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Hang 'Em High Review

For Families provided by Common Sense Media

OK for kids 13+

High-minded Eastwood Western weighs mercy vs. justice.

What Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that there are grown-up elements in this Western, including some more-or-less innocent teenage boys facing execution as accessories to rustling. In addition to the expected shoot-em-ups of a cowboy picture, raw elements include prostitution (in which the hero partakes), euphemistic talk of a rape-murder, drinking, smoking, suicide, and a theme of capital punishment taken to extremes, so that seeing men hung becomes a sort of vulgar spectator sport. Religion on this frontier seems an ineffectual element, with a briefly-glimpsed Bible fanatic who must be gunned down. Though this was released before the MPAA rating existed, Hang 'Em High got a retroactive PG-13 badge for home video.

  • Families can talk about the choices made by the characters. Is Jed motivated by justice or revenge?
  • Discuss the theme of capital punishment, in and out of this movie. Is the judge's character correct, about why he has to be stern and merciless? Is Judge Fenton the real villain of the piece?
  • You can associate Hang 'Em High with The Ox-Bow Incident, the classic novel (and movie) and frequent school-reading assignment about the crime of lynching.
  • Older kids with a taste for more realistic Westerns -- ones that showed just how harsh and brutal life could be on the American frontier, no campfire sing-alongs -- can be steered to the cult sagebrushers Shane, Bad Company (1972), and Dead Man.

The good stuff
  • message true2

    Messages: Tries to convey that "legal" execution, done without deliberation or appeal, is no better than murder via lynching. Sub-theme about conditions in a frontier society that require such harsh justice.

  • rolemodels true1

    Role models: Few characters to admire in this wild West setting, though Marshall Jed Cooper comes closest. He may be motivated by revenge, but still always follows the rule of law. Judge Fenton knows he's sending men to undeserved deaths, but he rationalizes it. Minorities in the Old West include African Americans, a Swede, an Indian, and one Asian prostitute. Prostitution is how most females are shown.

What to watch for
  • violence false3

    Violence: Shootings, some fatal, some not, including a dog found shot dead. Fistfights and beatings. Hangings and attempted hangings. A dead man with a knife in him. The heroine describes in euphemistic terms how she was repeatedly raped("they took me").

  • sex false2

    Sex: Though it's never called such by name, a house of prostitution is an accepted part of the community, and Marshall Cooper uses its services. He's shown in bed with a hooker after sex (both discreetly covered up).

  • language false1

    Language: "Bastard" and "hell."

  • consumerism false0

    Consumerism: Not an issue

  • drugsalcoholtobacco false2

    Drinking, drugs and smoking: Saloon drinking. The hero smokes, as does a prisoner and a casual prostitute-girlfriend. A prisoner about to be hung happily chews tobacco. Another preaches against liquor, blaming it for his crime.