Volume 9, Number 1, March 2003
Copyright © 2003 Society for Music Theory

Elizabeth P. Sayrs*

Narrative, Metaphor, and Conceptual Blending in "The Hanging Tree"


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KEYWORDS: film music, cognitive linguistics, metaphor, narrative

ABSTRACT: Using traditional analytic techniques as well as methods drawn from narrative theory and cognitive linguistics, this paper explores the relationships between the song "The Hanging Tree" (performed by Marty Robbins), its original use in the 1959 Western of the same name (scored by Max Steiner), and the novella on which the movie is based (by Dorothy Johnson). Lakoff and Johnson's "Location Event-Structure Metaphor" allows Zbikowski's conceptual metaphor PITCH RELATIONSHIPS ARE RELATIONSHIPS IN VERTICAL SPACE to engage concepts of time, events, and narrative. This context reveals a contradiction in the cross-domain mapping between music and text in the song. The seventh scale degree is "left hanging" in the body of the song, pointing to the imminent event of hanging. Yet after the hanging is averted, the leading tone is prominently regained in the same register and resolved. Two possibilities are considered: 1) Conventional tonal metaphors rather than locally-defined metaphors have priority at various moments in a particular genre. 2) The metaphor is musically transformed through "frame-shifting" to create a new conceptual blend. Finally, the re-arrangement of the song in the movie causes this shift to occur differently, raising issues concerning the role of the singer as cinematic narrator.

Submission received July 2002


[1] Like many who analyze song, I begin from the premise that the meaning of a song is more than its text or its music considered separately or even additively, but is rather some third entity consisting of both text and music in relation to each other.(1) If a song alone is such an entity, then a song used in a film can be considered a more extended version of the same.(2) And when a song--in this case, "The Hanging Tree"--is produced as both a hit single to be listened to on its own, as well as the music for the 1959 Western film of the same name (scored by Max Steiner as both the title and closing song and as the thematic source for much of the film score), it is productive to explore how different meanings are constructed in different contexts by the "same" song.(3) The film, in turn, is based on the award-winning novella of the same name by Dorothy Johnson, raising issues of how use of the song in the film interacts with elements of the novel. Using traditional music analytic techniques as well as methods drawn from narrative theory and cognitive linguistics, I first examine how the tonal structure of the song itself contributes to meaning through conceptual blending, including the creation of novel, "on-line" meaning that can change over the course of the song through "frame-shifting," focusing on what appears to be a contradiction in the metaphoric mapping. Then I explore how the reconfiguration of the verses of "The Hanging Tree" in the film affects the interpretation of narrative aspects of the film and music, focusing on the role of the singer of the song as cinematic narrator.(4)

[2] Before turning to "The Hanging Tree" in its various manifestations, a few notes on methodology are in order. Larry Zbikowski and Janna Saslaw have ably described in more detail many relevant cognitive linguistic terms in the context of music theory; there are additional representative references from the cognitive linguistics literature in the footnotes to this section.(5)

[3] As described by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, all neural beings categorize on the basis of their senses and their ability to manipulate their environment. Categories are basic groupings (with fluid boundaries) that determine what we take to be real: animals, people, buildings, snow, walking, happiness. Concepts are neural structures (patterns of neural activation) that allow the mental characterization of as well as reasoning about categories. Lakoff and Johnson write that an "embodied concept is a neural structure that is actually part of, or makes use of, the sensorimotor system of the brain. Much of conceptual inference is, therefore, sensorimotor inference."(6) Lakoff and Johnson, among others, posit that our concepts are based on a relatively limited number of preconceptual structures such as image and motor schemata formed through our bodily experience of interacting with the world through our senses and motor activity. At the basic level, when there is a "cross-domain mapping" from a familiar, experiential source domain to an unfamiliar or abstract target domain there is metaphor.(7) Primary conceptual metaphors then give rise to many specific linguistic metaphors as well as allow for the on-line creation of novel linguistic metaphors. These single metaphors can then be combined to account for more complex phenomena.

[4] When domains are coactivated, conceptual blending can occur. In a conceptual blend, mental spaces recruit knowledge in frames from established domains (mental spaces known as "inputs").(8) These are combined to yield a hybrid frame (a mental space known as a "blend") comprised of structure from each of the inputs, as well as its own unique structure.(9) The most basic version of a blend is shown in the conceptual integration network in Example 1.

[5] In Example 1 there are four mental spaces--two inputs, the blend, and the generic space. The generic space represents abstract properties that apply to structure in the input spaces, thus helping to establish the mappings between inputs which allow blending to occur. Three specific features of conceptual blends are particularly important for meaning construction:

  1. Projection into the blend is selective; that is, not all elements from both input spaces need appear in the blend.
  2. The blended space can have emergent structure, or meaning, which is not carried over from any of the input spaces but which emerges only in the blend.(10)
  3. Conceptual blends are not rigid preexisting structures, but are formed in response to a given context.

Similar to the idea that a song is more than the sum of music and words, but is rather a new third thing, conceptual blending posits that meaning is more than just an addition of elements from different domains, but is instead a new third meaning. In this paper, the input spaces will consist of music and text in the case of the song, and the song and images in the case of the film, but note that these input spaces are already based on other metaphors and/or blends.

