Noted as Gary Cooper‘s last starring western I knew he had something special in The Man of the West (1958) could the same darkness be replicated? The answer is complicated really. One you don’t have Anthony Mann behind the camera, Man of the West was really his last great film before his death. What we have in The Hanging Tree (1959) is a film about our primitive urges as human beings, not exploring all of them in real depth but at least scratching under the surface of the idea to reveal just how easily lead we can be as a group, a society when pushed, and not even that hard.
When Dr. Joseph ‘Doc’ Frail (Cooper) rides into yet another boom town, gold is being found and spent. A good ol’ fashioned hanging is taking place over a a crime that is never made clear. The whole town i is there, driven by revenge and a sense of justice, a law and order that they all get behind, you break the law and you break your neck. The Doc looks on saying little, is he different from these average townspeople who are hungry for gold, living on a shoe-string at times until their luck comes in. In this opening sequence you can see no expense is spared as the surrounding landscape is built upon to bring this gold-mining community alive of only for a few month as filming got under way in Washington-state, a landscape straight out of the classics which we identify as the old west, a perfect setting for a forgotten way of life.
We don’t have to wait long to discover what the Doc is like as he treats his first patient Rune (Ben Piazza) for a gunshot wound after stealing gold from another mans (Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) mine. With no money to pay him for his services another method is needed, becoming his man-servant, a slave almost to the doctor, a public figure who the community should look-up to. A private arrangement based on blackmail brings these two men together, one of slave and master, both white so invisible to those around them. The Doc’s reputation is one that precedes him, one of dark acts that they cannot forget. Having both friends and enemies in the town.
A hard man who is tough to break until a stagecoach hold-up leaving one survivor who suffers badly under the sun. Its set-up like a car crash hit and run, rolling down the hill, minus the explosion. The Doc takes his time to visit his latest patient a foreign girl Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) who is to become his most important patient after taking all kinds of payment for his work. From a simple kiss from a child on the cheek, to receiving horses. He’s more like the traditional image of Doc Holiday than your average frontier doctor wanting to treat the sick and heal the wounded after gun0fight. He does have compassion and drive to do his job, sometimes his motives can be questioned.
Once he has comet the aid of Elizabeth he hardly leaves it until she is on the road to recover, when we see another side to Cooper’s character, something I didn’t find as Link Jones in Man of the West whose violent past came back to haunt him. Here we have a man driven by his urges, unable to shake them off, something bathing in them as he lashes out, especially opposite Frenchy who at least admits that he’s only human. You could say he’s a pervert by todays standard, washed down for the 1950’s. He can much like Rune can see through the doctors image to find a possessive figure who won’t let Elizabeth go once better.
When the three (Elizabeth, Rune and Frenchy) of them team up and stake a claim which is propped up by Doc behind the scenes. Never far away from the trio, pulling the strings, supporting Elizabeth, a confident woman who won’t take any messing about. When the success comes the trio’s away, striking gold, mayhem ensues in the town. Giving into basic urges following the few leading to destruction and eventually death in the town, bringing us back full circles, that little seen or spoken of tree of justice is brought back, Showing just how human and flawed we are, following the crowd, our greed and desire for safety are out of control, no measure of fairness, witness and crime and prosecute.
For Coopers last western, not quite his last leading role but certainly in the American frontier he has come full circle from being the all round hero who saves the day to being a flawed and complicated man. The male figure is not so straight forward in reality, not even in the west are things that simple, finding ways to survive, making mistakes in their past and trying to live with them. All in the midst of all the progress in the gold rush and the drive for law and order. What I can take away from this film is the landscapes and complicated characters who try to look into the darker side of life.