Hingle portrays a fictional judge who mirrors Judge Isaac Parker, who was labeled the "Hanging Judge" due to the large number of men he sentenced to be executed during his service as District Judge of the Western District of Arkansas.
The film also depicts the dangers of serving as a U.S. marshal during that period, as many federal marshals were killed while serving under Parker. The fictional Fort Grant, base for operations for that district judge seat, is also a mirror of the factual Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Judge Parker's court was located.
The story is set in Oklahoma Territory in 1889. It opens with Jed Cooper (Eastwood) driving a small herd of cattle across a stream. When the men in a posse composed of Capt. Wilson (Begley), Reno (Joseph Sirola), Miller (Bruce Dern), Jenkins (Bob Steele), Matt Stone (Alan Hale, Jr.), Charlie Blackfoot (Ned Romero), Maddow (Russell Thorson), Tommy (Jonathan Lippe), and Loomis (L. Q. Jones) surround him and accuse him of rustling the herd, he shows them a receipt for the cattle, but the man he bought them from was a rustler who killed the herd's owners. Cooper explains that he knew nothing about the murder, but only Jenkins expresses doubts about his guilt. After Reno takes Cooper's saddle and Miller takes his wallet, the men hang him from a tree and ride away, leaving him for dead.
Federal Marshal Dave Bliss (Ben Johnson) sees Cooper and cuts him down while he is still alive. Bliss puts him in irons and takes him to Fort Grant, where the territorial judge, Adam Fenton (Hingle), determines that Cooper is innocent, sets him free, and warns him not to become a vigilante. He then shows Cooper the man who is responsible for the crimes he was accused of committing by the posse. The man, McCloud, is hanged for murder and rustling as Judge Fenton and Cooper watch. As an alternative to vigilantism, Fenton offers Cooper, a former lawman, the badge of a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Cooper accepts the post, and Fenton warns him not to kill the men who lynched him.
During his first assignment as a marshal, Cooper sees his saddle on a horse in front of a small-town saloon. He finds Reno inside and tries to arrest him, but Reno goes for his gun, forcing Cooper to shoot him dead. When word of this becomes public, Jenkins turns himself in and provides the names of the rest of the hanging posse. Cooper finds Stone, the blacksmith in the town of Red Creek, arrests him, and has Sheriff Ray Calhoun (Charles McGraw) put him in jail. Most of the men Cooper seeks are respected members of the community, but Calhoun honors Cooper's warrants for their arrest.
On their way to Wilson's ranch to make the arrests, Cooper and Calhoun encounter an impromptu posse pursuing the perpetrators of another rustling and murder. Cooper and this posse catch the rustlers, who turn out to be Miller and two teenaged brothers, Ben (Richard Gates) and Billy Joe (Bruce Scott). Cooper takes them to Fort Grant single-handedly after refusing to let the posse lynch them. On the way, Ben and Billy Joe insist that Miller was the murderer. Miller catches Cooper off guard and attacks him, but Cooper overpowers and subdues him while the brothers watch.
Judge Fenton sentences all three rustlers to be hanged, despite Cooper's defense of the teenagers. Fenton insists that the public will resort to lynching if they see rustlers going unpunished, threatening Oklahoma's bid for statehood. Some time later, Sheriff Calhoun arrives at Fort Grant and pays Cooper for his cattle. He is trying to bribe Cooper into ignoring the rest of the men who lynched him. Cooper accepts the money but makes it clear that while "we are even, money-wise", he will bring the attempted murderers to justice. Wilson realizes, "All right, now that makes three mistakes we've made. The money; we hung an innocent man; and we didn't finish the job. We can't undo the first two ... but we can still finish the job." Blackfoot and Maddow flee, but Loomis and Tommy remain loyal to Wilson, who has decided to kill Cooper.
At Fort Grant, Wilson, Loomis, and Tommy bushwhack Cooper while most of the town has gathered to watch the hanging of Miller, Ben, Billy Joe, and three other men. Cooper survives the shooting and is slowly nursed back to health by Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens), a shopkeeper with whom he starts a relationship. On a picnic together, Cooper and Rachel unexpectedly become lovers. When Marshal Cooper is healthy enough to return to duty, he learns Captain Wilson, Loomis, and Tommy are holed up at Wilson's ranch, and goes after them.
Sneaking up on the ranch house, Cooper is attacked by a German Shepherd guard dog that is accidentally killed by Tommy. He kills Loomis, who had come out after him with a knife, and then Tommy. Captain Wilson attempts to shoot Cooper as he crosses open ground to the house, but on hearing Cooper break in, Wilson hangs himself.
