The Hanging Tree

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This article is about the 1959 movie. For other uses, see Hanging tree (disambiguation).
The Hanging Tree
Poster of the movie The Hanging Tree.jpg
Directed by Delmer Daves
Produced by Martin Jurow
Richard Shepherd
Written by Dorothy M. Johnson (novel)
Wendell Mayes
Halsted Welles
Starring Gary Cooper
Maria Schell
Karl Malden
George C. Scott
Ben Piazza
Music by Jerry Livingston (title song)
Max Steiner
Cinematography Ted D. McCord
Edited by Owen Marks
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) February 11, 1959
Running time 106 min.
Language English
Box office $2.2 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[1]

The Hanging Tree is a 1959 movie directed by Delmer Daves. Karl Malden took over directing duties for several days when Daves fell ill. The film stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, George C. Scott and Malden and is set in the gold fields of Montana during the gold rush of the 1860s and 1870s. There are actually several subliminal aspects to the story plot that lie just under the surface of the basic premise of this somewhat obscure cinematic masterpiece, which elevate this movie to a whole other level of psychological complexity than the typical western movie.

Principal photography was done on location in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area; it is located in the mountains west of Yakima, Washington. The movie scenes during the opening movie credits and movie title, where Gary Cooper rides alongside the river on horseback with a pack horse in tow, were filmed about mid-June in 1958, just northeast of Goose Prairie, Washington, along the north bank of the Bumping River. In those river scenes during the opening movie credits, the two snowy mountain peaks prominently shown in the background are located southeast of Goose Prairie around the headwaters of Thunder Creek, which is the drainage visible between the two mountain peaks. The fictional small gold mining town of Skull Creek in the movie was a temporary movie set constructed along the south side of Little Rattlesnake Creek by its confluence with Rattlesnake Creek, just southwest of Nile, Washington.

The story follows a doctor who saves a criminal from a lynch mob, then learns of the man's past and tries to manipulate him. This marked the first film of Scott. He and Malden later teamed for 1970's Patton, for which Scott won an Academy Award. Also the film has in its soundtrack the western ballad "Hanging Tree". It was scored by Max Steiner and written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston who received nominations for the Laurel Awards and the Academy Awards in 1960. The text is a short reference to the film's story. It was also released on the reissue of the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959) by Marty Robbins who performed this song in the opening credits of this film. A known cover-version is by Frankie Laine who performed this song at the 32nd Academy Awards.

Plot Summary[edit]

Joseph Frail—doctor, gambler, gunslinger—rides into town looking to set up a business. He passes by the "hanging tree," an old oak with a thick branch over which has been slung a noose.

He rescues Rune, a sluice robber who has been shot, and forces him into indentured servitude.

A stagecoach is robbed and overturned, killing the driver and a male passenger. But the daughter of the male passenger is believed to have survived. A search party is formed, and Elizabeth Mahler is found by the town opportunist, "Frenchy."

Cripled by burns, blindness and dehydration received from overexposure, Elizabeth is moved into the doctor's house to begin her recovery. The placement causes much chagrin among the town's women, who believe that Elizabeth may be paying for her medical care through illicit behavior.

Frenchy sneaks in under the guise of trying to strike a business deal with Elizabeth, but instead tries to forcefully kiss her. Frail witnesses the aggression and chases Frenchy back to town. Frail beats him up and threatens to kill him. There are many witnesses, including a mad faith healer, Dr. Grubb, who sees Frail's medical practice as a threat.

Elizabeth regains her sight and makes romantic overtures toward Frail. He rejects her. She leaves in a huff, determined to strike it rich as a prospector so that she can pay off Frail and get out from under his control.

She teams up with Rune and Frenchy, who plan to buy a claim and set up a sluice. To get money, she pawns a family heirloom. It is worthless, but Frail tells the pawnbroker to give her however much money she needs. Thus Frail secretly continues to control her.

She finds out and asks Frail why he couldn't respond to her affection. He reveals that his wife had an affair with his own brother. He found them together, both dead, an apparent murder-suicide. In a rage, he burned down their house with their bodies in it. He tells Elizabeth he is "not allowed to forget."

The trio of Elizabeth, Frenchy and Rune strike it rich, finding a "glory hole" of gold under a tree stump. They ride into town as heroes, tossing pieces of gold to the townsfolk. The gaiety quickly turns into a riot led by the lawless members. While the lawful citizens of the town are engaged in firefighting, Frenchy takes advantage of the commotion to make advances on Elizabeth. Her disinterest sparks his brutal physical assault as he attempts to rape her. Frail again catches Frenchy during this new aggressive act, but this time kills him. The lawless portion of rioting people in town witness this.

Seeing his opportunity to remove his "competition", the faith healer incites the mob to lynch Frail. They carry him to the hanging tree and string him up. Rune and Elizabeth rush in carrying their gold and the deed to the claim. Elizabeth offers everything to the townsfolk if they will let Frail live. As the mob members fight each other to grab the gold and claim document, the lynch party disperses.

Elizabeth feels she has finally paid Frail back. Rune takes the noose off and Frail calls out to Elizabeth to come back.



  1. ^ "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34

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