Situating The Hanging Tree: A Novel Problem

As Joe Frail glanced up at the rope, his muscles tensed,
for he remembered that there was a curse on him.
             (from The Hanging Tree, by Dorothy Johnson)

[6] The song "The Hanging Tree" was recorded by Marty Robbins in November of 1958, and eventually released as a single and as part of his 1959 Marty's Greatest Hits album (and followed less than a year later by his concept album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, which included the Grammy-winning "El Paso" and "Cool Water"). The complete text of the song is given in Example 2a; a transcription of the first verse is given in Example 3. The lyrics are an embellishment of the familiar three-part narrative ploy known as "Benson's law": Boy meets girl/boy meets gold; boy loses girl/boy gets gold; boy gets girl/boy loses gold. The unspecified protagonist trades his wealth for his life, his woman stands by him, and whatever memory has been hindering him is finally banished.

[7] The first four verses are essentially strophic, but each verse is transposed up by a half step in what is sometimes referred to as a "Barry Manilow" modulation; verse 1 is in D-flat major, verse 2 in D major, verse 3 in E-flat major, and verse 4 in E major.(11) Asserting that these verses move UP in pitch, and our understanding of pitches as being higher or lower in general, relies on the culturally constrained conceptualization of pitch in terms of a verticality image schema (which is in turn based on the experience of our bodily orientation in physical space). Zbikowski points out that this leads to the conceptual metaphor that PITCH RELATIONSHIPS ARE RELATIONSHIPS IN VERTICAL SPACE, which maps the spatial orientation of up/down onto the pitch continuum.(12) In turn, this allows us to understand being UP in pitch as being UP in vertical space. (This is underspecified; who or what is upwhere is not inherent in the metaphor.)

[8] In addition to indicating spatial location, in this case the transposition of each verse up by half step engages two other conceptual metaphors that are part of Lakoff and Johnson's compound "Location Event-Structure Metaphor," given in Example 4.

  1. STATES ARE LOCATIONS. Locations are conceptualized as bounded regions in space relying on a container image schema; in this case, each key is a different "state," conceptualized as a different location.(13)
  2. CHANGES ARE MOVEMENTS. This primary metaphor is based on experiencing a change of state that accompanies the change of location as a person moves over time. This familiar metaphor frequently arises linguistically in our formal expressions about music. For example, harmonic "progressions" occur when harmonies change according to a given stylistically established syntax; it is common to assert in the context of Schenkerian theory that there is "no motion" in an opening gesture if the tonic is prolonged in a particular way, and so on. Thus, not only is the spatial orientation "up" invoked by the rise in pitch, but there is also motion up between verses.(14) Each semitone transposition is emphasized not only with strict parallel motion between verses, but with a chorus of male singers transposing themselves up while singing the phrase "the hanging tree," which acts as the transition to the next verse.(15)

[9] When considering only the music, the meaning of this "motion up" is underdetermined. One can think of many transpositions up by semitone (or whole step) in classical as well as popular music literature, from portions of Schubert's "Erlkönig" to the last verse of some popular songs.(16) Because of the underspecified nature of metaphor and the fluid nature of conceptual blending, this upward motion in the domain of music could be mapped in numerous ways.(17) When first hearing this piece with the text, my immediate reaction was that moving up in pitch space was moving in physical space up the hill to the hanging tree.

[10] But looking carefully at the lyrics apart from the music, there is never any reference to the hanging tree being on a hill. The lyrics simply state "So they carried me to the hanging tree," not "So they carried me UP to the hanging tree." There was no input within the song itself for my conceptualization of the location of the hanging tree except this particular aural pitch metaphor. Compare this aural metaphor to the visual representation of the hanging tree in the promotional material for the film as shown in Example 5. This movie herald includes a particularly stylized image of the hanging tree, sitting atop a high hill, towering over its surroundings: there is no way but up to the hanging tree. This stylized image (or variations of this image) is included in most of the American and British promotional materials I have located. One poster invites us, in type larger than the title of the film, to "Hear MARTY ROBBINS sing "The Hanging Tree." Here two domains encourage the spectator to conceptualize the hanging tree (in the film and the song) as up, above the surroundings, standing on a hill, the single destination of a journey.(18)

[11] But this fit of music with promotional image is in contrast to the location of the hanging tree in the film itself. (Example 6 gives the cast of characters and a brief summary of the film.) The film is set in Montana in 1873, but was filmed in the mountains of Washington. Here the hanging tree sits on the Gold Trail that runs along one of the ridges. The town is in the valley below the ridge, and the opening scenes present several shots from the town up to the hanging tree on the ridge, as well as a shot of Gary Cooper as the protagonist, Doc Frail, towering over the surroundings. (See Example 7, which contains the song over the opening scene, and Example 8, which shows Frail towering over the surroundings a few seconds after the song has ended.) But the location of the hanging tree in the fictive reality of the film is merely a point on the trail that continues along the ridge, not the isolated, overshadowing destination portrayed in the promotional material.(19) The conceptualization of the location of the hanging tree as presented by the camera angles of the opening scenes, the text and music of the song, and the visual images in the promotional material results in a conceptual blend that gives the hanging tree a prominence, an overshadowing fictive presence--possibly beginning before the viewer even enters the theater; within the geographical (fictive) reality of the film the hanging tree is far less obtrusive.(20)

