Review: Hang ‘Em High (1968)

HANG ’EM HIGH (1968)
Dir. Ted Post

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Imagine if one of the hard-done-by herdsmen of The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) survived the miscarriage of justice that left him twitching at the end of a rope, add a dash of Spaghetti sauce, and you have some idea of the premise of Ted Post’s 1968 dark justice-drama Hang ’Em High.

Clint Eastwood is Jeb Cooper, the nice-guy cowhand falsely accused of rustling and murder. His vigilante capturers string him up as hastily as it can be managed but ride off prematurely, leaving Jeb to be rescued by a passing marshal and ushered back to town for a fair trial. Cleared of all charges but offered only a pittance for his trouble, he accepts a job as a lawman himself and sets his mind to bringing his attackers to justice the legal way—that is, if he can help himself.

Eastwood’s silent-but-violent characterization of Cooper clearly bears the influence of Hang ’Em High’s Spaghetti Western predecessors, although Post’s film conspicuously eschews the free-wheeling vengeance of European contemporaries like Death Rides a Horse (1967) to attempt a more intriguing and problematic portrait of violence and justice in the Old West.

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The problem with this is that Eastwood’s minimalist characterization doesn’t provide the emotional cues required by a story with as many latent moral questions as this. The film isn’t the violent Spaghetti Western imitation we might expect; similarly, Hang ’Em High has action enough, but it isn’t an action film. In lieu of this, we need more than a Dollars impression from Eastwood: a performance that better carries the mood of the narrative and allows more insight into his behavior. This situation, that creates “drama” with too little human at its center, is not helped by the forced atmospheres of Dominic Frontiere’s score: all thunder and doom in the film’s early scenes—tolling bells and ominous military snares that contrast starkly with the bright, romantic landscapes on display.

Fortunately, Hang ’Em High has a great many redeeming features, all of which present themselves in the film’s latter half. A surprisingly sensitive depiction of the villains is the first indication of the film’s interest in exploring the harshness of penalties meted out for criminality, and the manner in which violent “justice” inspires equally violent means of evasion.

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The most compelling aspects of Post’s film are those which implicitly question the foundational role of violence in U.S. history. It exhibits a clear concern with the connection between bloodshed and community “togetherness”—here expressed through the desire for statehood—and with the role of punitive state violence as a kind of morbid entertainment.

Hang ’Em High is not without flaws that prevent it being as affecting as it might be (the romantic subplot feels especially half-hearted). However, these flaws are ultimately outweighed by the intriguing and original presentation of still-relevant issues relating to vengeance, and the irony of using violence to maintain an image of civility. 3.5 / 5

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