather than noteworthy. The same can also be said for this film's soundtrack - Dominic Frontiere's score is perfectly perfunctory but nothing like as memorable or timeless as the legendary Ennio Morricone, whose music would become indelibly linked to westerns forever while Frontiere was only given eight days to compose the film's music.
It's unfortunate that compared to Leone's classic spaghetti westerns, Hang 'Em High is solid but unspectacular viewing. It doesn't do much to stand out in what was a crowded genre and even at the time, it was still competing against other European westerns like Death Sentence and Once Upon A Time In The West, arguably one of the biggest westerns Hollywood had ever seen and Leone's supposed swansong from the genre. By contrast, this film lacks many of the tropes audiences had come to expect - epic shootouts, dramatic tension, innovative cinematography and stirring soundtracks. Hang 'Em High isn't a bad film by any stretch of the imagination but it does feel far less significant than Eastwood's earlier forays in the Old West.
Should I watch it?
If you like your westerns then you'll certainly enjoy Hang 'Em High which is a decent stab at replicating the style and feel of countless spaghetti westerns that reinvigorated the genre. But for those with more experience with the likes of Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci, this film lacks much of the violence and gunplay seen in genuine examples and feels more dramatic than action-driven. Eastwood, Hingle and Begley display their talents playing grizzled characters in the Old West but the film doesn't do much to grab and keep hold of your attention.
Great For: fans of westerns, Eastwood's producing credentials
Not So Great For: squeamish viewers, anyone more familiar with Leone's Dollars trilogy, businesses reliant on films shooting in Spain or Italy
What else should I watch?
Clint Eastwood and westerns go together like cheese on toast, thanks mainly to his long association with the genre as an actor, producer or director. From his iconic appearance as the Man With No Name in the oft-mentioned Dollars trilogy - A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly - to his long-deserved Oscar haul in 1992's Unforgiven, Eastwood is so synonymous with the genre that even Back To The Future Part III spoofed him. Even as a director, he has often found himself back in the saddle with films such as High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider.
There were literally dozens of spaghetti westerns released in the wake of the success of Leone's Dollars trilogy, hoping to replicate the low-budget success those films enjoyed. Chief among them were films like Sabata and Django, the latter of which would appear in over thirty 'unofficial' sequels with characters imitating the look and mannerisms of Franco Nero's sharp-shooting hero. Indeed, the Django character proved so influential that Quentin Tarantino would pay homage to the film with his own 2012 western Django Unchained which featured Nero in a brief cameo.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox