Western, Romance | 81 Mins | Released: 1952
Director: Roy Huggins
Starring: Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Claude Jarman Jr., Frank Faylen, Glenn Langan, Richard Denning, Lee Marvin
Our Rating: 7
In the spring of 1865 in Nevada, a small band of Confederate soldiers disguised as civilians intercept a shipment of gold escorted by Union cavalry troops. Following a heated battle, Confederate Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott) learns from a dying Union officer that the war ended a month earlier. Matt and his men transport the gold as planned to the scheduled rendezvous with Captain Petersen (Glenn Langan) who has been scouting the area disguised as a travelling peddler. When Petersen confirms that the war is indeed over, but made no attempt to tell the men, hot-headed Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin) shoots him dead. The men briefly debate what to do with the gold. As ranking officer, Matt decides they will take the gold back to the South to help finance their country’s reconstruction.
The following day, Matt disguises himself and uses Petersen’s covered wagon to transport the gold and his men, out of the area. Soon they are stopped by a posse looking for the gold thieves, but before they discover the Confederate rebels, Matt persuades the posse’s leader Quincey (Ray Teal) that they’ve been caught elsewhere, and the posse rides off. Matt and his men continue on, but the mules bolt from the wagon and the rebels are forced to commandeer a stagecoach carrying a former Union war nurse Molly Hull (Donna Reed) and her companion Lee Kemper (Richard Denning). Quincey’s posse returns and chases the stage to a station house, capturing one of Matt’s men, Cass Browne (Frank Faylen), in the process. They drag him through the brush in an effort to discover the location of the gold. Meanwhile, Matt and his men take the stage passengers, the ageing station agent Plunkett (Clem Bevans), and his daughter Margaret Harris (Jeanette Nolan) hostage.
Inside the station house, when Kemper accuses Matt and his men of having murdered all of the Union volunteers guarding the gold shipment, Matt explains that they were carrying out a military mission, acting under orders, and that men died on both sides. Margaret is unmoved by the explanation, embittered over the loss of her husband and son in the war. Molly and Kemper remain suspicious, but Molly tends to one of the wounded rebels. Matt then addresses Quincey’s posse who have surrounded the station house by now, trying to convince them that the gold is hidden near the abandoned wagon. As night descends, Matt asks each of the hostages to give him their word that they will remain silent while he and the men slip out in the dark. As they leave, Kemper yells out a warning to the posse, and Matt and his men are forced back into the station house. Matt prevents the violent Rolph from killing Kemper. Later that night, the posse try to lure the Confederates out by threatening to hang Cass, but Matt is able to rescue him using the remaining sticks of dynamite from their ambush.
The following day, Kemper offers Matt a way of escape in exchange for two gold bars. Giving Matt an Indian token, Kemper explains that his good trading relationship with the local Paiute Indians and this token will guarantee fresh horses and safe passage out of the territory. He also knows by the approaching clouds that a brief torrential rainstorm will soon arrive and supply Matt and his men cover for their escape. Matt agrees to the plan. Later, while Molly is caring for the wounded man in another room, Rolph tries to force himself on her. An enraged Matt stops him and beats him in a fistfight. When an angry Rolph tries to shoot Matt, young Jamie Groves (Claude Jarman, Jr.) shoots the gun out of Rolph’s hand, and is then forced to shoot him dead.
Meanwhile during the night, Quincey and his men have been digging a short tunnel under the station house. Just when they break through and reach a trap door in the floor, Cass stops them from entering. Frustrated, Quincey decides to burn the station house down and orders his men to torch the roof. As the fire burns through the roof, Kemper’s predicted thunderstorm arrives. In the confusion, Kemper tries to escape with his two gold bars and is shot dead by the posse. When Cass sneaks outside to scatter the posse’s horses, he is also killed. As Matt and Jamie prepare to escape, Molly begs Matt not to take the gold. Outside in the chaos of the storm, Quincey and his men begin shooting at each another. Believing Matt has escaped with the gold, Quincey races after him into the night.
The next morning, the surviving members of the posse are gone. Respecting Molly’s wishes, Matt and Jamie surrender the gold to Plunkett. Margaret and Plunkett offer a home to young Jamie who promises he will return. Matt also promises Molly that he will return to her after he is repatriated in Virginia, and the two embrace.
In his review in The New York Times, A. W. wrote that the Western genre film is “given handsome, credible and edifying treatment” by writer-director Roy Huggins in Hangman’s Knot, calling the film a “taut, action-filled adventure”.
As a director, Mr. Huggins has centered his cast in plausible situations. The six-shooters and Winchesters are rarely allowed to cool down, the talk is pertinent and there are enough corpses around at the finale to satisfy the most exacting fan. And his principals are human withal. Randolph Scott, as the leader of the embattled Confederates is a troubled but heroic man uncertain as to how to honorably dispose of the loot. Donna Reed, as a Union nurse nabbed as a hostage, is utterly natural as her hate is changed to admiration when she comes to know her captor better. Richard Denning is a weak opportunist as her civilian escort and Claude Jarman Jr., as the callow member of the band; Lee Marvin as the lustful killer and Frank Faylen, as a casually brave “Reb,” contribute more meaningful delineation than is usual for this type of muscular play acting. Although “Hangman’s Knot” is only loosely tied to its title, it is a tight little entertainment which does justice to this film form.
In her review in Allmovie, Tana Hobart called the film a “well done, tense western with a good, dry sense of humor.” In his review in DVD Verdict, Judge Paul Corupe called the film “a pretty fair Technicolor b-western bookended with some exciting action sequences.” In his review for Reel Film Reviews, David Nusair wrote that Hangman’s Knot is “surprisingly fast-paced for a film of this sort, and though there’s an almost incoherent rain-soaked battle towards the end, the film essentially remains entertaining throughout.” Nusair also notes the “real chemistry” between Scott and Reed.