Hang ‘Em High(1968), directed by Ted Post, was Clint Eastwood’s first American Western. Eastwood, who started out by starring in the American Western Television series, Rawhide, had by then become an international sensation with Sergio Leone’s European-made ‘Man with no Name’ spaghetti Western trilogy.
“They made two mistakes – they hanged the wrong man and they didn’t finish the job”
That’s the tagline for Clint Eastwood’s first fully American-made feature-length Western, Hang ‘Em High(1968). As the tagline suggests, Clint plays Jedidiah Cooper, a lawman turned rancher, who’s wrongfully lynched by a mob- led by Captain Wilson(Ed Begley)- accusing him of cattle rustling and murder. After being left for dead, Jed miraculously survives, but carries a permanent scar around his neck from the hanging, which he covers with a dark neckerchief. Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), the Oklahoma territorial judge, convinced of Jed’s innocence, takes him under his wings and offers him a job as a marshal. Jed accepts- as he’s already intended on tracking down his lynch mob and exacting revenge, but Fenton- who’s know as the “Hanging Judge”, and who takes great pleasure in hanging many of those brought in front of him for trial- warns him not to kill the lynchers; they’re to be brought in alive for trial. Jed, though a conflicted soul, does his best to tone down his vengefulness, and toe the judge’s line, but is not always successful- some he manages to bring in for trial alive, some are killed while resisting arrest, some flee, some surrender and Captain Wilson hangs himself. The film propagates a strong anti-capital punishment message, with Jed giving up his badge at the end- sick of the grotesque ‘circus’ that the judge puts up every time there’s a public hanging; and for his inability to stop the judge from sending some innocent people to the gallows- meant strictly as a symbolic gesture.by the Judge. But, after the judge pardons the lyncher who surrendered, Jed takes the badge back and continue his pursuit of the lynchers who have fled.
When Clint embarked on this venture, he had just returned to Hollywood after completing “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”- the final film in Sergio Leone’s iconic “Dollars” trilogy. The three films- “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More” being the other two- had become extremely popular all around the world- except for United States, where these films were yet to be released. Leone’s heavily stylized, ultra-violent, “Rock N Roll” Westerns which subverted much of the tropes and archetypes of traditional American Westerns and burnished by an avant-garde Electronic score by Ennio Morricone, had become sensationally successful wherever it was released, skyrocketing the then unknown American TV actor named Clint Eastwood to superstar status. But in his native America, he was still a TV actor who had done some cheap, trashy Westerns in Europe that desecrated the holy traditions of American Westerns- It took a long time for Leone’s Westerns to find favor with the American film critics. There was already a strong prejudice against TV actors trying to make it in movies, and to add to that, an American actor making films in Italy was considered a step backward. But then, the three ‘Dollars’ films were released one after another in America in 1967, and they became very popular with the masses, turning Clint into a star in America as well. Clint seized the moment to kick start his film career in Hollywood. To this end, he launched his own production Company, Malpaso, and then moved on to produce and star in his first Hollywood feature film.
He chose a script called “Hang ‘Em High” written by Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg for this purpose. This was against the wishes of his agency which wanted him to him to star in a bigger picture, the J. Lee Thompson- Carl Foreman treasure-hunt Western, Mackenna’s Gold, but Clint didn’t want to make such a big picture as his American feature debut, and chose to do this small-scale Western instead- Mackenna’s Gold was made with Gregory Peck in the lead and was a big box office bomb, so Clint dodged a bullet there. Before going to Italy, Clint had starred in the Western TV series, Rawhide, and as his first Hollywood starrer and his company’s first production, he chose to make a Western that’s not very different from the ‘Dollars’ films, but where the characterization is more on the lines of his “Rowdy Yates” from “Rawhide”. Keeping this in mind, he got Ted Post, who had already directed him in several episodes of “Rawhide” to direct him in this film, even though the studio was insisting on more experienced director like Robert Aldrich or John Sturges. They even suggested Sergio Leone for the film, but he was busy with “Once upon a time in the West“; and Clint was clear that he wanted this to be very different film from the Spaghetti Westerns; for one, there was going to be lot more dialogue and Post had a good ear for dialogue. He also cast the main supporting roles in the film with actors who had worked with him on that series.