[12] This solves a problem inherent in the transfer of the story from novella to film. In the novella, the hanging tree does act as the overshadowing presence in Doc Frail's mind. In his first appearance in the novella, he passes under the hanging tree and wonders to himself for the first of many times, "Is that the bough from which I'll hang; I wonder who the man is that I'll kill to earn it?" But the structure of the film does not allow the spectator access to Doc Frail's thoughts. Instead, the music, promotional materials, and opening camera shots allow access to this knowledge. In this way, the music serves a narrative function, as defined by Jerrold Levinson, of "making something fictionally true--true in the story being conveyed--that would not otherwise be true, or not to the same degree or with the same definiteness."(21)

Internal Metaphor

[13] Returning to the song, the half-step transpositions between verses are inferentially poor musically. Once the transpositions have begun, we may infer that they lead up to the hanging tree, but there are no constraints in the musical domain that tell us where (and therefore when) the ascent should end.

[14] Thus far, only concepts related to motion and spatial relations have been discussed. But concepts of motion through space are inextricably bound up with concepts of time through the mapping from the source domain of spatial relations to a target domain of time and events, again through Lakoff and Johnson's "Location Event-Structure Metaphor" as well as through their "Moving Observer/Time's Landscape Metaphor" as shown in Example 9. The mapping from spatial relations to time and events thereby explicitly connects concepts of motion with narrative. Therefore moving up in pitch in each verse is not only physically moving up closer to the hanging tree, but is moving through a path of narrative events, with each event bringing us closer to the event of hanging itself (through metonymy).

[15] The overall chromatic motion between verses is musically intensified by being replicated diatonically within each verse, unfolding the fifths from tonic to dominant, supertonic to submediant, and mediant to leading tone. This is shown in Example 10a and Example 10b.(22) Not only does the melody move up by step, but the literal bass part doubles the inner voice of the vocal part, and the roots of the harmonies move up as well (perhaps invoking guitar bar chords). (Note that T1 indicates a transposition by "one step" in two different contexts: one diatonic, one chromatic. The verse sketched is verse 4 in E major (rather than verse 1 in D-flat major) so that it is eventually easier to compare verses 4 and 5, but the structure is the same for verses 1-4).

[16] After moving from mediant up to leading tone, instead of continuing the pattern by moving up to tonic immediately, the seventh scale degree is itself "left hanging" in the upper register as the narrative continues to unfold in each verse. In the context of the source-path-goal schema established by the piece to this point, the "hanging" seventh scale degree accomplishes three things. First, leaving the seventh scale degree registrally exposed in the outer voice focuses attention to the incomplete nature of the trajectory. This is complemented by the transformation analyses in Example 10a and Example 10b. The diatonic step pattern in the bass and inner voice of the melody, and the chromatic step pattern between verses each consists of four steps (or three transformations); because the seventh scale degree does not continue on the path to reach tonic, the pattern in the upper voice is "missing a step." Second, spatial metaphors embedded in registral issues in music establish that not only is the trajectory incomplete, but that the path of events will continue in a particular direction--up. Third, by virtue of the seventh scale degree's identity as the penultimate step, a potential musical boundary is added to the previously uninterpreted chromatic semitone rise between verses. That is, the seventh scale degree not only implies an upward continuation; by conceptualizing a key collection linearly as a set of steps, the seventh scale degree marks the last half-step. The completion of that half step leads to the final destination of the journey; the conclusion of this journey leads to the hanging tree.

[17] I have been using the term "leading tone" to refer to the seventh scale degree--two terms which by convention often are used interchangeably. Yet, the status of the seventh scale degree in "The Hanging Tree" is not as a "real" leading tone. Although the seventh scale degree has been approached through a rising fifth pattern, and the continuation of that pattern would be to scale degree 8, the iii harmony that supports the seventh scale degree is left through conventional voice-leading, mitigating the leading tone potential of the seventh scale degree. As is typical in major, the iii moves to IV supporting the 6th scale degree, perhaps acting as a "neighbor of a neighbor." But at the same time, by reaching back down to the dominant, the melody makes explicit that the 6th scale degree originates not in the seventh scale degree, but as a neighbor to the fifth scale degree (see Example 11); the upper register is indeed left hanging.(23) While the seventh scale degree here does not act as a tonal leading tone, by establishing an incomplete trajectory that relies on a source-path-goal image schema, the seventh scale degree/leading tone acts as what Lawrence Barsalou has defined as a perceptual symbol.(24) The voice-leading, the opening of the upper register, and the fact that the implied goal has not been reached imparts a "not yet" quality to this portion of the melody.(25) This "not-yet-ness" engages Lakoff and Johnson's metaphor that Suspension of Action is the Stopping of Movement. Even though the melody descends after reaching the seventh scale degree, it doesn't "back up"; it merely stops moving forward temporarily. Thus there is a distinction here between two types of musical motion; a transpositional pattern that establishes a source-path-goal trajectory, and a classically tonal pattern that interrupts that trajectory.(26)

[18] Thus the conceptualization of the seventh scale degree combines with the semitone rise between verses and with the lyrics in a conceptual blend to lend a meaning to the progress of musical events that is not inherent in either (see Example 12).

