Jed Cooper is a former lawman. After buying some cattle, he finds himself at the mercy of a posse. Believing he killed the owner and stole the cattle, they hang him. He is found before he suffocates by a lawman who brings him to see the Judge. After being found innocent, the Judge convinces him to return to being a lawman.
Between jobs the judge sends him on, Jed tries to find and arrest the men who hung him, a prominent Rancher known as Captain Wilson and his employees.
Hang Em High kind of broke out of the standard Eastwood mold. Jed is not really a mystery man. He is a guy who is trying to quietly live his own life unencumbered by others. But he is an innocent guy who gets pulled into a terrible situation. It is interesting to see that many of the men who participate in the hanging are nit hateful mob types. Instead, several really want to make sure he might not be guilty. And one even turns himself in upon learning that Jed was found innocent.
This is also a bit unique as, Jed is trying to bring these guys in alive, so it is not a straight out revenge tale. And at one point, he argues for mercy of one of the men who helped hang him. The notion that Jed is an upstanding lawman is important to this tale. His love interest is a local woman with a horrible past seeking Justice…her story reflects his, in that they are both forced to confront the question of “what if they don’t get justice”.
The film has a great cast supporting Eastwood. Pat Hingle is the no nonsense judge who finds being the final arbiter of Justice both a bit intoxicating and more than a bit of a burden. Bruce Dern is one of the more straight up bad guys in the film…and hey, it is a solid early Dern performance.
Hang ‘Em High makes for a good transition from the old school western to the modern one.