“You’re standing on the edge of a cliff. I don’t advise you going through life with your eyes closed.” – Doc Frail
Delmer Daves isn’t often remembered alongside the foremost western directors. Although in the 1950s, he crafted some stellar movies, and something less-heralded like The Hanging Tree is as much a testament to his legacy as anything he ever did. It puts a fine foot forward with a bouncy ballad courtesy of Marty Robbins and verdant imagery of epic proportions.
We’re in Montana, 1873, in gold country, and the local folks have caught the bug. Gary Cooper (in one of his last great performances) drifts into town on horseback. As he rides past, someone notes the local hanging tree makes people feel respectable. We know it will have imminent significance.
For now, he sets up shop as an M.D. named Doc Frail. The bustling town is being built as we speak, everyone in search of their own private “glory hole.” They are territorial and have no mercy for sluice robbers trying to pilfer their claims.
Frail is a curious figure because he hardly seems drawn to the same promise of riches as everyone else. There is a sense that this is as good a place to stop as any. Like Joel McCrea’s judge in The Stranger on Horseback, he is a man of vocation, who knows how to take care of himself while also adhering to a personal code of conduct. However, he also has a smoldering secret buried in his past creating a lingering specter over his present. Some men might deem him a saint and others a devil.
Could it be he has a higher calling altogether? His first good deed is to fix up the thief (Ben Piazza), who got winged in the arm. But he doesn’t let the young man named Rune off without payment. He salvaged the boy’s life and so he takes him on as a begrudging bondservant. Again, it feels like it’s all part of the veteran doctor’s plan.
Cooper takes to the role, and it informs the more casual even comical tone the film sets on initially. Sure there’s a lurking menace but for the time being Coop takes to the people and provides them the healthcare they desperately need. They’re obliged to him. What’s more, he’s not an outsider — some of the folks have made his acquaintance before — and he’s likable while ratting out the phonies.
Front and center is the jovial if slightly skeezy Frenchy, with Karl Malden turning in a vital performance to supply the story some direction. The other is a scripture-spouting drunkard named Bub (George C. Scott in an early role).
The rest of the tale is built out of the search for a lost stagecoach passenger. When she is found, the half-unconscious, blinded Swiss immigrant (Maria Schell) is nursed back to health by Doc. He shields her from both the light and the prying eye of the world outside.
If it’s not apparent already, The Hanging Tree gives off the aura of an entirely different brand of western, and it’s not just the Montana terrain. It also comes down to the pacing and how the characters relate to one another.
Over time, Rune feels beholden to Doc, and he becomes a loyal companion by association. The same might be said of Elizabeth as she has the doctor to thank for her health and her entire livelihood. For the time being, she “sees” only the good in him. But the movie would be too clean if he reciprocated directly.
He continually takes part in these elliptical games with others. His lady benefactor calls him cruel for bringing people close only to push them away, and she has a point. It’s true his decency and bedside manner is tempered by a bleakly cynical side. How do you reconcile such a thoughtful figure with the man in black who gambles by night?
One also comes to understand how ephemeral this community seems. Doc warns Elizabeth their current home is a crawling anthill that could blow away with the scum of the world. It’s true in six weeks it could be a ghost town. But she rejoins with a plucky resolve. There is no other way to tackle this world, and she takes to it gladly. She settles into her own grubstake, christened “The Lucky Lady Mine,” joining forces alongside Rune and Frenchy (and a silent partner).
The ending of the movie can only end in one place if it’s to make good on its title. It’s true we end up there. What’s curious is how joyous euphoria about striking it rich can turn people into a mob just the same if they were angry. Inhibitions get released and the world goes to hell with drink, lust, and incendiary male hedonism.
For me, everything falls together so conveniently I didn’t have time to consider the logic. There’s little need to. Gary Cooper sticks to his guns and does what he always has from the beginning of time and by that I mean The Virginian way back in 1929. His quiet boldness punctuates the madness, and it feels right, though not totally complete.
If nothing else, it’s worth the final shot and in case we didn’t catch the metaphor, a musical refrain reminds us, “The Hanging Tree was a tree of life for me.” Where the gold rush-crazed economy is gladly ditched for something more tangible and lasting. Where being granted eyes to see can be a sobering reality check while still leading us in pursuit of goodness. Because sometimes the hanging tree might just be the place we find salvation once we realize we’re not in control. We can’t always save others, especially when we are in need of saving ourselves.