A band of vigilantes catch Jed Cooper and, incorrectly believing him guilty of cattle rustling and murder, hang him and leave him for dead. But he doesn't die. He returns to his former profession of lawman to hunt down his lynchers and bring them to justice. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
This was Clint Eastwood's American Western debut that I had never really seen all the way through until now. At first I thought it would be another ride 'em high, cowboys n' indians flick that was popular in America those days... before Sergio Leone shook the genre down to its raw and merciless possibilities.
The film was pretty good, and the moral undercurrent of justice "by a dirty rope on the plain, or a judge in a robe standing before the American flag" is rather striking. The Federal judge is by far one of the most interesting characters I have seen yet in a Western.
Indeed, the grittiest and most barbaric scene is not the lynching of an innocent man, but the public hanging on the eve of statehood... to prove that Oklahoma Territory executed the sort of justice required of a "civilized" state of the Union. It is made a public spectacle with beautiful hymns and cold beer. And just the way each of the condemned faces his execution is tongue in cheek.
Then there was the campfire scene where Captain Wilson confers with his employees regarding their options: irony, fear and desperation. They put a human face on their culpability, similiarly echoed decades later by Little Bill's "I don't deserve this, I was building house." And the few who chose not to run chose a desperate and violent option.
A dillemic "no one wins" justice spiralling into graphic violence... and ultimately an undiginified and graceless death. What was perfected into poignant brevity by Unforgiven was born in Hang Em High's exploration of two men's differing approaches to an unforgiving justice... a justice that led either to the end of a noose, or the end of a gun.
Not bad at all...
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