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

Example 6. Cast and Plot of The Hanging Tree

Dr. Joe Frail Gary Cooper
Elizabeth Mahler Maria Schell
Rune Ben Piazza
Frenchy Plante Karl Malden
Reverend Grubb George C. Scott (debut role)

Doc Frail arrives in the mining camp of Skull Creek, Montana, in 1873, where he buys a cabin and sets up shop as camp doctor and part-time prospector. Frail is gentle as a healer, and kind to poor members of the community, children and prostitutes; to others he is cold and often cruel. He saves the young Rune, a sluice robber who has been shot by Frenchy, by treating his wound and shielding him from the mob that would surely hang him. But in return for saving his life, Doc Frail makes him his bondservant, using the bullet he has removed from Rune to coerce him to stay. (Unknown to Rune, Doc Frail throws the bullet away.)

From the beginning, Rev. Grubb, a whiskey-drinking preacher/prophet, fingers Doc Frail as a "butcher doctor" whose medical instruments are "foul with sin." Frail drives him off by shooting at his feet. Frail's anxiety is not unfounded, because it indicates that his past has followed him. (Frail has headed West after his wife had an affair with Frail's brother. Frail shot his brother, his wife committed suicide, and Frail burned down their home with both bodies in it.) A stagecoach out of town is held up; everyone is killed except Elizabeth, who wanders the salt flats for days before being found by an excited Frenchy. She is badly sunburned and temporarily blind. In order to care for her, Doc Frail moves her into the cabin next door to his. Because Doc Frail keeps visitors from her, and because she is "foreign," Rev. Grubb and the "respectable ladies" of town decide she is a "woman of loose virtue."

While she is still recuperating, Frenchy comes to visit the "lost lady" he has rescued, first to ask for money to stake a gold claim, and then when it is clear she does not have enough money for this, for sexual favors as a reward. Frail comes into Elizabeth's cabin before anything happens, and pursues Frenchy to the saloon and beats him up, telling him that if he ever comes to the cabin again Frail will kill him. Frenchy vows, with Grubb, that one day Frail will get "kicked back." Meanwhile, Elizabeth recovers her sight, and Rune is released from his servitude. Resentful of Doc Frail's control over them, Rune and Elizabeth raise money (secretly backed by Frail) to grub-stake a claim with Frenchy; all three leave town to work their claim. (Frail's clandestine support of Elizabeth reinforces her status as a "kept woman" in the community.)

During a storm, a tree near the claim is blown over to reveal a "glory hole," with gold nuggets clinging to the roots of the tree. Elizabeth, Rune, and Frenchy return to town to celebrate their new-found wealth; the whole town begins a riot, including a bonfire, and Rev. Grubb and others begin to set fire to some buildings. While getting a shower and a shave, Frenchy learns that Frail is out of town, and decides to return to Elizabeth's cabin. Several of his friends overpower Rune (who has been guarding Elizabeth), and when Elizabeth resists Frenchy's advances, he beats her and drags her upstairs. As he is about to rape her, Frail returns, enters the cabin, and hurls Frenchy down the stairs. Frenchy takes a shot at Frail, and Frail fires back several times until Frenchy is dead, and then kicks him over the cliff. This scene is witnessed by Grubb and others who had headed uphill to burn the "butcher-doctor's" cabin. They immediately form a lynch mob and carry Frail to the hanging tree. As they are putting the noose around his neck, and Grubb quotes Genesis, Elizabeth (with Rune) comes up to the hanging tree and offers all of their new-found gold, and finally the claim itself, to the mob in exchange for Frail's life. The crowd frenziedly grabs for the gold and the claim, leaving Rune and Elizabeth to free Frail.