The heavily Americanized title of this film, and the very American name of Clint’s character makes it clear that this is a full-blooded American production, and very different from his Euro-Westerns. The name “Jed Cooper” is a tribute to American Icon, Gary Cooper, and his very famous role of Marshal Will Kane in “High Noon”- to which Clint’s Marshal Cooper has more than a passing resemblance. Interestingly, after watching “For a few Dollars More“, the great Italian director Federico Fellini had called Clint the “the new Gary Cooper”. The film borrows its main theme- of wrongful lynching- from William Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow incident”, which starred Henry Fonda. Sergio Leone originally wanted Fonda for the lead role in “A Fistful of Dollars”, and when he couldn’t get him, he cast Clint mainly because of his resemblance to Fonda. At the time Clint was making this film, Henry Fonda was playing the lead antagonist in Leone’s “Once upon a time in the West”. The film, set circa 1889 in Oklahoma territory, 18 years before it became a state, also has some real-life influences: the character of Judge Fenton is based on Judge Isaac Parker, labeled the “Hanging Judge” due to the large number of men he sentenced to be executed during his service as District Judge of the Western District of Arkansas. The film also depicts the dangers of serving as a U.S. Marshal during that period, as many federal marshals were killed while serving under Parker. The fictional Fort Grant, base for operations for that district judge seat, is also a mirror of the factual Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Judge Parker’s court was located.
The rather abrupt and direct opening sequence of the film pretty much establishes its ambitions. In a really good pre-title sequence, we find Clint’s Jed Cooper driving a small herd of cattle he has recently purchased across a river, in the course of which he has to dismount and rescue a calf from the stream. Both Clint’s costumes, clean-shaven appearance and his innocent & compassionate attitude towards the calf resembles “Rowdy Yates” more than ‘Man with no Name’- though Clint uses the same gun, holster and boots of the latter. Once Jed reaches the other side of the river, he’s suddenly confronted by a group of armed riders, who accuse him of rustling the herd and killing the rancher and his wife to whom it belonged. He tells them that he is a former lawman, now trying to start a small ranch of his own, and produces a bill of sale for the cattle. The riders, all in the employ of Captain Wilson, ignore the document and prepare to string him up. Clint is completely devoid of the swagger and style from his “Dollars” movies and looks sufficiently vulnerable and terrified at this moment. But the violence that erupts as part of the mob lynching is very much Leonesque- brutal, vicious and graphic- Jed’s pleas for patience and further investigation ignored, he’s ruthlessly tortured, robbed and left swinging from a rope as the posse rides off. This image of Clint hanging from the rope is reminiscent of “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”- there Clint always saves Eli Wallach from hanging, but here the film begins with Clint’s hanging. That’s a nice contrarian image to set up this film, and to set it apart from Leone’s films; not to mention a truly stupefying moment for the audience as well, where the lead actor gets killed even before the titles appear.
But then Jed survives; in a sequence which again mirrors the final scene in “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”, where it seems for a long time that Clint will leave Wallach to die by hanging, and then shoots his rope out and saves him. Here, Clint is saved by the fortuitous appearance of a tumbleweed wagon, under the command of none other than the John Ford\John Wayne stock Company actor, Ben Johnson, playing Marshal Dave Bliss. The casting of Johnson- the quintessential American cowboy actor-ties in with Clint’s ambition for a more American Western. After seeing Jed hanging by a rope, Marshal Bliss rides in, cut him down with a knife, and seeing that he’s still alive, throws Jed in with the rest of the prisoners he has been collecting and takes him back to Fort Grant. It’s here that Jed has his meeting with Judge Fenton, and then his subsequent transformation into a Marshal. As Marshal, Jed is dressed in all-black, and his demeanor changes drastically; from the young and innocent “Rawhide” hero, he becomes a darkly brooding, cigar chewing figure reminiscent of his character from Leone films. Obviously, the real appeal of this character lies in the fact that it’s a transitional figure, blending a little bit of Rowdy Yates with a lot of “The Man with No Name”. But unlike the latter, Jed is unswerving in his moral integrity, and he comes across more as a modern version of the traditional ‘John Wayne’ Western hero. In fact, the film itself is very much a traditional Western garnished with gritty violence and the eerie atmosphere of Euro-Westerns. The film’s climax that takes place at night, and ends with Wilson’s hanging, looks straight out of Italian Giallo. The music score by Composer Dominic Frontiere is also heavily inspired by Ennio Morricone’s score for the “Dollars” trilogy.
