Hang ‘Em High is Clint Eastwood’s cult western. It is also the first western in Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre as a producer. Interestingly, however, the movie had not been exalted as cult or canonical until recently. Following its release in the spring of 1968, Hang ‘Em High did not cause a brouhaha and was instead dismissed as an artistic disappointment. The film tries to imitate the recently established genre of spaghetti westerns, but does this somewhat clumsily. Hang ‘Em High is often contrasted to the famous Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966), also starring Clint Eastwood but directed by Sergio Leone, the forefather of spaghetti westerns. Invariably, it loses the game of contrasts. The film faired well at the box office, but fell out of favor with critics. In recent years, critics and larger audiences alike have reconsidered the merits of Hang ‘Em High. Its biggest value is that, just as other spaghetti westerns, Hang ‘Em High offers a bleak, albeit realistic, view of frontier justice. This paper will begin with the discussion of distinctions between westerns and spaghetti westerns, before seguing into the analysis of the film per se. Within this analysis, the plot, characters, love story and other important themes, as well as the sublime and the beautiful of the film will be discussed. Overall, the film deserves scholarly attention.
Westerns v. Spaghetti Westerns
According to the generally accepted definition, a western is a “film whose action, situated in the American West, is consistent with the atmosphere, the values and the conditions of existence in the Far West between 1840 and 1900” (Fridlund 6). Set in the barren, desolate areas of the American Old West, westerns usually depict the life of people on the anvil of harsh environment. Most commonly, however, westerns are based on the exploits and, alternatively, peccadillos of the central protagonist, who is a swarthy, suave and stoic cowboy and a skilled gunslinger. Chivalrous protagonists are usually opposed to outlaws and bandits. Specific settings include, but are not limited to, ranches and homesteads, jails and saloons, forts and stables, small-town thoroughfare and small frontier towns on the arid purlieus of civilization in general. Because westerns often revolve around the confrontation of cowboys with indigenous inhabitants of the frontier, Native America sites are also common. Similarly, westerners are well-recognized owing to the specific attributes and elements that appear in such films: horse-riding paraphernalia like spurs and lassos; distinctive cowboy clothes like denims, buckskins and cowboy hats; saloon habitués like gamblers and kind-hearted prostitutes; barroom brawls and shootouts; and, of course, the hanging tree.
Apropos western film plots, they most often revolve around a noble cowboy seeking to maintain law and justice in the ungodly, crime-ridden place. Usually, when a western town descends into crime and anarchy, a local rancher, territorial marshal, army officer or some other skilled marksman takes up the gun to mete out his own justice. The protagonists of westerns typically have pious intentions, persecuting train and bank robbers, capturing outlaws, reclaiming runaway stagecoaches and rustled cattle, dealing with posses in pursuit and simply behaving throughout with knightly aplomb and gallantry. One thing about classic westerns that would be perhaps depicted differently if they were shot today is the almost invariable vilification and demonization of Native Americans. They are commonly portrayed as savages plotting against the white man. The archetypal confrontation between Anglos and Mexicans would probably remain the same (Fridlund 6). Among other archetypal conflicts that lie at the root of westerns are civilization against wilderness, heroes against villains, sheriffs against outlaws, nomads against settlers, rugged individualism against the will of community, order against anarchy, and more.
Judging by the highest standards, westerns are a nostalgic tribute to the days of the untamed and uncharted American frontier. The popularity of westerns has surged and ebbed and surged again throughout the last century. This flexible and enduring genre has survived into the 21st century, but it is not as vibrant as it was between the 1930s and the 1960s – the heyday of western films. Interestingly, the prolific interest in Western films has led to the establishment of several subgenres, including revisionist westerns, science-fiction westerns, contemporary westerns and, of course, spaghetti westerns.
Spaghetti westerns merit special attention, given their relevance to the topic of this paper. Spaghetti westerns, essentially, are a subgenre of classic westerns. According to Bert Fridlund, the spaghetti western “has been described as an inferior imitation of the American western, a revitalization of the same in terms of visuals and music, or in terms of added realism” (3). Indeed, this sentence caps the original attitude towards the spaghetti westerns. The attitudes have changed somewhat over time and the term “spaghetti western” has lost some of the derision and derogation it originally implied, but the subgenre is still viewed as being somewhat inferior. Revisionists, for their part, tend to bestow an accolade on spaghetti westerns for their straightforward treatment of the atmosphere in the American Old West in the 19th century.
