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HANGING TREE, THE (director: Delmer Daves; screenwriters: Wendell Mayes/Halsted Welles/story The Hanging Tree by Dorothy M. Johnson; cinematographer: Ted D. McCord; editor: Owen Marks; music: Max Steiner; cast: Gary Cooper (Doc Joe Frail), Maria Schell (Elizabeth Mahler), Karl Malden (Frenchy Plante), Ben Piazza (Rune), George C. Scott (Dr. George Grubb), Karl Swenson (Tom Flaunce), Virginia Gregg (Edna Flaunce), John Dierkes (Society Red); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Martin Jurow/Richard Shepherd; Warner Brothers; 1959)
“Gold Rush western about man’s base nature.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Delmer Daves (“The Red House”/”Demetrius and the Gladiators”) unevenly directs this slow-paced strange Gold Rush western about man’s base nature, that was billed as a thinking man’s western. Despite falling apart and losing its edge because of over melodramatics, there’s a curious pull that left its emotionally moving mark on this viewer. The title song is strongly sung by Marty Robbins over the opening and closing credits. Writers Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles based their screenplay on the award-winning novel by Dorothy M. Johnson.

The film is set in 1878 in unlucky Skull Creek, a Montana mining camp (filmed near Yakima Washington) filled with mostly adventurous rabble and some decent folks looking to find a ‘glory hole’ and strike it rich. The newly arrived embittered mysterious medical doctor Joe Frail (Gary Cooper) hangs up his shingle in the camp. He’s an emotionally scarred man, as skilled with firearms as with medical instruments, who is haunted by his wife’s affair back in Illinois with his brother, and then her suicide. Afterwards he burned down his comfortable house and changed his name to Frail, hitting the western trail to prospect and practice medicine at a string of mining camps.

Rune (Ben Piazza, his film debut) is a young man who attempted to rob a sluice box and is found with a bullet in him by Frail and rescued after dangling from a cliff after escaping the hanging tree in this lawless part of the country. Frail takes the bullet out, but as payment and for his silence requires Rune to be his indentured servant.

A stagecoach is held up and the driver is severely injured while the other passengers are killed except for a beautiful blonde Swiss immigrant lady, Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), who was traveling to the mining camp with her father. Elizabeth is rescued in the wilderness by the untrustworthy Frenchy (Karl Malden), a sleaze who is given to wearing a ratty hat with ear flaps pulled down despite the warm weather. Frail takes over treating Elizabeth’s long recovery from the trauma, the second degree burns, the concussion and the blindness. The plot thickens as Frail stakes Elizabeth, upon her full recovery, to a grubstake with her new partner Frenchy, and they strike it rich. But when the piggish Frenchy wants to take her by force sexually, saying ” Frenchy’s waited long enough,” Frail kills him. Frail immediately faces the angry mob led by a hellfire preacher (George C. Scott, his film debut), who calls him ‘the butcher Devil,’ and they take him to the hanging tree. Mining partners Rune and Elizabeth pay back their debt to Frail by saving his life by giving up their gold to the mob.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”