Hang ’em High came at the moment a new breed western of a more violent nature began to emerge. There was nothing new in the revenge western, but now they were a lot more violent. But Hang ’em High came a year before the uber-violent Sam Peckinpah western The Wild Bunch when the violent western then became a part of the zeitgeist. Clint Eastwood had already found fame on US television in the TV series ‘Rawhide’ playing Rowdy Yates but became a household name in the Italian spaghetti western trilogy directed by Sergio Leone. Hang ’em High was his first western and first Hollywood film since the spaghettis. Since 1955 he had had small parts in a variety of pictures including westerns and his first lead was as the Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). This was not only his first starring role back in Hollywood, but the first film made by his own production company, Malpaso (the title of his company which Eastwood came up with the films producer Irving Leonard which is named after a creek south of his hometown of Carmel which in Spanish means ‘bad pass’). Now with the creative control he desired he wanted Leone to direct this film, but the Italian director was already working on his next classic spaghetti, Once Upon a Time in the West so decided on Ted Post as director over other suggestions made to him such as John Sturges. Eastwood felt comfortable with Post as he had already worked with him on ‘Rawhide’. He also gathered around him a large cast of western character actors such as Pat Hingle, Bruce Dern, Ed Begley, LQ Jones (all of whom had appeared in episodes of ‘Rawhide’) and an appearance pre-Easy Rider for Dennis Hopper.
The influence over the spaghetti westerns is never too far: the violence, the revenge story, a cowboy loner and even the Mexican brass style music score; many of these traits familiar to many of Eastwood’s previous and future westerns. The story is about revenge and redemption: set in the Oklahoma and Indian territories, Jed Cooper is a man who has lawfully bought cattle and finds himself in a case of mistaken identity as he is caught by a bunch of blood lusting lynchers who accuse him of rustling the cattle and killing the previous owner. They hang him from a tree without trial and leave him for dead. However, he is not dead and is saved by a man rounding up criminals to bring to righteous justice where a local judge (Hingle) plans to put those who flout the law to trial and ruthlessly hang them. Believing Jed to be telling the truth, he convinces the judge that he is a former lawman and hires him as a marshal to bring those who committed the lynching crime to justice, so long as he does it within the parameters of the law, which he does.
Eastwood proves himself to be a star of worth here, even if he is not ready to direct yet. The only flashes of dullness emerge with the love interest in the shape of Inger Stevens as a rather flat respectable lady who is seeking revenge herself for a rape committed against her years previously; but no dénouement is reached in this sub-plot. Hingle too fails to convince as a tough judge who sees the right path in the end.
There are even plenty of John Ford-like moments, such as the scene of the public hanging where the good local folk spend the day watching the public execution and sing ‘Rock of Ages’ in unison, where as Eastwood at times resembles Henry Fonda’s turn as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946). Yet many of the aspects of Hang ’em High aren’t so far removed from other westerns made at the time before Eastwood would go on to make such excellent works as High Plains Drifter in 1973 it does reek as a crossover film of his previous spaghetti films before he went on to make his own films along the path of his own vision.