Hang Em High is one of those Western Classic that tells a story about bringing order to a primitive culture. Clint Eastwood plays a former sheriff who decides to get in the cattle business. He is mistaken for a cattle rustler and group of men decide to take justice in their own hands as they hang him. Only they fail to finish the job and his life is sparred by a traveling lawman, who cuts him down.
After being nursed back to health, he is offered a deal by a tough judge, Pat Hingle. Receive a badge and be allow to hunt those responsible for his hanging or face death if he takes the law in his own hand. This movie is actually loosely based on a real character. In the old West, there was a tough judge out of Fort Smith who was responsible for the Oklahoma territory and the one scene in which six men are hanged is based on a real incident in which this judge hanged six very guilty men in a scaffold similar to what is portrayed in the movie.
Throughout the movie, the theme is the application of justice in a rough and tumble land far removed from civilization. Those men who hanged Eastwood in the beginning are leading citizens of their town but they took the law in their hand and nearly killed an innocent man. For Hingle, his purpose is to bring some semblance of justice to a land that appears to have none. As for Eastwood’s character, he shows a slow movement away from revenge to some sort of forgiveness but finds in that sometimes justice and forgiveness are not always compatible.
Part of Eastwood appeal is that his heroes are flawed men, not perfect but striving to survive in an imperfect world. His Cooper character in Hang Em High is man striving for revenge but realizes that revenge is not always sweet.
The most intriguing character is Pat Hingle, who is a no nonsense judge. He views himself impartial and when Eastwood question if his version of justice is no different from the vigilante justice that nearly killed him, he reminds Eastwood that accuse have their day in his court. Hingle, like Eastwood, is a conflicted soul but he does not have the luxury of second guessing himself. Hingle views himself as the final wall between chaos and order.
The final scene concludes the debate on justice. Eastwood brings back the leader who led his hanging in the beginning of the movie. The old man is broken and sick. Eastwood takes pity and demands his pardon. Hingle tells him point blank that if he wants a pardon then he must continue working as a Marshall.
Eastwood views this as losing his soul but he gives in. For Hingle, he needs Eastwood to help keep order in the Oklahoma territory and Eastwood is too good of a lawman to allow to quit. Hingle is not going to allow Eastwood conscience to interfere with his duties.
In the old West, vengeful justice existed but civilization required a rule of law, no matter how rough it was to be implemented. There is no doubt that all of the men executed are guilty but in Hingle’s world, there is no middle ground. The guilty must be punished and hanged. He does not seek any gray area or considers unusual circumstances. While the audience feels for Eastwood and his position that sometimes justice demands a little mercy, Hingle may have won the debate since mercy can be attributed as weakness and the guilty must know that there will be no reprieve or compromise with the legal system. The guilty will hang.
In the beginning of the movie, good men seek justice without the benefit of the law but they make a mistake that seals their doom. In the West, good men want justice to be done but they are willing to dispense with the law to do it. Hang Em High is not just a movie about good guys and bad guys but a fable on what happens when good men short circuit the system and leave it to harder men to enforce what law that exist. The law remains neutral on the goodness of those who have been judged. The law judges base on action, not motive.