The Hanging Tree (1959)

In The Hanging Tree, a Western directed by Delmer Daves, Dr. Joseph “Doc” Frail helps Rune (Ben Piazza), who is a thief, escape from those he stole from, but since Frail is played by Gary Cooper, who is tall and good looking, we figure that makes what he is doing all right. He then blackmails Rune, forcing him into slavery, but since it’s Gary Cooper, what he is doing must be for the best somehow.

When Elizabeth (Maria Schell) is discovered suffering from exposure and dehydration, needing the attention of a doctor, Frail refuses to leave the bedside of a woman who he knows is going to die in a couple of hours anyway. It is a standard principle of triage that a doctor should help those who can be helped and not waste time on those who cannot, but since it’s Gary Cooper, we figure he must be doing the right thing somehow. Besides, the person who thinks he should leave the dying woman and help Elizabeth is Frenchy, played by Karl Malden in an unsavory role, so he must be wrong somehow.

When Frail finally arrives at the house where the men who found Elizabeth had taken her, Frail expresses his disgust with the fact that the house is dirty, asking the old man who lives there why he doesn’t clean the place up. But that can’t be rude, because it’s Gary Cooper, so we figure the old man deserves to be insulted.

Frail keeps Elizabeth, who is temporarily blind, in a cabin, allowing no one else in except himself and Rune. When ladies from town come to check on her after she has been there for a while, Frail refuses to let them talk to her. And Elizabeth, after finding out that he made the women leave, asks if she is a prisoner. Normally, it would be perfectly reasonable for concerned citizens to be allowed to ask Elizabeth if she is being kept there against her will, if she would like to leave. After all, if it were Frenchy keeping her in a cabin and not letting others talk to her, we would suspect that he was keeping her as a sex slave. But it is not Frenchy, played by Karl Malden; it is Frail, played by Gary Cooper. And besides, the women are really just a bunch of busybodies. And if Elizabeth thinks she is being kept there as a prisoner, that is just too bad, because it’s Gary Cooper who is doing it, and so he must be right to disregard her wishes.

And then, when Elizabeth finally gets her sight back, she goes to a lot of trouble to prepare a special dinner for Rune and Frail, but Frail would rather play poker instead. But we have to overlook this, in part because it’s Gary Cooper, and in part because of some dark secret from his past. As best we can figure from rumor and from what Frail says, he caught his brother and his wife having sex. When he killed his brother, his wife was so horrified that she shot herself and died, after which Frail burned the house down. If it had been Frenchy who did something like that, we would hate him for it, but since it was Frail who did it, we are expected to be understanding.

This is not to say that Frail does not do good things. Even if he were not played Gary Cooper, we would still approve of much of his behavior: letting Rune go free after a while; curing Elizabeth; letting some poor folks borrow his cow so their daughter can have milk; secretly funding Elizabeth in her determination to make her own way; and saving her from being raped by Frenchy. But it is still remarkable how much latitude we allow a character in a movie if he is played by an actor with an established persona of moral rectitude, especially if he is tall and good looking.

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