The name “spaghetti western” derives from the origins of these films. They were typically produced in Italian studios, by Italian directors, and in Italian language. With time, however, as the cast became increasingly multi-lingual, spaghetti westerns ceded some of their original features. “Emerging from the Italian studio system between 1962 and 1980”, the subgenre grew to include various trends, “from slapstick comedies to baroque tales of intrigue and horror film hybrids” (Fisher 1). Despite the original criticism leveled against spaghetti westerns, the subgenre was adopted by ethnic American producers and directors as well. Hang ‘Em High is but one example of a classic American western that incorporates elements of the spaghetti western.
Overall, spaghetti westerns are similar to classic westerns in terms of settings and other iconic elements. Just as classic westerns, they are full of vignettes from the bygone era. Spaghetti westerns are set in the same barren areas of the Wild West, feature the same paraphernalia and similar protagonists, and play with the same themes. But, unlike classic westerns, they were often shot on location in a desert. Another distinctive feature of spaghetti westerns is that they usually have lower budgets. The most important value of spaghetti westerns, however, is that they question the themes and elements of a classic western. They feature more violence in its raw and wanton form. Unlike in classic westerns, protagonists in spaghetti westerns do not have noble or pious motivations. Essentially, this subgenre reveals the inequities and iniquities of the law in the American Old West. They do not glorify the values and aspirations of the bygone era. Law-enforcement officers are commonly portrayed as miscreants abusing the law. These differences from classic westerns combine to explain, as Fisher put it, why spaghetti westerns are a “favorite of cult film buffs, and increasingly enjoy a mainstream renaissance, as audience and critics reassess its influential place in film history” (1).
The Plot of Hang ‘Em High
In line with the well-established ethos of the spaghetti western, Hang ‘Em High is a story of revenge. The film starts with a posse of self-anointed lawmen – a lynching mob, essentially – apprehending and soon stringing the central protagonist, Jed Cooper. They accuse Cooper of rustling a herd of cattle and murdering its legitimate owners, because he was spotted driving the herd across the river. Cooper denies the accusation, saying that he bought the cattle from another man and shows documents to prove his words. It transpires that the man who sold the herd to Cooper is the murderer, but the lawmen disregard these new details. Bringing an accusation against Cooper, presenting feeble inculpating evidence, holding debates and pronouncing a verdict, all this within one minute, the lynching mob proceeds with summary execution, hanging Cooper from the tree and promptly riding away.
By a fortunate stroke of serendipity, Federal Marshall Dave Bliss is passing by the scene on his steed. He cuts the rope and saves Cooper’s life. Taking him to Fort Grant, Bliss shows Cooper to Adam Fenton, local territorial judge. Fenton exonerates Cooper, showing him the real culprit. They promptly send him to the gallows. Yet, smacking the lust for further revenge that oozes from Cooper, Fenton cautions him against taking the law into his own hands and advises to desist from pursuing the men who had accosted him and tried to lynch him. Having found out that Cooper has background in jurisprudence, the friendly judge pins a badge on him, effectively appointing Cooper as a marshal.
The judge sends Cooper on dodgy errands, but the idea of bringing his offenders to justice does not desert Cooper. During one of his assignments, Cooper stumbles upon one of his nine offenders and tries to apprehend him, but is forced to shot the man dead because of resistance. Having learnt of Cooper’s innocence, another of the nine offenders yields himself prisoner and offers the names of the remaining seven mob members during his confession. Despite the exhortations of Judge Fenton, Cooper then sallies forth to round these seven men up. Operating in cohorts with Sheriff Calhoun, Cooper pursues the perpetrators in the vicinities. During one of their sorties, the two are sidetracked by another rustling-and-murder incident, with some of Cooper’s offenders involved. Catching the perpetrators, Cooper forbids another posse in pursuit from lynching them and carries them to Fort Grant instead. In Fort Grant, he saves the perpetrators from hanging again, explaining that they should be punished more leniently, although the prevailing public mood is in favor of hanging.