[19] The role of this semitone motion as a foreshadowing agent is emphasized by the scoring of the background male voices. In verse three, the first line "Now there were men who craved my gold," is set with background of eight male voices (presumably the anonymous "men") singing "oo" that briefly and restlessly moves up by barely a half step and then retreats. Coupled with the male chorus's previously noted power to transpose themselves and the song up by semitone (and thus control, or at least affect, narrative progress), here the half step is explicitly beginning to be endowed with the potential to harm the protagonist. This is intensified in verse four with two sets of "wut do-wah-da's" moving up by semitone after the text "you must almost die," and "it happened just that way with me."(27) That is, the final half-step signaling the end of the journey is becoming closer.

[20] The potential of the final half step to point to the hanging tree is realized in the scoring of the film. When Doc Frail commits the act that precipitates his journey to the hanging tree--the shooting of Frenchy after Frenchy's attempted rape of Elizabeth--the final half step from the song, D#-E, is heard as a motive, collapsing the half step transposition between verses with the stepwise motion within each verse (this scene is shown in Example 13).

[21] Returning to the song, something happens to change the trajectory of events; the protagonist "walks away from the hanging tree" halfway through verse four, and "verse five" does not continue the upward progress by semitone. Instead, new music is heard still in the key of E major (this is transcribed in Example 14). In this final verse, the seventh scale degree (D#) that was left hanging in the upper register is regained and linearly brought down by unfolding thirds, as shown in Example 15, returning to the point of origin (scale degree 5). When the melodic motion turns away from the seventh scale degree and changes its trajectory, there is a change of events.(28) Especially important is that in order to turn around, the seventh scale degree must be recaptured and linearly folded into the melodic motion rather than left hanging. The unfolding thirds make clear that the sixth scale degree now originates locally in the seventh scale degree, not in the fifth scale degree as before; when scale degree 7 moves down to scale degree 6, scale degree 5 moves down to scale degree 4 (see Example 16).

[22] Not only does the melodic motion change direction, but comparing Example 15 to Example 10a shows that the literal harmonies are reversed. In this reversal, the metaphor engaged is Lakoff and Johnson's UNDOING PROGRESS IS BACKWARD MOVEMENT. Because pitch is mapped onto a verticality schema, moving backward is moving down, in this case "down" from the hanging tree.

[23] After the descending motion of verse 5, the phrase "the hanging tree" is repeated on each of the pitches B, C#, and (D#) E in the upper vocal register in the tag-like close at the end. Thus after the last verse carefully negates the implications of the motion from the seventh scale to tonic, the piece retakes the upward trajectory from scale degree 5 and completes the motion to tonic in the upper register, concluding on the highest pitch of the entire song. If the meaning in the conceptual blend was that escaping the completion of the expected trajectory to tonic corresponded to escaping death, why conclude by embracing this completion so prominently?(29)

[24] There are at least two possible explanations to be considered. 1) More general metaphors that relate tension and resolution to closure, especially the closure of the upper register opened up by motion to the seventh scale degree, are more important in this closing context than the more specialized metaphorical meaning of the seventh scale degree as discussed thus far. Musically, the upper register has been activated; the corresponding conventional narrative closure, especially the "happy ending," is linked to closure in this register. In this case we are shifting between two opposite sets of metaphors, both related to the leading tone, but without any connection between the two. In the first metaphor, which mapped the completion of the trajectory established by the motion to the seventh scale degree onto both physical space and event space, it was necessary to avoid reaching the goal in order for the happy ending to occur. But as discussed previously, the concept of motion also always involves the concept of time. Especially in the case of this type of film music, moving forward through events requires moving through time, and in this song, narrative time. Thus a similar mapping for closure of narrative time requiring the continuation of the seventh scale degree can be made.(30) This is an intriguing possibility, especially because the "resolution" of the seventh scale degree takes place in the "tag"-like ending, and in that sense is separated from the main narrative space of the leading tone's previous meaning within the song proper. In addition, it is accompanied by a IV chord (again, expected in a tag), which mitigates the leading tone character of the seventh scale degree.

[25] 2) But we can also consider the possibility of a transformed or shifted metaphor within a complex conceptual blend. The musical aspects previously discussed have mapped easily onto journey metaphors; however, this journey metaphor is underdetermined. How we know it is a journey to the hanging tree comes from the text, as well as knowledge from frames about hanging in general, the West, Westerns, and so on. But there are several possible metaphors associated with the paths and journeys indicated by the upward motion. So far, the narrative thread of imminent danger--approaching the hanging tree and hanging event--has been the focus of the journey metaphor. But a second narrative thread in this song is also commonly conceptualized in terms of paths and journeys; this narrative thread relies on Lakoff and Johnson's LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor.

[26] We first hear that the protagonist has "hung his faded dreams on the hanging tree" and "left his heart on the hanging tree." Conceptualizing his dreams and his heart as possessions in a particular location creates the potential for them to be retrieved at a later time. Thus as he moves toward the hanging tree, a love relationship is also progressing according to the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. Reaching the hanging tree allows him to retrieve his lost possessions--"to really live, you must almost die." In this case, the upward motion is unable to continue to tonic because there is an impediment along the path of the love-journey metaphor. From the song, we can only glean that this impediment is associated with an unspecified memory and/or gold. Once this impediment is removed, once he has given up his gold, retrieved his possessions, and walked away from the hanging tree (figuratively and literally), then the motion of the seventh scale degree to tonic, and thus the conclusion of the love-journey, is finally possible. Thus there are two journey metaphors running through the song.(31) Each emerges (is "activated") differently, each requires a different treatment of the seventh scale degree, and each receives the necessary treatment in different spaces within the song.

