Personal reflections on The Hanging Tree, its Director Delmer Daves, and wasted youth

Delmer Daves was a director who made some exceptional Westerns in the 1950s as well as teen oriented Soap Operas of variable quality from the early 1960s. He was a master of landscape and had a way with crane shots that enhanced this. In particular I love The Last Wagon, Jubal and 3.10 to Yuma (despite Howard Hawks’ famous putdown).  But I especially love his swansong to the western, The Hanging Tree, for personal as well as aesthetic reasons. At Holland Park, where I grew up in the modest house that my father had built in 1950 and that we had moved into just before the beginning of my first year of school (1951), one of the places I used to retreat to read and reflect was the outhouse dunny where I would take my treasured copies of  F Maurice Speed’s Western Annuals and Film Review Annuals to pour over all the stills and short descriptive pieces on each and every release of the year each annual celebrated.

My father, as it happened, always had a healthy stash of girlie magazines like Pix and Post hidden in a corner near the piles of sawdust – this was before sewerage came to our suburb and Hunter Brothers in their distinctive red trucks picked up the cans from the earth closets on a weekly basis. As I approached puberty, this was one of the few ways in which I subverted my beautiful, loving, but somewhat strait-laced and easily shockable Christian mother and discovered the mysterious and glorious mysteries of the female anatomy which set me merrily on the path to perdition. A side benefit of my scurrilous activities was the entertaining review section of Post’s resident film critic, whose name completely eludes me now, although I remember it was Douglas somebody. He was the first to draw my attention to The Hanging Tree through an idiosyncratic recounting of the film’s brooding atmosphere and violence. I was 14 years old, in my second year of High School at Cavendish Road, hating it intensely despite my decent grades in all subjects but I had never wagged it from school until The Hanging Tree came to town. It slipped quietly into Brisbane’s gaudily baroque cinema, the Regent (where I had had my first encounter with a Wurlitzer organ when I was seven years old). It was clear that The Hanging Tree would only last a week, so without as much as telling my parents of my intentions, I leaped on a tram to the city on the way to school to catch the 11 o’clock session on the Thursday that its week-long run began (sessions were continuous in those days starting at 11, 2, 5 and 8). They never cleared the cinemas after the sessions and I would, if the film were really outstanding, sometimes sit right through another session, very pleased that I had gotten away with my crime. It was worth every last pang of guilt in this instance: I loved the movie, and somehow I managed to talk my mother into writing me a note, concocting an illness and making this sturdy Christian woman a reluctant accessory to my crime. She always was a bit of a pushover, but I was tight-lipped enough not to brag about it even to my closest friend and fellow budding cinephile,Toivo Lember.

To resume, The Hanging Tree is set in a gold-mining outpost with Gary Cooper as the ironically named Doc Frail. The film sets up a highly complex web of bondage of one form or another: Maria Schell is the “lost lady” blinded after a stage coach incident; and Ben Piazza a fugitive from vicious, manipulative Karl Malden after he tries to jump Malden’s gold claim. Cooper comes to the aid of both, setting up Piazza as his personal bondsman in return for his life, and restoring Schell’s sight through his medical skill. Daves’ use of topography to stage the (extremely violent) action is pivotal with Cooper’s house on top of a hill overlooking the village below – the locales are linked by beautifully executed crane shots where Cooper’s isolation and distance from the community is always stressed. Cooper’s dark past has metaphorically blinded him and excommunicated him from natural community bonds and a capacity for love. Cooper’s killing of psychopathic Malden following Malden’s attempted rape of Schell is shockingly staged and explodes out of his repressed feelings for her. He is finally redeemed by Schell when she literally buys his survival from the mob and the hanging tree of the title. Following these cathartic related actions, Cooper’s dark past is able to be expunged, and Cooper, Schell and Piazza are all set free from their mutual obligations allowing Cooper to at last freely acknowledge his love for Schell (and his acceptance that he cannot live in isolation , without any sense of personal or communal obligation). The Hanging Tree is among the greatest of westerns both formally – in its extraordinary physical scope and sweep (the hills, the mines, the steep hill, the sluice chute, the village all integrated into a stunning spatial unity) and thematically – in its evocation of Cooper’s fall and redemption.

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