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The West as Lost Cause in Hell's Hinges (1916)

The Past, Present, and Possible Future of the West
The Past, Present, and Possible Future of the West
Copyright: <a href=''>umbertoleporini / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

It was always first pictures then talk. Hell's Hinges (1916) is the kind of film that probably only ivory tower professors show to their students. It could be for an elective, gut course, or one that will inspire somebody to further an interest in the visual media. But there are others, too, who might, for a variety of reasons, want to occasionally delve into silent film. This one is only two years shy of a hundred years old. That is a very big item indeed, since movies, as a whole, only date back to the Paris exhibition of 1895. It is truly amazing to watch how William S. Hart as Blaze Tracy takes command strictly by means of facial expression, costume, and body language. He speaks plenty, but the audience must read what he says. Many object to any movie with subtitles. But these are inter-titles, somewhat different. They do not appear at the bottom of the screen, but in the middle, in mid-action. Often, they are just the right amount of words, written colloquially, to move the drama along without too rude an interruption.

The auteur theory was and remains thoroughly legit. But this is an actor-driven movie. It is all about a town committed to the flames of hell by virtue of its own corruption. Opposing its collective evil is a cowboy-hero, one of the first, who is unexpectedly affected by the attempt to reform the town, whose preference for the saloon over the church-house is more than symbolic. The narrative is admittedly full of ethical and moral cliches and predictable results. But how they come about is unique to the work. As explained in the titles, the town is called Placer Center, according to a prospector's map. It is, one can assume, a mining town. Thus, it is a good guess that gold is at the root of its evil. Whatever the case, the town enjoys an overabundance of revelry, including Sundays. They are without any respect at all, unwilling to even show a modicum of insincere solemnity. The pastor, fresh from the east, sermonizes. Needless to say, his words fall on deaf ears. Then, later, a dance-hall doll gets him drunk. Drink, immorality, and barroom camaraderie rapidly overwhelm the man of the cloth.

Blaze responds to the prayers of the preacher's sister. But where did these devilish town-folk come from? They must have been from the east, too. What happened to them? Hell's Hinges is not a documentary, filmed, as it was, in sunny California, but it was much closer in time to the realities it represents than the "talkies" that came later. I think the movie has as much value in terms of Americana as it does a simple morality play. At the core of its center is a carefully wrought character who undergoes a conversion experience from bad to good. This is Hart's special talent. But he is well-supported by lots of actors and their amusing shenanigans. I was surprised, however, at how tragic the whole texture ultimately became. Consider the imagery alone, such as two branches, twigs really, that form a cross to temporarily mark the remains of the preacher. He was not qualified for the easterners and unprepared for the westerners. Today's audience might find the theatricality overbearing, such as the preacher's sister, a true believer, unchanged throughout, now praying, while the would-be congregants cavort about, now lying prostrate on the ground, seemingly not fit for anything but mining and burials.

In Toll Gate (1920), Hart's Black Deering, weary of leading a gang of outlaws, each worth approximately $5,000, dead or alive, cannot find a way back into civil society. As it turns out, the dead-drunk ranchers are not exactly the epitome of moral rectitude either. They ridicule his faltering attempt to portray himself as a cowhand. They are also onto him. Eventually, to escape their clutches, Deering burns down the saloon. As in Hell's Hinges, yet another western town is consigned to the flames of hell. But once again, the protagonist displays another angelic side to his character, brought to the surface by a single mother raising a boy in a cabin. This, and other dated stories like it, made for good movies. There is a certain amount of relief, moreover, in not having to listen to garbled talk that is sometimes purposeful, sometimes not. In silent film, one watches people talk, and at the same time, takes note of reaction shots, usually close-ups, non-verbal, unassisted by dialogue. Well-trained actors occasionally dish it out and also take it in in the form of a barrage of unheard verbiage. All in all, once again, the West disappoints as Deering, to save his own skin, must go into self-exile below the border.

1914's The Bargain has a nicer ending. Love conquers all, as it always should. Even though Hart's Jim Stokes admits to being "the two-gun man", his innocent wife does not turn him away. After holding up a stage coach and stealing $1,000, getting caught, and barely escaping with his life, he seems ready to settle down.

Movies have always given birth to indulgent over-intellectuality. Maybe there are times even the worst offender ought to give it a rest. There is nothing quite like watching Hart's bad/good or good/bad guy hold a roomful of ornery men at bay, get them to doff their gun-belts, then chase them out as he sets a barn or tavern on fire. He holds two guns pointed at them just so, so that they take him very seriously. The shot is tight -- eyes flaring. In the early 1900s, filmmakers caught on fast. These films are actually well-made, though some of their techniques are antiquated.

In Hart's biography, we learn that Hart, born in New York, grew up not on the open range but in Illinois and Iowa, where the mills were once located. The Midwest has never been labeled "wild", yet it was, at one time, as dangerous as it was industrious. It was along the Fox River, then later the Mississippi, that Hart learned firsthand about small-towns, horses, and the Sioux -- some traditional, others adapting to the foreign ways of the White. Little by little, his father migrated westward. He wanted to own and operate his own mill. As to the actual composition of westerners in the legendary days, Hart puts it best: "The majority of the Western men came from the East, the Middle West, or some Southern State."

In terms of expectations, the West on film or in reality never attained the visions that once readily attached themselves to it. There are notable things about the West, but fundamentally, it never fulfilled its brilliant, hoped-for destiny. From Hell's Hinges, one gets the idea that it is fraught with the worst sorts extracted from the national gene pool. More than lawlessness, lunacy reigns supreme. It all goes to show that the idea of making a brand new start by breaking loose from the east, midwest, and south, is, practically speaking, all-too-susceptible to unforeseen forces that dash to pieces yet another American dream.

Still, as far as the West is concerned, no one, no group, no force, no faction, no word or act of providence has yet written, stated, or otherwise expressed the words, the end. It is touching to read in Hart's memoirs how his father apologetically departed penniless. It was not to his liking, but his son still thought the world of him. It is that way with the West today. It goes on forever. It is a vaster wasteland than anything T.S. Eliot ever imagined. But its red dirt and red rock continue to delight the eye. Someday, God willing, American ingenuity will engineer a better, more productive future out of so much emptiness.

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