Doubtless there have been better westerns than Hang ‘Em High but this movie is worth seeing for a number of reasons. The first is that this was the first Hollywood western Eastwood starred in after his stint doing the classic spaghetti westerns which helped make him a star. A strong storyline, good and occasionally inspired direction along with a talented cast contribute to an enjoyable movie.
As with many westerns the premise is simple – a former law man is wrongly lynched for a crime he did not commit. Having survived the lynching he sets out to take his revenge on those who lynched him. The simple premise belies what turns out to be a more complicated well woven story. Hang ‘Em High stands out as a movie of its time as well as a story outside of its time.
The portrayal of frontier justices as vigilantism is common enough in westerns. The lawman/vigilante is also a common portrayal but Jed Cooper (Eastwood) actually dedicates himself to the law and upholding despite his desire to do more. There is a complex dynamic at play between the hanging Judge Adam Fenton (played to perfection by Pat Hingle) and Marshall Cooper is central to the movie. This relationship is also central to what makes this move so much a part of its time and lifts it out of its time. There is an ongoing understated debate on the justification of the death penalty between two men who are bound by their station to participating in this kind of justice. Marshall Cooper takes issue with the way in which Fenton administers justice and at the same time cannot remove himself from the process which sometimes ends with results Cooper does not want.This is not a deep philosophical movie but it is more than simple shoot ‘em up fair. Definitely worth a look and definitely worth considering adding to your DVD library.