Being Clint’s debut American feature, the film is pretty good; it’s not wildly inventive or path breaking like the Leone films, but it’s entertaining and thought provoking as well. Though i wish the film was better directed. Ted Post’s direction does not rise above the level of a TV Series. The staging of the big shootouts and action sequences are pretty clumsy, and looks more designed for the small screen rather than the big. The film also has a TV series like disjointed quality; the film is made up of different episodes, each having a different color and emotional flavor. We have the initial lynching episode; then the Fort Grant episode; then the episode where Clint is a Marshall; the episodes with the public hangings; Dennis Hopper pops for about 3 minutes in an early scene doing the crazy ‘Dennis Hopper’ stuff; then the film detours for an extended sequence where Clint joins a posse to hunt some cattle rustlers- fortuitously headed Bruce Dern’s Miller, the most vicious among Jed’s lynchers; then there’s a romantic interlude where Jed and his ladylove, Rachel is caught in a storm; then there’s the eerie climax, followed by more arguing between Jed and the judge. For a Western, the film has too much talk; and it doesn’t help that the lot of the dialogue is expository. The narrative stops and restarts at several points in the film, thus losing a lot of momentum leading to pacing issues. The quality of these individual episodes vary from being really good & entertaining, to being totally unnecessary. The big showpiece hanging sequence that comes about half way through is one of the best staged sequences in the film. All the different aspects of the hanging, like the fear and desperation of the condemned, the pride of the judge, the hangman coldly going about his work making sure the ropes are just right and the reaction from the public, who have come for the pure thrill of watching people die, even as a Reverend chants the hymns, are all staged and put together wonderfully to bring out the grotesque and hypocritical nature of the event; thereby transforming the sequence into a strong polemic on capital punishment. The romantic angle is the most contrived of them all, and looks shoehorned in just to make Jed different from Clint’s ‘Man with no Name’ heroes, who are all marked by the absence of romantic relationships with woman.
But Clint’s megawatt star charisma and his magnetic screen presence hold the film together at all points. When he’s on screen, he has our full attention, and he efficiently guides us through the somewhat disjointed narrative. He’s more a presence rather than an actor performing a character, but that’s more than enough to keep the audience invested in whatever he’s doing. The film is made with modest ambitions on a modest scale, and on that note, it succeeds in what it set out to do. Clint is not trying to do what Sean Connery tried (and miserably failed) with his non-Bond films of the time. Connery tried to do roles that were radically different from his Bond roles in an attempt to distance himself from that wildly popular franchise as much as possible. But Clint is a very shrewd actor and businessman; he knows his popularity is based on those Leone Westerns, and if he wants to move away from that he has to do it step by step. The films he made at the time always reflected this philosophy: each character (and film) he did had their roots in that Iconic character, but he would tweak it ever so subtly to bring some variation and some new flavors, so that they stand on their own, but also never fail to connect with an audience who likes his cool, iconic ‘style’. Like John Wayne, he was never ashamed of repeating plot and character elements that worked for him in the past. That explains why these two became the most popular and durable American film stars ever. This film also proved prescient in predicting another one of Clint’s iconic characters- the lawman\vigilante mashup of “Dirty Harry”; much of the arguments that Jed has with the judge- about territorial justice, law enforcement, vengeance and vigilantism- is very similar to the ones Harry Callahan has with his superiors. In fact, Pat Hingle, who plays the judge, will play his superior in the “Dirty Harry” film, Sudden Impact(1982), and they have similar arguments there also. Clint’s romantic interest in the film is played by Inger Stevens. She plays Rachel Warren- a widow who’s hunting for the outlaws who killed her husband and repeatedly raped her. She’s introduced in the sequence where Jed is brought to Fort Grant; she’s seen, peering into the tumbleweed wagon, studying its haul, and visiting the jail to spy on new arrivals. In a way she preludes the female vigilante played by Sondra Locke in Sudden Impact.
On its release, “Hang ‘Em High” turned out to be a big success. Like with every following Malpaso production, Clint made this film very efficiently and economically, for just $1.5 million; and the film returned close to $7 million, which is more than what “The Good the Bad and The Ugly” made. The film received mixed reviews, some praising it for being an exciting Western, while the others calling it blatant imitation of Leone Westerns, without their cool, amoral swagger. But that might be the reason why the film succeeded so well, Clint understood the American film audience perfectly: he gave them a film that looks and feels like a Spaghetti Western, but that does not revises or challenges the traditional Western hero template, as well as harkens back to the heroes he played on TV. Thus, he managed to satisfy the traditional Western fans, the Leone Western fans, and his fans from “Rawhide.” Post the success of this film, Clint will be part of some big productions, like “Paint your Wagon” and “Kelly’s Heroes”, but the bad experiences he had on those films will make him determined more than ever to pursue the small-scale route he took with this film, and through his own productions. As he said at the time, i can mess up my career better than anybody else can, so it’s better that i do it. That’s exactly how he would build up his long and legendary Hollywood film career: slowly, steadily, efficiently and with total control.