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Hang 'Em High
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there are grown-up elements in this Western, including some more-or-less innocent teenage boys facing execution as accessories to rustling. In addition to the expected shoot-em-ups of a cowboy picture, raw elements include prostitution (in which the hero partakes), euphemistic talk of a rape-murder, drinking, smoking, suicide, and a theme of capital punishment taken to extremes, so that seeing men hung becomes a sort of vulgar spectator sport. Religion on this frontier seems an ineffectual element, with a briefly-glimpsed Bible fanatic who must be gunned down. Though this was released before the MPAA rating existed, Hang 'Em High got a retroactive PG-13 badge for home video.
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What's the story?
In the untamed Oklahoma territory of the 1800s, Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) is a former lawman from Missouri, trying to start a new career as a rancher. He's mistaken by a vigilante citizen mob for a murderous cattle thief and, with no trial, is actually hung from a tree, but the area's legitimate sheriff rescues him at the last minute. Jed is officially exonerated by Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), a notorious "hanging judge," who invites Jed to work for him as a deputy marshall patrolling a vast frontier plagued by bushwackers and bandits. Jed accepts, mainly because he wants to arrest the civilians who lynched him (one of the guilty is played by none other than Alan Hale Jr., "Skipper" from Gilligan's Island). Jed's heroics help fill Fenton's dungeon with enough suspects -- including teenage boys -- for the town to plan a mass-execution hanging, in a tasteless carnival atmosphere. Marshall Cooper starts to doubt his job, and wonders if Judge Fenton is just as bad as the vigilantes.
Is it any good?
In between saloon brawls, draw-downs and a third-act romance, HANG 'EM HIGH lassos surprisingly thoughtful points about frontier justice. While it was dismissed as just an American imitation of the operatic Italian Westerns that turned Clint Eastwood into a superstar, the resemblance to "spaghetti" Westerns comes mainly from a booming musical score that could have been dialed down a bit and a grown-up approach to a "cowboy" picture that depicts realities of sex, vice, and unfairness more so than simple, kid-friendly oaters of earlier generations.
In later roles, especially cop "Dirty" Harry, Eastwood played an incorruptible lawman who could be judge-jury-executioner killing scumbags, no meddling lawyers or appeals. But here Jed Cooper -- nearly executed by mistake -- decides from his hard lesson that Fenton's brand of summary justice is also a crime. For a Clint Eastwood picture, that's notably liberal-minded. The movie concludes abruptly not with a high-noon showdown but a turning point in their relationship when Fenton fully explains his POV. Because there remain some loose ends in the story, the flick sort of leaves you...hanging.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the choices made by the characters. Is Jed motivated by justice or revenge?
Discuss the theme of capital punishment, in and out of this movie. Is the judge's character correct, about why he has to be stern and merciless? Is Judge Fenton the real villain of the piece?
You can associate Hang 'Em High with The Ox-Bow Incident, the classic novel (and movie) and frequent school-reading assignment about the crime of lynching.
Older kids with a taste for more realistic Westerns -- ones that showed just how harsh and brutal life could be on the American frontier, no campfire sing-alongs -- can be steered to the cult sagebrushers Shane, Bad Company (1972), and Dead Man.
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