Plot: What’s it about?
I love films about the taming of the American West. There is so much material about that time in our country’s history that is perfect for adaptation into novels and films. These films range from melodramas about the perils of frontier life to revenge dramas to Cowboy and Indian pictures. WB Archive Collection recently released the film The Hanging Tree on Blu-ray. When I saw the name of the film and the star of the picture – Gary Cooper- I assumed the film would be a pretty standard Western film with a standard revenge plot. Instead, I was treated to a film about life during the gold rush.
A doctor named Joseph Frail (Gary Cooper) rolls into a gold mining town, Skull Creek, and buys a home for $500 in gold pieces. He sets up shop while across town a young man named Rune (Ben Piazza) is shot by Frenchie Plant (Karl Malden) when he attempts to take a piece of gold from a sluice box. Joe saves Rune from the ensuing mob and removes the bullet from him. Joe puts Rune into forced servitude to pay him back for saving his life. Rune begrudgingly agrees. The doctor quickly gains a reputation in town for being fair and stern. When a drunken soothsayer (George C. Scott) arrives at his door, the doctor throws his bottle of whiskey down the hill and shoots at the ground until the man is gone. In a poker game a man brings up that Joseph had burnt down a house, and Joe promptly knocks him out of his chair. When confronted about this by Rune, Joe dodges the question and assigns extra work for Rune. Outside of town, a group of bandits rob a stage coach and all the passengers are killed but the driver and a lady. The lady, recent Swiss immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell,) is badly burned by the sun but the doctor is able to save her life. As her eyes recuperate she begins to develop a friendship with the two men while the town gossips about them. When Frenchie makes advances on the blind Elizabeth, Joe warns him that he will kill him if he comes near her again. Elizabeth grows feelings for Joe but he pushes her away.
This film does not follow the standard formula of happiness destroyed – seeking out the perpetrator – perpetrator destroyed in grisly fashion. Instead, it develops characters that are more complex than they seem at first glance. Gary Cooper is excellent in the role of Joseph, adding careful nuance to the character in each scene. I have always enjoyed watching Cooper on screen, and he does excellent work here. Karl Malden, who is great in everything, steals every scene he is in. He is awesome. It is also a lot of fun to see George C. Scott in his first film performance. The film is directed by Delmer Daves who directed such classics as 3:10 to Yuma and Broken Arrow. The screenwriters are noteworthy. Wendell Mayes had written Anatomy of a Murder which was nominated for seven Oscars that same year. Halsted Welles had written 3:10 to Yuma. Between the two screenwriters, adapting from the novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, there was a good amount of depth given to the characters and setting. It feels like the West without a lot of bells and whistles to achieve the effect. It feels dangerous without putting characters directly into gunfights. That said, the pacing may be a little slow compared to many films about this time and setting.
Shot in Wyoming, in Technicolor, the film uses the vast landscape to fill the screen. It is a very pretty film with a lot of great photography in the old Day for Night camera filter. Delmer Daves did a good job of directing his actors and relied on some excellent cinematography by Ted D. McCord who used some of those same large scale frames in shooting The Sound of Music.
Overall, I would not rank this as one of the all-time great films or Westerns, but I enjoyed it and would recommend checking it out. I am glad that Warner is committed to bringing over smaller titles like this that really benefit from the Blu-ray format.
Video: How’s it look?
Warner Archive have provided a brand new 1080p HD transfer that was remastered specifically for this release using an MPEG-4 AVC encode from a brand new 4K scan of the film. The film was shot in 1.85:1 and is presented in an 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Warner had scanned a 4K of the original color negative and had astounding results. All said and done, this film looks every bit as good as the recent Twilight Time release of The Man From Laramie in terms of detail and color correction. The cinematography by Ted D. McCord finds great angles that show off the Wyoming countryside beautifully. This is a great example of how good films can look when properly restored by caring professionals. Fans will be delighted.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The Hanging Tree has been given a solid DTS-HD MA 2.0 track from the original Mono tracks off of the magnetic master. Cleaned of any hiss or noticeable sound fluctuations, this track has a lot more to offer than you might expect. There is always the presence of Max Steiner’s orchestration throughout the film and the film is pretty active due to the bustling western town that seems liable to erupt into mobs at the behest of any drunken miner. Dialogue is clear and this track is very well done.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Theatrical Trailer
The Bottom Line
The Hanging Tree is a good film in a beautiful Western setting. Gary Cooper is great and I really enjoyed seeing George C. Scott in his first film role. Karl Malden is excellent. The pacing for the film is a bit slower than some other films in this genre, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The team at Warner Archive has done a truly remarkable job on the video transfer of the film. Fans should be pleased enough with that to overlook the lack of special features.