Montana, 1973, and the Gold Rush there is in full swing as prospectors from around the country and beyond seek their fortune. But some are less moral than others, as seen when Rune (Ben Piazza) tries to steal a nugget from the sluices and is shot by the man who notices him, Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), though not mortally. Rune escapes, but he has help, for he climbs a hill in great pain and meets a newcomer to the area, Doc Frail (Gary Cooper), who has arrived to set up a medical practice there. Doc is a man of principle and has faith in allowing people to help themselves by helping them in turn, but he is out here in the middle of nowhere for a reason - something happened to his wife.
The Hanging Tree was based on a bestselling novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, and then, as now, Hollywood liked to adapt the popular books, although not always with great success. As it was, this one did fair business at the box office, but was not a runaway blockbuster, despite a director, Delmer Daves, who was enjoying a run of very strong Westerns: this signified the last of that run, as he was assigned to youth soap opera like A Summer Place afterwards, and as that was a huge hit, he wasn't allowed back out West by the studio to continue his most artistically satisfying streak. Not helping was his health, and he had to leave the set for the last few days to have stomach ulcer treatment.
Still, considering it could have resulted in a poorer picture than the one we got (Malden assisted in getting it completed), The Hanging Tree is very good indeed. So much so that its mixture of adventure and mature, lucidly delivered lessons has gathered a cult following down the years that many of its contemporaries failed to pick up. This was closer to the psychological Westerns of Anthony Mann - Cooper had recently finished one of his films, Man of the West, another cult classic - as it delved into the motivations of its characters and mused over what it took for a nation to become civilised, or actually, consider itself civilised when the truth may be some distance from that.
Cooper was beginning to hit a physical decline at this point, and that translated into an oddly ethereal performance here, yes, Doc gets into gunfights and fistfights, but mostly he is a ghostly presence looming on the hill above the town, theoretically benevolent yet since some are aware of his possibly shady past (we never find out if he has been responsible for his wife and brother's deaths, and that mystery gives him an edge) he could have the potential to turn on any one of them. However, that is not what happens, as he embodies the spirit of the once-savage society turning away from that brutality and towards a more measured and caring one, not something that everyone there is about to embrace, either being uncouth or hypocritically judgemental, thanks to their religion.
The supposedly respectable characters are not above embracing gossip and suspicion to gain the moral high ground, which is unsteady enough as it is, and their holier than thou attitude fuels the violence of the rougher townsfolk. Interestingly, the only preacher character is a delusional drunk, quoting Bible verses and verbally attacking Doc every chance he gets since he distrusts the medical man's scientific ways; it would be nice to think that character belonged in the past, yet is another reason this film has a surprisingly modern outlook, which may be the most sobering aspect. The plot's fulcrum is the discovery of an injured and blinded woman, Maria Schell, who Doc takes into his care to aid her recovery. Frenchy, having found her, treats her like a gold claim and wants to have her for himself, even if that means rape, and the town gossips spread the worst rumours about her and Doc's entirely innocent relationship which builds to the bloodthirsty climax. The Hanging Tree counts as an undiscovered gem, but more discover it each year. Music by Max Steiner.
American director best known for the 1959 melodrama A Summer Place, but who also directed nearly 30 films and wrote many more over a 40-year career. The law graduate made his debut in 1943 with the war drama Destination Tokyo with Cary Grant, and other notable films include the Bogart/Bacall noir Dark Passage, Never Let Me Go with Clark Gable, and the Westerns Broken Arrow, The Last Wagon and 3:10 To Yuma, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel. After the success of A Summer Place, Daves followed with equally soapy offerings Susan Slade, Rome Adventure and The Battle Of The Villa Fiorita. Daves also wrote or co-wrote the screenplays to classics The Petrified Forest, Love Affair and An Affair to Remember.