[27] The dual journeys are realized more explicitly in the scoring of the film, in which there are two different versions of the "hanging tree" theme. One version is associated with death, danger, and the hanging tree itself (cast in minor using brass) and linked with Doc Frail; the other version is associated with redemption by love (cast in major using strings) and linked with Elizabeth. Perhaps drawing on the conceptualization of male and female as inversionally complementary, these themes have the potential to cancel each other out. When both Doc Frail and Elizabeth together pass under the hanging tree (which has previously been accompanied by the minor version of the "hanging tree" theme), there is silence, acting as what Claudia Gorbman calls a structural silence.(32)

[28] Also emphasized by the film is that both journeys must be completed in order for closure to occur. The approach to the hanging tree in final scene is accompanied by an expanded minor version of the "hanging tree theme," based on the entire opening melody of the song (but in minor), and further extended to end on the minor seventh scale degree (now intensified as the root of its own chord). But unexpectedly, after the mob has accepted the gold in return for Doc Frail's freedom, and it is clear the Frail will live, the music that returns is the expanded minor version of the "hanging tree theme," and in fact is a repeat of the same music that accompanied the journey to the hanging tree. Perhaps this is to indicate the greed here on the part of the mob.(33) But the repetition of this music also underscores that complete closure is not yet possible--the second narrative strand, the love-journey, also must be resolved for closure to occur. It is only with Frail's call to Elizabeth that the opening song returns (in its original form) and is completed, including the "turning around" music of "verse five." (In addition, just before Frail calls Elizabeth, the bass of the song, which has been vamping in E-flat, shifts up to E major when Elizabeth looks down, completing the last half step necessary for closure and the return of the song in the proper key.)

[29] Thus when the "hanging tree" turns into a "tree of life," the meaning of "seventh scale degree to tonic" also shifts as we shift from a conceptual blend between the music and hanging-tree-journey spaces to a blend between the music and love-journey spaces. This is an example of what Coulson describes as "frame-shifting," in which semantic reanalysis recognizes contradictory or irrelevant information, and sets up a new space in which information from the original space is mapped into the new space. Frame-shifting reorganizes existing information into a new frame, leading to a new interpretation of ostensibly the "same" information.(34) (See Example 17.)

[30] If meaning construction in music (at least music with text) follows the same processes as text without music, then further support for a frame-shifting interpretation arises from the lack of structural close in the lower (obligatory) register in verse 5. Instead, the tag-like ending (which closes on tonic in the upper register) is the only close in verse 5.(35) Coulson points out that structure within a space is less accessible once a space has been closed off, in contrast to the focus space, in which meaning actively is being constructed. Linguistically, this includes clause boundaries, phrase boundaries, and sentence boundaries. Musically, the tag-like ending would be less available to participate in frame-shifting if it were indeed a tag--if it occurred after a structural close.(36) The lack of structural close after the "turning around" music leaves the source-path-goal structure of the hanging-tree-journey easily accessible for transfer to the new space containing the love-journey through frame-shifting.(37)

Framing the Film

[31] Where and how this shift between conceptual blends occurs differs in the song and film. Although the musical content is the same in both, it is arranged differently. In the song, the shift takes place in verse 4, when after the threatening what-do-wah's, we find out that "They took the gold and set [him] free" and his "own true love walked with [him]." Example 2b shows the arrangement of the song in the movie. Here, we first hear a portion of the song over the opening title. Although songs used in opening titles are typically thought of as being similar to overtures, here the text of the song sets up much of the film, and opens a narrative space within which the film occurs; in addition, it focuses the viewers' attention on the singer as the main character--with the "I" of the song at the opening, the film is presented as his story, from his point of view.(38) This is reinforced when the song returns at the end of the film over the final scene, as the camera cranes back accompanied by the "turning around" music of the fifth verse, encouraging the spectator to reidentify with the singer as subject.(39)

[32] Along with the release of Doc Frail, the use of the song over the final scene encourages us to find comfort in the final scene's "happy ending"--perhaps more than we should. For although the song provides an unqualified happy ending, especially apart from the film, the film itself is less resolved, particularly in the closing scene. Although the saving of Doc Frail is cathartic, Michael Walker points out that from another point of view, "the ending is uneasy. As so often in [Delmer] Daves's Westerns, it celebrates the union of a hero and heroine who have no future in the film's communities. But crucially, we do not see them leave." Walker also points out the awkwardness of the last visually arresting scene--Doc Frail and Elizabeth's embrace, Rune's pose, all in black, while the noose still hangs above them. Walker further suggest that "The posed look of the tableau--to say nothing of the unfortunate use of Marty Robbins's ballad--suggest an attempt to freeze the action in an imposition of closure."(40) Example 18 contains the closing scenes of the film.