Cooper soon receives compensation for his cattle and Sheriff Calhoun uses this as a pretext for ending Cooper’s quest for justice. He admonishes Cooper to leave the rest of the mob that tried to lynch him alone, because they all are respected men. Nonetheless, Cooper is adamant in his desire to finish the dispensation of justice, incurring the wrath of the three mob members – Captain Wilson, Tommy and Loomis. When the great hanging day dawns, these three men lay an ambuscade on Cooper, but he manages to escape it, albeit not unscathed. Once recovered, Cooper persists with his goals, setting after Wilson, Tommy and Loomis to a nearby ranch. Cooper tries to enter the ranch unnoticed, but he is mauled by a guard dog. Shortly thereafter, a tussle ensues between Cooper and the three lynchers, leading to their perdition. Wilson sticks his head in the noose, while Tommy and Loomis die in the shootout with Cooper.
Towards the end of the film, Cooper beseeches Judge Fenton to show mercy for Jenkins, the most conscientious member of the lynching mob. After all, Jenkins was the only mob member who impugned the veracity of accusations against Cooper at the outset of the film, the only mob member who turned himself in, and the only mob member who felt bad about the entire incident. Fenton pardons Jenkins and, for his part, entreaties Cooper to continue his service as marshal, because, he explains, Maddow and Blackfoot – the two other Cooper’s offenders – are still on the prowl. Knowing their approximate whereabouts, Jed Cooper rides off to ferret out the two fugitives.
Characters in Hang ‘Em High
The key protagonist in Hang ‘Em High is apparently Clint Eastwood’s Jed Cooper. The action of the story revolves around him. Cooper behaves throughout the movie with aplomb and stoic forbearance. He is a loner even when he cooperates with other characters. Indeed, just as many other Clint Eastwood’s characters, Jed Cooper is most noticeable for his rugged individualism. He is solitary and brutal, handsome and resourceful. One thing that conspicuously absent in Cooper’s character is impropriety. Thus, even though he is seething with grievance and mortification, he does not resort to wanton violence, unless there is a need. Seeking justice for his assailants, he defines the word “justice” in strictly legal terms.
Discussing posse members individually would take too much space, so it would make greater sense to describe the posse in general, with separate credit given to its most noticeable members. Yet, it is necessary to name them at least. Thus, the riders are what Herzberg called a “varied but ruthless lot”: Captain Wilson, Miller, Maddow, Tommy, Loomis, Reno, Jenkins, Charlie Blackfoot and Matt Stone (179). Thus, at the outset of the film, these nine horsemen appear as industrious, law-abiding men, who have decided to take up the cudgels for their murdered neighbor. Yet, once they approach Cooper, their true nature heaves into view. Refusing to listen to his arguments and pleads of innocence, they decide to execute Jed. One posse member – Captain Wilson – appears as the most impetuous and, perhaps, avaricious. As the leader of the posse, he should have exhibited greater restraint and prudence. Clearly, the posse members appear as masters of their circumstances, even when they encounter challenges. They are subject to no law save for that which they have imposed on themselves to survive in the harsh and lawless environment of the Wild West.
As the storyline evolves, only one posse member is winnowed out as being remorseful and morally upright. He was the only man who deferred to Cooper’s protestations of innocence at the outset of the movie. He is the only man to turn himself in once he learns of Cooper’s innocence. He is the only man to cooperate with Cooper in his quest to bring justice to all lawbreakers. Ultimately, he is the only man to be justified by Cooper and pardoned by the judge.
Captain Wilson, Tommy and Loomis, by contrast, appear as the most cunning. In an attempt to escape the long hand of justice, as represented by Jed Cooper, they devise different plans and schemes. They first hide from Cooper, then try to buy him off. But, as Cooper resists all their threats and blandishments, Captain Wilson, Tommy and Loomis decide to carry on their fell ends and finish the unfished deed – that is, to kill Cooper.
