Warner Brothers have released 1959 Western The Hanging Tree on Blu-ray on the Archive Collection. The film stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Karl Swenson, Virginia Gregg and Ben Piazza.
The Hanging Tree is directed by accomplished director Delmer Daves. Daves is known for his fantastic noir Dark Passage, the eerie thriller The Red House and the fantastic westerns 3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, and Broken Arrow. He directs mostly character-driven narratives and seems to be more optimistic in his studies in human nature. The Hanging Tree is no different in this regard. The cinematography is done by the great Ted D. McCord, known for classics like The Sound of Music, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and East of Eden.
The story certainly has the potential to heavily swing to the dark side of man. Gary Cooper (in one of his last film roles) stars as Dr. Joseph Frail. He is a card shark, a natural with guns and a medical doctor. It’s 1873 and Frail decides to settle down in the small Montana town of Skull Creek. Frail’s background is mysterious to the audience as well as the town, but we see him help a criminal hide from an angry mob that wants to hang him. Frail helps him mend his wounds but also starts to manipulate the thief with that secret knowledge.
George Grubb the town preacher, played by George C. Scott in his first movie role, tries to convince everyone that Frail is actually the devil in disguise, mostly because of his mysterious past, demeanor, and skill with guns. Frail’s past does come back to haunt him, especially as more crime starts taking place around the sleepy town and folks start to become less and less happy with his presence there. Will Frail’s decisions and past hurt his chances at a new life? Is he really evil incarnate? You’ll just have to watch to find out.
I enjoyed this film quite a bit. The story was intelligently written and the actors did a good job of fleshing out the characters. Karl Malden does an impressive job of being a sleazy character and I liked the uneasy interplay between George C. Scott and Gary Cooper in their scenes together. It would be easy to just write the film off as “another western” from the cover but I think that would be a mistake. It’s an underrated gem that needs to reach a wider audience. Thankfully with this new physical release, it will have that opportunity.
The journey for this film to get to us was not an easy one. The Hanging Tree was not a major success at the box office and basically faded from the public eye in the years following its release. It was an odd time for movie westerns since it was past the days of “good guys wear white, bad guys wear black” simplification of characters but before the anti-hero, grey area spaghetti westerns and ultra-violent shootouts and gritty morals were the norms. However, because of the actors and crew involved the film had a bit of a cult following and there was a desire to see it made more available.
There were rights issues for awhile and difficulty finding a good print. I don’t remember this playing regularly on television. For a while the only available print was a poor transfer that had been trimmed to a smaller aspect ratio.
Thankfully I’m happy to report that the restoration work looks fantastic on this Blu-ray. Much of the film was shot near Yakima, Washington and the gorgeous nature parks there. The area is not too far from where I live and I have visited there many times to examine its beauty.
The restoration really does the area justice. Bob Ross would delight in the vivid colors of the mingling browns and green, so many happy trees. Of course, this means that costuming, indoor sets and filming day for the night just stick out that much more to modern eyes but that’s to be expected from a modestly budgeted film from the late 50’s. If you have ever seen this movie before you will need to watch it again with this new transfer because it’s like seeing it for the first time. This is an exceptional Blu-ray release.
The Hanging Tree Final Thoughts:
If you are a fan of Gary Cooper or character driven Westerns you definitely need The Hanging Tree in your Blu-ray collection. The picture quality is outstanding and clearly, a lot of work went into the restoration of it. This Warner Archive Collection edition is the definitive release of the film. You can pick up your copy at Amazon or other fine retailers.
Note: This Blu-ray was sent to us for review. This has not affected our judgment or editorial process in any way. Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this process.