[33] What Walker doesn't note is that the narrative of the song is different from the narrative of the film. In the song, the protagonist buys his own life with his own gold, and his near-death experience transforms him. In the film, much has been made of Doc Frail's "ownership" of people, as well as Rune and Elizabeth's resentment of that ownership--a resentment that eventually impels Rune and Elizabeth to leave him. In the film, it is primarily Elizabeth, with Rune, who use their own gold to purchase Doc Frail's freedom.(41) One member of the mob suggests that she has bought ownership of Doc Frail, and the resentment that might entail. Similarly, in the song, the future--uncomplicated by the events of the film--is clear; they simply "walk away from the Hanging Tree." In the film, too much has happened, and as Walker points out, we do not see them "walk away." Frail's release provides temporary closure, but the unresolved tensions leave all three stranded at the hanging tree.

[34] What can be made of the use of the song at the end of the film? Walker doesn't object to its use at the beginning of the film. One possibility to consider (and we will return to this question later) is that as the Hollywood studio structure disintegrated, producers were under more pressure to make each movie "pay its own way." In 1952, High Noon, another Western with Gary Cooper, became known as Hollywood's first "adult" western. High Noon's title song, better known as "Do not forsake me, oh my darling," composed by Dmitri Tiomkin and sung by Tex Ritter, became a popular hit. To the financially strapped film industry, incorporating a song that would "make the charts" became a priority; thus the song had to sell away from the context of the movie. But unlike High Noon, in which the title song (and its subsequent use in the body of the film) expresses in music and text what is verbally inexpressible for the stoic title character, in The Hanging Tree, the song is, or is supposed to be, the story; and that story, of a single hero on a straightforward journey, is not completely compatible with the film story of a hero clad in black with a checkered past and present. Thus if the song is one input space (which is already a blend of music and text), and the film is another input space (which is again already a blend of image and narrative), what emerges in the blend is unclear, because there are not adequate relationships defined between the two spaces; in other words, the generic space is too empty to support a successful (that is, meaningful) conceptual blend.

[35] Walker is not the only one to suggest that the use of the Marty Robbins song in the final scene is "unfortunate." The original film review in Variety (January 28, 1959) argues that while it "is a good song, done in semi-folk song suffers by comparison with the realism of the [final] scene on the screen, and the scene itself suffers in the same relation."(42) Perhaps it is not the song itself (or only) that causes "suffering." To revisit Walker's statement quoted earlier, but with a slightly different emphasis, Walker notes that the final tableau and the return of the song "suggest an attempt to freeze the action in an imposition of closure." A critical question then becomes: who, exactly, is attempting to impose closure? This is what Jerrold Levinson describes as "the question that confronts every filmgoer at some level, and to which he or she must, explicitly or implicitly, accord an answer, of who or what is responsible for such music. That is to say, to what agency is film music assigned by a comprehending viewer?"(43) Where does the framing music come from, and what, if any, narrative purpose does it serve?

[36] In classical cinema, Levinson posits the existence of a cinematic narrator acting as a "presenter" or "perceptual enabler." The cinematic narrator is the primary agent of narration by showing the filmgoer the events in the film, and by controlling how the film world is being made visible and audible. In film this narrator is usually implied, typically unseen and unheard. Levinson further asserts that non-diegetic music which has a narrative function is ascribed by the spectator to the agency of the cinematic narrator, while non-diegetic music that does not have a narrative function is usually assigned to the implied filmmaker.(44) In The Hanging Tree, already discussed is the role of the title music in contributing to the overshadowing presence of the hanging tree. In addition, by virtue of outlining much of the plot of the film (including the eventual fate of the protagonist), the title music serves one of the narrative functions identified by Levinson as "the foreshadowing of a dramatic development in a situation depicted on screen."(45) Because the music serves a narrative function, it is implicitly assigned to the cinematic narrator. In this case, the cinematic narrator is more than implied; because the lyrics of the song use the first person, in addition to the camera angles which pan to present the scene as the characters enter, the music is presented by a homodiegetic cinematic narrator (a narrator who is involved in story events rather than implied on a separate plane).(46) In other words, at the beginning the film is not simply the hero's (Doc Frail's) story, as discussed previously; Frail is explicitly identified as the cinematic narrator, as the shower of the events in the film, presumably for the length of the film.(47)

[37] Yet as the film continues, Doc Frail's identification as the cinematic narrator wavers and recedes. By the time he is seized by the mob and becomes a spectacle himself, he is transformed into the object of the gaze, and we are being shown these events not by Frail, but by a second implied cinematic narrator who not only is different from Frail but is heterodiegetic (outside the story events).(48) The showing of the film itself has moved beyond the control of Frail in the guise of homodiegetic presenter postulated at the beginning of the film.

[38] As a homodiegetic cinematic narrator (operating in two different narrative spaces as both character and cinematic narrator), Frail's loss of control can be tracked on two different planes: 1) through his loss of control over events occurring within the fictional reality of the film; and 2) through his loss of control of the showing of the events in the film. I will briefly illustrate with one example of each.(49)

[39] Within the fictional reality of the film, one striking way in which Doc Frail establishes his control at the beginning of the film is through his power to name Elizabeth (as he has named himself with the pseudonym "Frail"). Throughout the film, the spectator knows Elizabeth's name; when her ruined stagecoach is first located, the townspeople searching for her find a letter which gives her name as "Elizabeth Mahler." Yet the members of town do not refer to her by name; instead, they call her "the lost lady," "the little lady," "the lucky lady," and so on.(50) Even when she leaves Doc Frail and explicitly introduces herself by name to the townspeople, they continue to call her some variation of "lady"; unlike Frail, who has chosen his own pseudonym, Elizabeth does not have the power to name herself.