On his return to Fort Grant, Cooper threatens to quit unless Fenton releases Jenkins, who is both contrite and seriously ill. Fenton insists that justice must be served, but agrees to pardon Jenkins. After listening to a memorable outburst from the judge in which Fenton curses the fact that he and his marshals are the only source of judgment and justice in the territory, Cooper agrees to continue as a marshal. Judge Fenton then hands him fresh warrants for Blackfoot and Maddow, telling him, "The law still wants them."Clint Eastwood as Deputy U.S. Marshal Jed Cooper
Inger Stevens as Rachel Warren, owner of the Fort Grant general store
Ed Begley as Captain Wilson, leader of the posse that hanged Cooper
Pat Hingle as Territorial Judge Adam Fenton
Ben Johnson as Deputy Marshal Dave Bliss
Charles McGraw as Sheriff Ray Calhoun, Red Creek's sheriff
Ruth White as 'Peaches' Sophie, madam of the Fort Grant bordello
Bruce Dern as Miller, one of the lynching party who later rustles a cattle herd
Alan Hale, Jr. as Matt Stone, blacksmith and member of the posse that hanged Cooper
Jonathan Goldsmith as Tommy, one of the posse that hanged Cooper
Arlene Golonka as Jennifer, a redheaded prostitute fancied by Jed Cooper
James Westerfield as Prisoner, one of the six men hanged at once
Dennis Hopper as The Prophet, a crazed prisoner who is shot dead by Bliss when he attempts to escape.
L. Q. Jones as Loomis, one of the posse that hanged Cooper
Michael O'Sullivan as Francis Elroy Duffy, Prisoner, one of the six men hanged at once
Joseph Sirola as Reno, one of the posse that hanged Cooper
James MacArthur as the Preacher
Mark Lenard as the Prosecuting Attorney
Bert Freed as Hangman Schmidt
Bob Steele as Jenkins, one of the posse that hanged Cooper
Tod Andrews as the Defense Attorney
Michael Lembeck as Marvin, the general store clerk (uncredited)
Eastwood spent much of late 1966 and 1967 dubbing for the English-language version of the Dollars trilogy and being interviewed, something which left him feeling angry and frustrated. Stardom brought more roles in the "tough guy" mold, and Irving Leonard, his business manager, gave him a script to a new film, the American revisionist Western Hang 'Em High, a cross between Rawhide and Leone's westerns, written by Mel Goldberg and produced by Leonard Freeman. However, the William Morris Agency had wanted him to star in a bigger picture, Mackenna's Gold, with a cast of notable actors such as Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, and Telly Savalas. Eastwood, however, did not approve and preferred the script for Hang 'Em High, but had one complaint which he voiced to the producers: the scene before the six-man hanging, where the hero is attacked by the enemies. Eastwood believed that the scene would not be believable if set in a saloon. They eventually agreed to introduce a scene with Cooper taking a prostitute upstairs during the hanging, and having the attack take place afterwards as Eastwood enters the bordello's bar. Eastwood signed for the film with a salary of $400,000 and 25% of the net earnings to the film, playing the character of Jed Cooper, a man accused by vigilantes of a rancher's murder, lynched and left for dead, who later seeks revenge.
With the wealth generated by the Dollars trilogy, Leonard helped set up a new production company for Eastwood, Malpaso Productions, something for which he had long yearned, and was named after a river on Eastwood's property in Monterey County. Leonard became the company's president and arranged for Hang 'Em High to be a joint production with United Artists. Directors Robert Aldrich and John Sturges were considered for the director's helm, but on the request of Eastwood, old friend Ted Post was brought in to direct, against the wishes of producer Leonard Freeman, whom Eastwood had urged away. Post was important in casting for the film and arranged for Inger Stevens of The Farmer's Daughter fame to play the role of Rachel Warren. She had not heard of Eastwood or Sergio Leone at the time, but instantly took a liking to Clint and accepted.
Co-producer Leonard Freeman arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on May 25, 1967, to scout locations. That same day, Freeman located the tree to be used for the hanging in the opening scene, about 12 miles north of Las Cruces. Filming began June 27, 1967, in the Las Cruces area, with additional scenes shot at White Sands. The interiors were shot at MGM studios. The opening lynching scene was filmed June 29, 1967, next to the Rio Grande. The tree used for the hanging is no longer standing and the riverbed is now overgrown with thick brush. Eastwood had considerable leeway in the production, especially in the script, which was altered in parts such as the dialogue and setting of the barroom scene to his liking. Actor Bruce Dern has credited co-star Ben Johnson with accomplishing "the greatest single stunt ever performed in the history of movies", by riding full-tilt toward the hanging Eastwood while pulling out his knife, cutting the noose, dismounting, and catching Eastwood as he fell, all in a single take with no cut. Unfortunately, no such shot appears in the film.
The film became a major success after release in July 1968, and with an opening-day revenue of $5,241 in Baltimore alone, it became the biggest United Artists opening in history, exceeding all of the James Bond films at that time. It debuted at number five on Variety's weekly survey of top films and had made its money back within two weeks of screening. It eventually grossed $6.8 million in the U.S.. It was widely praised by critics, including Arthur Winsten of the New York Post, who described Hang 'Em High as "a Western of quality, courage, danger and excitement." Variety gave the film a negative review, calling it "a poor American-made imitation of a poor Italian-made imitation of an American-made western."
Audiences seem to agree with Arthur Winsten rather than Variety; the film has withstood the test of time. As of February 2016, Hang 'Em High has a 92% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Slightly in advance of the film's release, per custom of the period, Popular Library published a commercially successful and well-regarded novelization of the screenplay, with the screenwriters themselves as the by-lined co-authors. Copyright 1968 by Leonard Freeman Productions, it features Clint Eastwood and Inger Stevens on the cover.