In Oklahoma and the Indian Territory, Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) has just bought cattle from a rancher, and is planning to leave behind his previous occupation as a lawman to raise them, but as he has just traversed a river he notices a posse approaching from the other side. Soon they have surrounded him and are quizzing him about where he got the cattle; he explains that he has recently purchased them, but when they tell him that the man he thought he had made the sale from is now dead - murdered - Jed knows he is in trouble. Swiftly, the posse becomes a lynch mob, and hang him from the nearest tree...
Well, that was a short film - oh, wait, Jed's still alive and the passing lawman Ben Johnson cuts him down and takes him into town, where our story begins proper. It's impossible to talk about Hang 'em High without mentioning Sergio Leone, for this was the first Western that Eastwood made after his association with the Italian director had made him an international movie star. Produced by his own Malpaso company, it's plain to see that he was taking no chances and had instructed Ted Post at the helm to make this resemble the now popular Spaghetti Westerns as closely as possible, although perhaps not so closely in plot.
You could tell that this was an American film, not only because of its cast, but because it did not quite have that European flavour that fans of the movies created across the Pond would recognise: for a start, it had more of an American social conscience. The script by producer Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg had something to say about capital punishment, starting with Eastwood's character being unjustly executed (sort of), and continuing in that vein for other characters as well. It acknowledges that sometimes the wrong people suffer for the crimes of others, although it's not entirely on the side of the abolitionists as there are those in this who fully deserve some kind of legal discipline.
Whether that should be actual death is left up to the viewer to decide, but there's no doubt there was a liberal texture to Hang 'em High. Once Jed has been exonerated and the local judge, Fenton (Pat Hingle), decides that someone should pay for what happened to him, Jed agrees to turn deputy once more and help to track down the men who tried to kill him. Fenton has a vested interest in justice arriving in this territory because he wants it to be civilised enough to be accepted into the United States, and the tension between the brutality he doles out to ensure this is the case and the more measured authority that a less rough society would need to implement gives more fuel to the capital punishment debate.
Eastwood here isn't quite doing his Man With No Name mark two performance, and presumably hoped to be offering a little more depth to the usual gunfighter shenanigans that he had made his name with. He does pretty well, although even here the role isn't exactly stretching his range, and he gets to perform love scenes with another character looking for justice, the gang rape victim Rachel Warren (the tragically short-lived Inger Stevens) to superfluously soften up his tough guy image. Certainly Jed has more conscience than almost anyone else in the film, and later his attempts to get a couple of teenage boys who may have been rustlers but were not murderers freed see them both hanged, which is equated with the lynchers ambushing Jed and leaving him for dead. But with the issues not as clear cut as the filmmakers would like, the film does seem confused, so it's no wonder it is recalled mainly for being the Leone-Eastwood Western that wasn't. Music by Dominic Frontiere.