Weird Westerns: The Hanged Man (1974)
A television movie about a hanged gunfighter who returns to life to exact Biblical revenge.
By Max Sparber
I'm not sure why, but in the 1970s Westerns took a decided turn for the weird. But, then, that was true of the entire decade. I grew up in the 70s and remember it as being one long decade of supernatural obsession.
The television Western, as an example, had a long history as a pretty stolid format, and this film, "The Hanged Man," was made by people with background in honest, unflashy tales of frontier living. Creator Andrew J. Fenady was behind "Hondo," the television show based on the John Wayne film. Writer Ken Trevey wrote for "Wagon Train," "Branded, "Iron Horse," and the like. Solid, and solidly square, television Westerns.
And yet, in 1974, under the auspices of Bing Crosby's production company, they produced a pilot for an intended Western about a semi-supernatural gunfighter who was hanged for his crimes and returned from the dead.
The film is set in a vision of the West that is a blasted, almost Biblical desert, which seems appropriate, as this is a film obsessed with the Bible. Superficially, the movie addresses questions of sin and redemption, but really it seems to look to Biblical stories as grist for eerie stories. And so names are plucked out of the book — a nearby town is called Goshen — as well as weird stories, with the title character especially obsessing over the tale of Lazarus.
It's evocative, but this is not a film with a comprehensive theology at its core. Nobody really knows why a gunman (played with laconic menace by Steve Forrest) has come back from the grave, and eventually he decides his mission is to be a force of divine retribution. Most of the film is about his attempts to help a windowed mother who owns a mine, and his revenge on the silver baron who is terrorizing her.
It's damned evocative. Forrest cuts an iconic figure, dressed in black but for a surprisingly comfortable looking knit scarf he wears to hide his scarred neck, a relic of the hanging. The film is directed by Michael Caffey. a television stalwart who had a talent for a well-framed shot; the film often has the visual precision of a Western comic book panel brought to life. Caffey was also skilled with transitions, which seems like a technical skill that isn't worth mentioning, but stands out here. Caffey will often have a scene take place in the foreground and then move his camera to reveal something in the background, such as a villain running through the hills.
It's a subtle gesture, but one you don't see often anymore, and it gives a unified sense to the film, as though every scene were connected and bleeding into each other. A lot of the film is shot from further away than is typically the case in television, with a lot of characters crammed into the shot. There's one shot in particular, in which the widow pleads with god for help as she tries to help an old employee trapped beneath a wagon. Behind then, the villain's hired gun (marvelously named Billy Irons and played by Brendon Boone) circles on horseback, surrounded by his men, also on horseback, as he waves a torch around to their delight, eventually throwing it at the wagon and setting in on fire.
It's a lot of information to pack into a single shot, but it also makes the scene horrific. There's a real sense of danger, because we see the characters' proximity to each other, and see that the fire is real.
I am not sure what "The Hanged Man" would have looked like as a series. It ends with Forrest riding off, pursued by a nameless man who seems set on revenge, and I can guess that each episode would have had the character move from town to town. In each town, he would find someone to help, although his version of help would always be an unnatural murder, and the stranger would always pursue him. This was the plot of a lot of television shows from the era, or, at least, a version of it; there usually weren't supernatural murders. But there was a runaway dog show called "Run, Joe, Run" in 1974 that has an almost identical plot, and if a dog can move from town to town, so can a gunfighter.
I prefer it like this. One of the first questions Forrest asks when he returns from the dead is what Lazarus did with his life after he came back to life, and a local preacher tells us the Bible doesn't tell us. It seems fitting that "The Hanged Man" likewise doesn't have an answer. Just one story of death, rebirth, and ambiguous redemption, and then a gunslinger riding away into an uncertain future.
However, there are two stories of Lazarus found in early Christian traditions. In both, Lazarus flees officials who are calling for his death due to his association with Jesus. In one, he becomes a king, in another he becomes a Bishop and is eventually beheaded.
If "The Hanged Man" had followed either story line, it would have likely been the weirdest Weird Western ever made. I would have told both stories, with him becoming a titan of industry and then a humble priest, neither saving him from a grisly death set in place at the moment of his first resurrection.
If you're going to tell a supernatural tale based on Bible stories, don't be afraid to steal relentlessly from the source material. You won't find weirder.