“THE HANGING TREE: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray; 1959; Not Rated, contains mature themes and violence
Best extra: None
DOUBLE-Oscar winner Gary Cooper – “High Noon” (1952) and “Sergeant York” (1941) – stars again in one of his last films, “The Hanging Tree.”
It’s directed by Delmer Daves of “Spencer’s Mountain” (1963) with uncredited assistance from a young Karl Malden, who co-stars with Cooper, and Vincent Sherman. The script is by action-dramatist Wendell Mayes of “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “Death Wish” (1974), and Halsted Welles, best known for TV action shows and “3:10 to Yuma.” It was adapted from a story by bestselling Western writer Dorothy M. Johnson (“Buffalo Woman,” “A Man Called Horse” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”)
Whew – with a pedigree like that, we’d expect one of the best Westerns ever made. It’s beautifully filmed by “The Sound of Music” cinematographer Ted D. McCord, an expert at capturing mountain vistas. Yakima, Washington, subs for Montana, but the story is more human drama than Western, and runs slow for today’s tastes. Still, it boasts energetic performances in Malden’s gold miner Frenchy, and George C. Scott’s film debut as hard-drinking religious fanatic George Grubb. (We did not recognize him.) Austrian Maria Schell plays enigmatic romantic interest Elizabeth Mahler.
Cooper’s Joseph “Doc” Frail is another mystery figure, similar to many of his film rolls. He’s as good with a six-gun as he is with a scalpel. Dressed all in black – with nary a trace of dust or grime – he’s set up shop outside the mining town of Skull Creek, Montana. He takes charge of Mahler’s care when she’s found near dead and sun-blind after a stage coach robbery. Most of the film’s budget went to recreating an authentic mining town, with its mix of upright and lowlife folk, who either admire or mistrust Frail, rumored to have murdered his wife and brother after catching them in an affair.
The doctor is at times tender and hard-edged, and a confirmed isolationist. He spurns Mahler’s affections once he gently nurses her back to health and sight. She leaves Frail’s more civilized household to join up with Frenchy and Frail’s bondsman Rune (Ben Piazza) to work a gold mine. They strike it rich and, during the celebration, a drunken Frenchy tries to rape her. Frail intervenes and, the next thing we know, the townsfolk are out to hang him.
So, no – not a standard “Western.” “The Hanging Tree” should benefit from that, but reaction has been mixed. It wasn’t a hit when released; too long and too brooding, without much action. Cooper, who was suffering from old injuries, was playing to type. Still, there are plenty of fans who believe it’s one of the best Westerns made, and critics who consider it a not-to-be-missed classic.
There’s no doubt “The Hanging Tree” is a Technicolor beauty. Its new 1080p transfer (1.78:1 ratio, original 1.85:1) looks exceptional. The original 35mm negative, discovered in surprisingly good condition, was scanned at 4K. Blemishes were removed, while color levels were refined and boosted. We definitely get that super-saturated color blast from green woods, golden mining areas, and clothing. Detail, textures and contrast are excellent – and consistent – throughout. It is a memorable viewing experience.
The mono soundtrack was cleaned and upgraded to DTS-HD MA 2.0. Dialogue is delivered clearly, with good, immersive environmental sound and effects. Hooves thunder over the trails, gunshots blast around the room, and fight scenes place viewers in the action. The title song composed by Jerry Livingston and Mack David was nominated by the Academy Award committee for best music, original song. It’s sung by Western balladeer Marty Robbins, Grammy winner for his classic “El Paso.”
Warner Archive Collection includes the original trailer as its lone bonus feature. It gives viewers an opportunity to contrast the Blu-ray improvements, but it’s a shame we didn’t get more background on the production and actors.
- Kay Reynolds