Follow TV Tropes


Film / Hang 'Em High

Go To

"The hanging was the best show in town. But they made two mistakes. They hung the wrong man... and they didn't finish the job!"

Hang 'Em High is a 1968 Western film directed by Ted Post and starring Clint Eastwood.

The action starts off with Jed Cooper (Eastwood) being wrongfully accused of murder and cattle-rustling by Captain Wilson (Ed Begley) and his posse, who then proceed to lynch him — but not very well; he lives long enough for a passing U.S. Marshal to cut him down and take him to territorial Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle). Cooper's story of being a one-time lawman from St. Louis checks out, and Fenton offers him a job as a marshal to bring Wilson and the rest of the men who lynched him to justice... but with the understanding that he bring them in alive.

Hang 'Em High provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Despite feeling remorse for hanging the wrong man, vigilante Tommy is willing to join Wilson in trying to kill Jed due to fear that his wife won't be able to wait for him if he goes to prison.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The leader of the vigilantes is dead but there are still two vigilantes on the loose, not to mention a wide number of criminals to come with only Cooper and the judge to provide justice. The movie ends with Cooper riding off to find the vigilantes.
  • Any Last Words?: During a multiple public hanging, the condemned are allowed to give this trope to the assembled crowd, who regard the occasion as public entertainment. One man gives a lengthy speech of how his dissolute ways lead to his demise and urging others not to follow his path. Another prisoner's final words are a request that the first man shut up so they can Get It Over With.
  • Benevolent Boss: This trait is the one thing that keeps Captain Wilson from indisputably crossing the Moral Event Horizon when he decides to murder Cooper to stop his pursuit. Wilson gives his cowhands Loomis and Tommy a chance to back out, telling them that they're both young men who wouldn't be ruined by a prison term and that he'll understand if they turn themselves in.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Captain Wilson hangs himself rather than let Cooper take him alive.
  • Big Bad: Captain Wilson, who leads the vigilantes.
  • The Big Bad Shuffle: While Captain Wilson is the obvious candidate for being unwilling to back down, Fenton seems a good candidate too because of his tendency to hang people. Wilson hangs himself when Cooper corners him causing him to decide to turn in his badge (among other reasons). Fenton convinces him to be his counter point man and naysayer in order to keep him honest.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: The nine vigilantes display shades of this and the third mistake becomes their undoing.
    Captain Wilson: All right, now that makes three mistakes we've made. The money, we hung an innocent man and we didn't finish the job. We can't undo the first two... but we can still finish the job.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Because of his recent experience, Jed takes his prisoners in alive even when it would be smarter to just kill them on the spot. When he is forced to shoot one of the men who hung him, he makes sure to get written statements from witnesses so he can't be accused of murder.
  • Cardboard Prison: Jed quotes this trope, claiming one of Wilson's party is in one.
  • Circuit Judge: Judge Fenton. His final speech to Jed is less "We Can Rule Together" and more "I am the only judge in this big-ass territory and I need someone to keep me from screwing up."
  • Determinator: Jed. He survives being hanged and later on being shot by the villains, and hunts them down the very second he's officially back to full health.
  • Devil's Advocate: Invoked by Judge Fenton to convince Jed Cooper to stay as sheriff: with Cooper around to naysay his decisions, Fenton won't be a "hang 'em all and let God sort 'em out" judge.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Marshal Bliss dies while making an off-screen arrest.
  • Evil Overlord List: Upon simply leaving Jed to die after hanging him, the vigilantes broke Rule 13 (relevant parts shown here): "All slain enemies will... have several rounds of ammunition emptied into them, not left for dead at the bottom of the cliff."
  • Eyepatch of Power: Vigilante Reno is a menacing man with an eyepatch.
  • The Family That Slays Together: Marshal Bliss is ambushed and murdered by seven members of the unseen Walker family to keep him from taking custody of one of their relatives.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: After surviving the hanging, Jed goes through the rest of the story with a large scar across his neck.
    Jed: When you hang a man, you'd better look at him.
  • Hanging Around: Given the title of the film and the genre would you expect anything less?
    • The film starts with Jed Cooper being lynched by a group of 9 vigilantes due to a wrongful accusation of murder. He survives it and is given the chance to bring the men to justice.
    • Judge Fenton is a Hanging Judge who lives up to the name and is used as a contrast to Jed who ultimately seeks leniency for some of the vigilantes, despite having every reason not to.
    • Captain Wilson expecting the worst when Jed finally has him cornered, decides to hang himself instead of facing him.
    • The man that framed Jed gets hanged for the exact crime he tried to pin on Jed.
  • Hanging Judge: Judge Fenton is one of these, though he believes he is entirely justified.
  • It Has Been an Honor: When Charlie Blackfoot chooses to run from Cooper, he calls the five years he's worked for Wilson "good years."
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Judge Fenton points out that he's been given a responsibility that's way to big for one man and he can't even find enough men to fill the marshal jobs he's been budgeted. He acknowledges that mistakes have been made, but there's no higher court for defendants to appeal to.
  • Karma Houdini: The Walker family and the murderers of Rachel's husband are never caught.
  • Karmic Death: Wilson. All of the vigilantes get it in the most karmic way possible, being shot by the man they Left for Dead.
  • Kirk Summation: The reason why one of the men scheduled to be hanged en masse (unsuccessfully) uses his last request to try to get the deliverer (a God-fearing young man who was truly repentant for the crimes he got caught up in) of said summation to shut up.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The vigilantes are brought to justice by the man they tried to hang. Turns out, he used to work for law enforcement in St. Louis. Also, the man that framed him gets hanged for the crime that nearly got pinned on him, and he gets to watch the execution from the judge's office.