[40] In a movie replete with pseudonyms and what are often referred to as "leitmotifs," naming becomes an important narrative issue. The name acts to secure the identity of the subject or object. Lacan asserts that "naming constitutes a pact in which two subjects simultaneously come to an agreement to recognize the same object": the "permanent appearance over time" of the subject is"strictly only recognizable through the intermediary of the name."(51) Butler notes that the name "is a token of a symbolic order, an order of social law...which legislates viable subjects," adding that this social pact "invests the name with its power to confer durability and recognizability on that which it names.(52) But Butler goes on to point out that this social pact is based on the "Law of the Father," arguing that while a single name confers stability on the male subject, the use of the patronym requires women to shift patronymic alliance as part of the ritual exchange of women from daughter to wife, and thus requires a change in name.(53) "For women, then, propriety is achieved through having a changeable name, through the exchange of names, which means that the name is never permanent, and that the identity secured through the name is always dependent on the social exigencies of paternity and marriage....Identity is secured precisely in and through the transfer of name."(54)

[41] The townspeople enforce the role of the changeable name (here explicitly dependent on paternity and marriage) by imposing transitory identities through changeable "lady" names according to Elizabeth's changing social status, while withholding her "real" name. Doc Frail is the only one to use Elizabeth's "real" name, and only at five critical moments during the film. First, when he first examines her, he asks what her name is. Second, when she is moved to the cabin across from Frail's and begins to regain consciousness, Frail addresses her as "Elizabeth, Elizabeth, can you understand me?" Third, he asks her, "Ready, Elizabeth?" when he is to remove the bandages from her eyes to test her sight. Fourth, when he returns to find the town in flames at the hands of the mob at the end of the film, he asks a townsperson where Elizabeth and Rune are by name. Fifth, after Elizabeth has turned her gold claim over to the mob to save his life, it is Frail's calling of Elizabeth's name that brings them to the final embrace and narrative closure.(55)

[42] Thus after his initial recognition of her name, three "naming" events link the act of Doc Frail naming Elizabeth with his increasing power to bring her out of the social and physical limbo in which she exists after her father is killed--when she regains consciousness, then sight, and finally social legitimacy and propriety (in the final bestowal of her name) in the context of a heterosexual love relationship. In this way, Doc Frail's naming of Elizabeth act as links in the chain that (re-) constitute Elizabeth's (lost) identity. As a woman alone, she has been stranded by her father's death outside the ritual exchange between father and husband, leading to her uncertain status and changeable name among the townspeople. She is neither a respectable (=married) lady nor a prostitute, the only choices available in this frontier society; as a "foreigner" (she is a Swiss immigrant who speaks with an accent) she is doubly suspect. Doc's final public naming of Elizabeth not only brings an end to her various "lady" names, but also brings her back into the social pact by completing the ritual transfer from property of father to property of husband, and reconstitutes her identity under the Law of the Father as "wife," allowing narrative closure to take place. (Elizabeth's status as property is especially marked in Frenchy's attempt to rape her at the end of the film; Frenchy and the men helping him arrange the rape consider it to be the claiming of Frenchy's rightful property--he "found" her first--and the "damaging" of Doc Frail's property, an act similar to burning down his cabin.)

[43] But there is a missing link in the chain of naming through which Doc Frail reconstitutes Elizabeth's identity. As noted previously, the fourth time Frail uses Elizabeth's name, he arrives in town to find the mob burning buildings. His use of Elizabeth's name here is symptomatic of his loss of control over the events at this point in the film; rather than bringing Elizabeth closer to regaining her identity, Frail doesn't even know where she is. He has lost sight of her; Rune has been rendered impotent as her substitute protector; and Frenchy, through rape, is about to confer a different identity on Elizabeth (an identity different from the one which Frail has been trying to reconstitute).

[44] In addition, by not knowing where Elizabeth is, by literally losing sight of her, Frail has lost control over who is allowed to look at Elizabeth. While he has seen Elizabeth intimately, by bathing and changing her clothes when she is first discovered and unconscious (although we are assured that this is "different" for doctors), he protects Elizabeth so that others may not "see" her, either literally or intimately. Frail asserts his authority by "keeping 'the little lady' to himself"; by controlling who sees Elizabeth, sending away the matrons of town when they come to visitor her; threatening to kill Frenchy if he sees Elizabeth again. This is an example of what Martin Pumphrey describes as a conventional aspect of the Western: "Westerns...constantly represent looking as a male act of control."(56) This parallels Frail's control as cinematic narrator; as long as he controls who sees Elizabeth in the fictional reality of the film, he controls the showing of events in the film as cinematic narrator. As she moves out of his sight (and his control) by moving out to work her gold claim, Frail begins to lose control over events in the film. Instead of controlling who sees Elizabeth, Frail himself becomes the spectacle at the end of the film--both within the film and for the film spectator--when he becomes the willing, unresisting victim of mob justice (unresisting in part to pay for his role in his wife's suicide). It is his body, bound, disheveled, hatless, which is put on display to satisfy the blood lust (closely tied here with sexual lust for Elizabeth and lust for money) of the crowd.