Another group of characters that are best described together are Federal Marshal Dave Bliss, Territorial Judge Adam Fenton and Red Creek’s sheriff Ray Calhoun. Throughout the film, they support Cooper’s aspirations for justice. They vest legal authority in Cooper, but warn him to abide by the law and desist from seeking avenge through capital punishment. Judge Fenton – a gung-ho, authoritarian figure – is the most eccentric among them. The fact that this character is based on real-life “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and his courthouse on the edge of the Indian Territory in Arkansas” only adds flavor to the movie (Hughes 28). Sheriff Calhoun, too, is a flamboyant character with a powerful charisma. Yet, he respects Cooper’s warrants for arrests and, apart from several incidents, does not prevent Cooper’s dispensation of justice. At times, small quarrels and misunderstandings occur between Cooper and three other lawmen. Overall, however, they get along well.
As to female characters, two merit special attention. One is storekeeper Rachel with whom Cooper has a romantic affair. Another one is a brassy redhead named Jennifer, who is Cooper’s favorite prostitute. Another unidentified prostitute that appears briefly in one episode is Roxanne Tunis, Eastwood’s lover from his days on Rawhide (Hughes 28).
The Love Story and Other Important Themes in Characters in Hang ‘Em High
The love story in Hang ‘Em High is not certainly the central theme of the film. It receives little attention in the film. Although preoccupied with his responsibilities of a marshal and his own designs, Cooper finds time to visit a bordello. He even has a favorite prostitute, Jennifer. Yet, as the storyline evolves, Cooper develops a romantic affair with a nurse, Rachel Warren. The commendable side of their love story is that it is not a typical – banal, even – romantic affair, where the two lovers fall for each other immediately. Cooper invites Rachel on a junket and tries to osculate her, but the lady draws back. Rachel intimates her secrets to Cooper, explaining that she cannot forget her tragic past and is not ready for new relationships. On the downside, because it is incomplete, this love story serves more as distraction from the main narrative. Commenting on the relationship between Cooper and Rachel, James Neibaur has called it a “dull spot”, because it seems to be “dropped in to have some level of love interest in the movie, and never really goes anywhere” (50). Overall, whether the lack of a tempestuous romantic affair in Hang ‘Em High is a drawback or a merit is a matter of dispute.
There is another important theme in the film – the morality and legality of arbitrary justice and capital punishment. The moral of the film is clearly against the iniquities in the judicial system. Cooper himself commonly erupts in outpourings of bile when he ruminates about lynching and hanging and public support for them. When the crowd gathered to see the mass hanging of underage criminals, Cooper opines that the bloodthirsty crowd eager to watch the execution is as evil as the judge with no sense of compassion. In one of the last scenes, he argues that there is no difference between lynching and hanging a man after judging him. This is why he balks at continuing his service as a marshal. Judge Fenton tis on the defensive, arguing that things will change once the government will be established, turning their “God-forsaken territory into a state”. Ultimately, Cooper agrees to continue his service as a marshal to further justice. Overall, Cooper’s behavior is an effective remonstration against the iniquities in the legal system of the uncivilized American West.
Hang ‘Em High v. Other Westerns
With an estimated budget of $1.8 million, Hang ‘Em High grossed $6.8 in the US alone (Herzberg 181). By that time’s standards, it was not quite a huge box-office success, but it faired comparatively good to other westerns. Compared to the famous Dollar Trilogy, it failed. With a total budget of nearly $2 million for the three movies, the Dollar Trilogy grossed $280 million (Herzberg 181). The reaction to the movie was also ambiguous: some critics lauded it, while others dismissed it as mere dross. Many ordinary viewers were left with a feeling of desolation after watching. Celebrated screenwriter and novelist Brian Garfield, for one, launched into a scathing diatribe against Hang ‘Em High in his book A Complete Guide to Western Films:
Intriguing complexities were implied in the character of Jedediah Cooper, but the writers, the director, nor the star could bring these complexities to life. The end result is that the film, Hang ‘Em High, like Clint Eastwood’s voice, was a thin expressionless whisper that left many audiences dissatisfied because of what it might have been. It failed to promote any emotion. Several themes potentially were quite moving, but they passed too quickly to register… Hang ‘Em High started as a first-rate idea and ended as a superficial oater that went through the motions, but left one with a feeling of having wasted two hours.: We hadn’t been stirred, we hadn’t enjoyed it, we hadn’t seen enough to think about… (25)
True to Garfield’s words, Hang ‘Em High leaves one with a sinking feeling. It brings little entertainment. Likewise, it provides little food for thought. It is only when one sets to watch it after some preliminary research that Hang ‘Em High will open up a motherlode of broader themes for rumination. In and of itself, however, it is vapid, especially if compared to other westerns.
