The film was the first one for Gary Cooper's Baroda Productions company. This marked the first film of Scott. He and Malden later teamed for 1970's Patton, for which Scott won an Academy Award.
Joseph Frail (Gary Cooper)—doctor, gambler, gunslinger—rides into small town of Skull Creek, Montana, with miners in a gold rush, looking to set up a doctor's office. He passes by the "hanging tree," an old oak with a thick branch over which has been slung a rope with a frayed end, presumably a former noose.
He rescues and treats Rune (Ben Piazza), a young man who was shot by "Frenchy" (Karl Malden) while trying to steal gold from a sluice. Frail forces Rune into temporary servitude with the threat of revealing he is the thief.
A stagecoach is robbed and overturned, killing the driver and a male passenger. A search party is formed, and Frenchy finds the sole survivor, Swiss immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), daughter of the male passenger.
Crippled by burns, blindness and dehydration, Elizabeth is moved into a house next to the doctor's house to recover. The placement causes much chagrin among the town's righteous women, who believe that Elizabeth may be paying for her medical care through illicit behavior.
Frenchy sneaks in under the guise of trying to strike a business deal with Elizabeth, but instead tries to kiss her. Frail witnesses the aggression and chases Frenchy back to town. Frail beats him up and threatens to kill him. Meanwhile, a faith healer named Dr. Grubb (George C. Scott) sees Frail's medical practice as a threat.
Elizabeth eventually regains her sight and makes romantic overtures toward Frail. He rejects her. She leaves in a huff, determined to strike it rich as a prospector so that she can pay off Frail and get out from under his control.
She teams up with Rune and Frenchy, who plan to buy a claim and set up a sluice. To get money, she pawns a family heirloom necklace. It is worthless, but Frail secretly tells the storekeeper to loan her however much money she needs. Thus Frail secretly continues to control her.
She finds out and asks Frail why he did not respond to her affection. He reveals that his wife had an affair with his own brother. He found them together, both dead, an apparent murder-suicide. In a rage, he burned down his house with their bodies in it. He tells Elizabeth he is "not allowed to forget."
Elizabeth, Frenchy and Rune strike it rich on their claim, finding a "glory hole" of gold under a large tree stump. They ride into town, tossing a few pieces of gold to the townsfolk. The gaiety quickly turns into a riot of the lawless town members led by Dr. Grubb. While the lawful citizens of the town are engaged in fighting fires set by Grubb, Frenchy takes advantage of the commotion to make advances on Elizabeth. Her disinterest sparks a brutal physical assault as he attempts to rape her. Frail again catches Frenchy just in time. A fistfight ensues. Frenchy pulls his pistol and shoots, but misses. Frail kills Frenchy.
Seeing his opportunity to remove his "competition", Grubb incites the mob to lynch Frail. They carry him to the hanging tree, tie his hands, and stand him up in a wagon bed, the rope around his neck. Rune and Elizabeth rush in carrying their gold and the deed to their claim. Elizabeth offers everything to the townsfolk if they will let Frail live. As the mob turns on itself in the struggle to grab the gold and the deed, the lynch party disperses.
Elizabeth now feels she has finally repaid Frail in full. Rune slips the noose off, and Elizabeth turns to walk away. Frail calls out her name. She turns back, and steps to the end of the wagon. He kneels down, cups her chin with both hands, and they touch foreheads, while a ballad plays in the background.Gary Cooper as Doc Frail
Karl Malden as "Frenchy" Plante
Maria Schell as Elizabeth Mahler
George C. Scott as Grubb
Karl Swenson as Tom Flaunce
Ben Piazza as Rune
Virginia Gregg as Edna Flaunce
John Dierkes as Society Red
King Donovan as Wonder
Principal photography was shot on location in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, in the mountains west of Yakima, Washington. The scenes during the opening credits and title, where Gary Cooper rides alongside the river on horseback with a pack horse in tow, were filmed about mid-June in 1958, just northeast of Goose Prairie, Washington, along the north bank of the Bumping River. The fictional small gold mining town of Skull Creek was a temporary film set constructed along the south side of Little Rattlesnake Creek by its confluence with Rattlesnake Creek, just southwest of Nile, Washington.
Marty Robbins performed the title song that was nominated for best song at the 32nd Annual Academy Awards and the 1960 Golden Laurel Award for Best Song. The text is a short reference to the film's story. It was also released on the reissue of the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959) by Marty Robbins, who performed this song in the opening credits of this film. A known cover-version is by Frankie Laine who performed this song at the 32nd Academy Awards.
The film's score was composed by Max Steiner.The Hanging Tree
Lyrics by Mack David
Music by Jerry Livingston
Vocal by Marty Robbins