[45] In film, especially in classical Westerns, masculinity is "bound up in conventions of distinctive male display."(57) But as Pumphrey writes, "male display causes problems. For a man to betray a desire to be looked at (to make himself a willing object of the gaze) is to transgress the natural order of the genre. Though the hero may be distinguished by his style, cleanliness and appearance, he cannot be seen to invite the pleasure-seeking gaze of other characters. Equally, although he is the focus of narrative attention, he cannot be explicitly transformed into an object for the spectator's (potentially erotic) contemplation."(58) Frail's passivity as he is taken to be hung betrays his willingness to become the object of the gaze, for both the characters in the film and the spectators in the audience. By the time he is seized by the mob, he has been transformed from the controller of the gaze into the object of the gaze, and we are being shown these events not by Frail, but by a second implied cinematic narrator who not only is different from Frail but is heterodiegetic (outside the story events).

[46] In this sense, the last naming of Elizabeth at the hanging tree attempts to serve the same function as the return of the song at end of the final scene--to reassert Frail's control, and with it, his role as cinematic narrator. Ironically, it is this final naming of Elizabeth that underscores the failure of Frail to reassert his control at the end of the film. The very symbolic order (the Law of the Father as interpreted in a frontier society) that gives Frail the power to name Elizabeth and allows the townspeople to sort women into the categories of married or prostitute, precludes the possibility of integrating Frail and Elizabeth as members of that society, while at the same time it is unable to control that society (as shown by the self-destructive actions of the mob). Laura Mulvey points out that as in Vladimir Propp's analysis of folk tales, the function of marriage as necessary to closure is often repeated in Westerns, but with a twist. In Westerns, the hero has two options. As in folk tales, he can choose marriage and integrate into society. But in the Western, the hero may also reject the sphere of women as represented by marriage and choose to remain alone and not integrate into society.(59) Neither of these options is possible for Frail; Frail chooses the functional equivalent of marriage but cannot integrate. Thus, like modern-day Antigones, Frail and Elizabeth reveal the scandal of a symbolic order which makes impossible the very closure it demands.(60)

[47] Thus the attempt to reassert Frail as the cinematic narrator at the end of the film by bringing back the voice and music identified with the narrator (and thus with Doc Frail as the hero) at the outset ultimately fails; we no longer believe the version of events presented in the song at the beginning of the film, or brought back at the end of the film. As Levinson points out, "a narrator generally manifests attitudes regarding the states of affairs to which access is afforded, and thereby suggests to the narratee attitudes to be adopted."(61) The narrator identified with the song at the beginning of the film attempts to uphold the fiction of a symbolic order based on the Law of the Father; the second narrator has shown us events that reveal the scandal within that symbolic order. Lee Clark Mitchell writes that in the Western, "we watch men still at work in the unfinished process of making themselves, even as we are encouraged to believe that manhood doesn't need to be made."(62) The first narrator has told of a masculinity that has existed as a stable identity and walked away unscathed by the events of the film; the second narrator shows us the process of constructing that identity. The gap between these two cinematic narrators is unbridgeable--not because there are two narrators, but because each narrator presents a different versions of events; yet with the return of the song at the end of the film, it seems that we are supposed to believe that we have been presented with the same version of events.

[48] If we return to Levinson's categorizations of narrative and non-narrative music, the return of the song at the end of the film becomes even more problematic. As discussed previously, in order to be considered narrative, non-diegetic music must create or intensify the fictional truth of something in the story. Yet if we no longer accept the version of events in the song at the end, the return of the song seems to have two primary functions described by Levinson as 1) "suggesting to the viewer of how he or she is to regard or feel about some aspect of the story" (here, a "happy ending"); and 2) "the imparting of certain formal properties, such as coherence, cogency, continuity, closure, to the film or parts thereof" (here, the "imposition of closure" noted by Walker).(63) Crucially, Levinson suggests that both of these functions are primarily non-narrative. Therefore the agency responsible for the music is assignable to the implied filmmaker, not to the cinematic narrator. This can, in effect, be considered a larger-scale frame shift, re-analyzing the song in relation to the implied filmmaker space rather than to the cinematic narrator space.

[49] Thus there are two disjunctions in the cinematic narration: 1) The identity of the cinematic narrator changes over the course of the film, as shown by the gap between the first (homodiegetic) narrator and second (heterodiegetic) narrator. The second (heterodiegetic) narrator presents a substantially different version of the events told by the first (homodiegetic) narrator; 2) The agent responsible for the "same" song shifts radically during the course of the film: the first cinematic narrator is the agent responsible for the song of the opening scene, but the implied filmmaker is responsible for the return and completion of ostensibly the same song sung by ostensibly the same person in the closing scene. This shift in agency highlights the difference between narration and narrative, between the act of telling a story and the story itself.(64) Highlighting this difference contravenes the preference in classical film, including Westerns (and most narrative films, for that matter), to present apparent transparency, or the appearance of viewing of events "as they actually are." These disjunctions, this dropping of the cinematic veil, could account for the dissatisfaction experienced in many accounts with the return of the song at the end of the film.(65)

Elizabeth P. Sayrs
University of Saskatchewan
Department of Music
28 Campus Drive
Saskatoon, SK S7N 0X1

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