  • Listing the Forms of Degenerates: Judge Fenton calls his jurisdiction a "happy hunting ground filled with bushwhackers, horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, counterfeiters, hide peelers, marauders - they'd kill you for a hat band."
  • The Man They Couldn't Hang: Jed's botched hanging is what sets off the whole plot.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: One character, realizing they'd hung an innocent man, gives himself up to the Judge and is only imprisoned. At the end of the episode Jed insists that he be released (as he's dying in prison conditions) if he's going to continue working for the Judge.
    • Two of the bushwhackers are just kids who didn't kill anyone—and they even make it a point not to help their leader at all in his attempt to escape and kill Cooper. As such, Jed repeatedly pleads with the Judge to spare them. Alas, cattle rustling is a capital offence and Fenton rejects his pleas.
  • Mistaken for Thief: Jed Cooper suffering a Vigilante Execution version of this (courtesy of the cattle rustling thief he was mistaken with also being a murderer) is what triggers the whole plot.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Jennifer, the prostitute, is covered by a bedsheet as she lies in bed with Cooper.
  • Ms. Fanservice: The redheaded girl who makes out with Jed when he's in town, implied to be a High-Class Call Girl. She offers her "help" to him when he's recovering from the exhaustion of bringing in three bushwhackers by himself.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Judge Fenton is a very thinly-veiled and surprisingly realistic Expy of Judge Isaac C. Parker, "The Hanging Judge" of Real Life whose jurisdiction encompassed Arkansas and the Indian Territory (a map of which is called attention to by Fenton himself when commissioning Cooper).
  • Oh, Crap!: Wilson, once he realizes he's alone, with Cooper very much alive and coming...
  • Only Mostly Dead: The protagonist in the opening scene.
  • Rape and Revenge: A woman who'd been raped after seeing her husband murdered examines every prisoner brought in to see if she recognises any of them. Averted when she forgoes her mission of revenge to make a new life with Jed.
  • Rape as Backstory: Rachel Warren was gang-raped before the start of the story and hopes that the men who did it will be arrested.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Subverted.
    • Averted at first in that the judge makes it clear to Cooper he wants the nine who hanged him alive. Problem is, some of those nine men are not going to go quietly.
    • The whole movie makes it clear that revenge isn't as clean as the characters thought it would be.
  • The Rustler: Jed, before the hanging in the opening minutes.
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: During the mass hanging, in the form of a last request. It doesn't work.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Shorty McLeod, who committed the murders that Cooper was non-fatally lynched over, is only seen briefly and from a distance as he's being executed.
  • Suicide by Cop: The nine vigilantes count among their number certain individuals who will not turn themselves in without a fight, making this a clear-cut example much to the chagrin of Cooper and Fenton.
  • Take a Third Option: Rather than turn themselves in or commit cold-blooded murder by helping Wilson ambush Jed, vigilantes Charlie Blackfoot and Maddow choose to flee the territory.
  • Title Drop: The Big Bad leader of the vigilantes mentions at one point that they made two mistakes (wrongly accusing Jed of being a thief and then hanging him) — on various markets, the film was titled "They Made Two Mistakes".
  • To Be Lawful or Good: Comes to the forefront during the trial of the bushwhackers. Judge Fenton rests squarely on Lawful, delivering legal punishment with an iron hand. Jed comes to lean toward Good, pleading for leniency for the two young men.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer pretty much gives away some of the fates of the vigilantes—with even some convenient animation to emphasize what we're seeing.
  • Turn in Your Badge: After the Big Bad hangs himself, Jed does this on his own initiative and retires to a quiet life with his family until the judge needs his services as deputy again.
  • Undying Loyalty: Vigilante Loomis is fiercely loyal to Wilson for giving him a home after decades of drifting and rejects Wilson's sad claim to have dragged him into their feud with Jed.
    Loomis: You didn't force me to ride with you, Captain.
  • Unknowingly Possessing Stolen Goods: At the start of the film, Jed is driving his herd of cattle across a stream when a posse of men surround Jed, demanding Jed show them the receipt for the cattle. It turns out that the man who sold Jed the cattle killed the original owner and stole them and sold them off to Jed. Jed tries to explain that he knew nothing about the murder, but they don't believe him and leave him hanging. Jed gets rescued and his innocence is proven. He becomes a deputy as he looks to bring the posse to justice.
  • Vigilante Injustice: The Big Bad Ensemble of the film is a posse who mistook protagonist Jed Cooper for a cattle thief on circumstantial evidence (Jed had the bad luck of purchasing his cattle very shortly before the real thief killed the man Jed bought it from, a fact discovered by a proper Circuit Judge much later in the day) and lynched him, only for Jed to survive and come looking for them as the judge's newly-appointed Sheriff, and while Jed tries to not go on the customary Roaring Rampage of Revenge, the majority of the members of the posse refuse to be arrested.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Judge considers Jed this due to their differing views on Justice. He even made a big speech that pretty much stated that he had been waiting for someone like Jed to work for him specifically to Tell him off.
    Judge Fenton: What's the matter with you, Cooper? You got Jenkins on your conscience? You think I judged him too harshly? Used him like a piece of kindling for my fire of justice? Well, maybe that's inevitable when there's only one man, one court, with the power of final justice over a territory five times the size of most states. Mistakes? Oh, I've made 'em, Cooper. Don't you doubt it. Don't you doubt, either, there are times sitting up there in that judgement seat I wished—I prayed—that there was someone standing between me and God Almighty, someone with the power to say, "You're wrong, Fenton. You've made a mistake in law—this man deserves another trial, this man here a reprieve, this man is innocent!" But until this territory becomes a state, with a governor and a state court of appeals, I am the law here. All the law. If you don't like that, you can cuss me till hell freezes over... Or you can join me, Cooper; even fight me. Help me turn this God forsaken territory into a state where no one man calls himself the law.