Hang 'em High (1968)

Genres - Western  |   Sub-Genres - Revisionist Western  |   Run Time - 114 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - PG13
  • AllMovie Rating
  • User Ratings (0)
  • Your Rating

Share on

Review by Bruce Eder

When Hang 'em High first appeared, it was dismissed by many critics as a pale shadow of the Italian-made Westerns that Clint Eastwood had made with director Sergio Leone during the mid-'60s. In fact, the movie offered far more than was perceived by most reviewers, and a range of virtues that set it apart from the Leone films. Eastwood's portrayal of Jed Cooper, for a start, was a surprisingly subtle and complex performance, displaying a range of varied and conflicted emotions just below the surface that made his character far more fully developed than any of his prior portrayals. Pat Hingle was equally important to the movie's success, bringing a deep and serious interpretive talent to the part of Judge Adam Fenton. He was based on the real-life figure of Isaac Charles Parker (1838-1896), the judge in charge of the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas, based in Fort Smith. In his 21 years on that bench, Parker issued 160 death sentences, resulting in 79 executions. His first week at Fort Smith resulted in rulings leading to a six-man hanging, very much like the one depicted in Hang 'em High, complete with a huge crowd of on-lookers, hymn-singing, and prayers, as well as massive press coverage. Eastwood and Hingle's scenes together are so good that one just wants to replay them, though Hingle's greater experience does show his performance coming from a much deeper place inside of himself than Eastwood's. They get extraordinary support by a uniformly good cast: Dennis Hopper, barely recognizable as a lunatic called "The Prophet," who dies in the opening minutes of the film; James Westerfield in a wryly ironic portrayal of a doomed prisoner; Bob Steele as the conscience-stricken Jenkins; Bruce Dern as the manipulative and bloodthirsty Miller; James MacArthur as the preacher, leading the prayers and hymns at the mass-hanging; Bert Freed as Schmidt, the taciturn hangman; Ben Johnson as Bliss, Fenton's best deputy marshal; and Michael O'Sullivan as the hapless murderer Francis Duffy, leaving this earth after giving a mournful speech, in the kind of scene that could make a career. Director Ted Post pulls all of these elements together into a graceful, compelling, spellbinding whole that's as much a serious drama as a Western, and as much an epic about the settling of the west. Very much in the manner of The Wild Bunch and William S. Hart's Tumbleweeds, among other classics of the genre, it is a personal, character-driven tale of revenge. Eastwood would make more artful and ambitious Westerns in the '70s and beyond, but Hang 'em High -- which was co-produced by his fledgling company, Malpaso -- was an exceptional beginning and his best work in the genre up to that time.