Ultimately, however, the conclusion as to whether Hang ‘Em High is better or worse than most westerners will depend on the individual preferences of the viewer and, more broadly, on the yardstick chosen for the comparison. Thus, compared to classic westerns, Hang ‘Em High is – as simply as it sounds – different. The opening sequence in Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High encapsulates the plot of an earlier western – The Ox-Bow Incident (Cullen 29). Essentially, Clint Eastwood culled the plot from this earlier western and used it as a beginning for his own story. Yet, as Cullen notes, whereas The Ox-Bow Incident emphasizes the “miscarriage of justice resulting from the absence of effective legal authority”, “Hang ‘Em High uses it as a point of departure for a journey in a more complex and ambiguous direction” (Cullen 29). Curiously enough, this is a departure from the entire genre. Although Cooper himself looks like a character from classic westerns, other lawmen from Hang ‘Em High, with their prejudices and predilections for wanton violence, are typical spaghetti western protagonists.
Compared to spaghetti westerns, Hang ‘Em High does not meet all the criteria of this subgenre. It has only elements of the spaghetti western. Its honest, straight and down-to-earth depiction of lawmen, as mentioned above, is one such element. Another one is the omnipresent violence. As Roger Ebert has put it, Cooper has set out to “gather enough scabs, scars, blisters and rope burns to satisfy the sado-masochistic standards set by Leone”, a legendary spaghetti western director (1). The subject-matter of film is mostly in line with the ethos of spaghetti westerns.
The Sublime and the Beautiful in Hang ‘Em High
With all its violence, Hang ‘Em High has little room for the sublime and the beautiful. There is so much violence in the film that one is, in fact, overwhelmed by it. Yet, the film offers occasional respites from fighting, shooting, hanging, killing and aggression in general. Thus, Hang ‘Em High has several scenes showing the majesties of the Wild West in all their glory. Indeed, the film combines romantic, windswept frontier landscapes with rugged rural terrain. The mighty, albeit fordable, river that at the outset of the movie also looks wonderful. Although the landscaping is generally barren, it looks awe-inspiring to those who live in places with lush vegetation.
Another beautiful aspect of the movie is that it captures the zeitgeist of life in the Wild West in the 19th century. The carnivalesque public holiday atmosphere that reigns in Fort Grant on some occasions is one example. The costumes of the main protagonists and the public in general are yet another example.
For lack of better alternative, one could also refer to the appearance of some protagonists as the sublime in the film. Indeed, both girls and heterosexual boys, if they are impartial, would perhaps agree that young Clint Eastwood is beautiful. But, overall, only an incorrigible optimist or a callous psychopath will pay attention to the sublime in the film.
Overall, Hang ‘Em High leaves one with equivocal feelings. It is fast-paced and engaging. The film’s rich western cast, which blends budding talent with experienced actors, adds some pithiness to it. The barren, but nonetheless magnificent, landscapes in the film convey the delights of life in the American Old West. Yet, on the other hand, the plot is somewhat boring and does not hold the viewer in suspense. Similarly, the love story is weaved into the narrative clumsily rather than seamlessly. Because of its particular style, one could agree with the critic’s review, calling the film “a poor American-made imitation of a poor Italian-made imitation of an American-made western” (Hughes 19). Yet, again, the fact that Hang ‘Em High offers a bleak, albeit realistic, view of frontier justice is its big value, regardless of what critics say. Hence, the epithet “spaghetti western” used in relation to Hang ‘Em High is lauding rather than offending. Hang ‘Em High has a solid 7 out of 10 from over 25,000 reviewers on IMDB and 3.5 out of 5 from over 32,000 reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes. This perhaps means that the viewers have come to reconsider the merits of Hang ‘Em High.