The United States of America
Hell’s Hinges is by far one of the most cynical and bleak Westerns that I have ever seen. The fact that it was made in 1916, a full thirteen years before John Ford would officially legitimize the Western as more than just B-movie trash with Stagecoach (1939), is all the more astounding. And yet, Hell’s Hinges, clocking in at barely over an hour, could very well be as essential to the survival and evolution of the Western genre as Mr. Ford’s film. To say that it was ahead of its time is an understatement as it seems akin to Revisionist Westerns, such as Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). It is dark, murky, ugly, nasty, and despite an ending that could be classified as “happy,” remains unrepentant.
A shot of the eponymous town of Hell's Hinges, a place which the narration describes as a town to "ride wide of."
But perhaps first some history is in order. It’s important to note the general state of Westerns before Hell’s Hinges. It’s generally accepted that one of the most important Westerns of all time was Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) which helped pioneer such techniques as cross-editing to tell a story from more than one point of view. However, subsequent Western fare did little to continue Porter’s tradition of using the genre as a platform for cinematic innovation. As Moving Picture World reported in 1911, Westerns by and large featured “always the same plot, the same scenery, the same impossible Indians, the wicked halfbreeds, the beautiful red maidens, the fierce warriors, the heroic cowboys, the flight from the Indian village at night.” In fact, it was widely accepted that the Western genre had exhausted itself and was doomed to die.
Thankfully, before the genre could expire, producer Thomas Ince breathed new life into it. He set his films in a sprawling twenty-thousand acre ranch above Santa Monica that was dubbed “Inceville.” For actors, he sought out members of the Oglala Sioux tribe and a Wild West show troupe. But perhaps the most important addition to his stable of actors was William S. Hart.
William S. Hart, seen here in Hell's Hinges, began his film career when he was nearly 50 years old.
Hart, with his aged stoicism akin to a Wild West Buster Keaton and a unflappable presence that predated and predicted the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, would forever be known as the first star of feature length Westerns.
And, is it just me, or do I detect a little hint of James Stewart, too?
Forgive the pun, but Hart was truly the heart of what made Hell’s Hinges great. In an era defined by overdramatic acting reminiscent of the theater, Hart’s restraint spoke louder and more forcibly than any exaggerated expression or body movement. And that restraint is what helped propel Hell’s Hinges from the realm of pulp to cinematic genius.
The plot plays as an inversion of the famous Western trope of the arrival of the schoolmarm who brings law and civility to the untamed West. In such stories, there is a town or piece of country ruled by lawlessness and godlessness which is eventually saved and reformed by an outsider, usually from the East. And, at first, Hell’s Hinges seems to fit that story. A minister and his sister arrive from New York to Hell’s Hinges in order to aid the few moral citizens, referred to as the “Petticoat Brigade.”
The "Petticoat Brigade," a "drop of water in a barrel of rum."
However, in reality, the minister is a hypocritical charlatan who was sent Westward because his superiors wanted to keep him away from the temptations of the city. Once he arrives, he is seduced by one of the town’s most notorious prostitutes.
The reverend and his sister, Faith, arrive in Hell's Hinges.
His sister, Faith, an exemplar of ingenue Christian piety the likes of which would make Lillian Gish proud, becomes the object of “Blaze” Tracy’s affections. Tracy, played by Hart, was the hired gunman of Silk Miller, the owner of the local saloon and tyrant of Hell’s Hinges. Together, they swore to keep the law and God out of Hell’s Hinges at any cost. However, upon seeing Faith and at the church, he instantly abandons his wicked ways and converts to Christianity.
"I reckon God ain't wantin' me much, ma'am, but when I look at you, I feel I've been ridin' the wrong trail."
What results is nothing short of all-out war between Tracy, the new defender of the faith, and Silk Miller. Mobs form, shots are fired, and the church is burned to the ground. Before escaping with Tracy and Faith, the reverend is shot and soon dies once they are outside of town.
The church burns.
Enraged at the wickedness of Hell’s Hinges, Tracy returns to wreck horrible vengeance upon the town. He traps the remaining population of the town into Silk Miller’s saloon, sets it on fire, and shoots anybody who tries to flee. Instead of bringing salvation and civilization, the East has brought the damnation of Hell’s Hinges.
Tracy keeps the evil townsfolk hostage while the saloon burns.
Although the Western would again atrophy into cinematic trash by the 1930s, Hell’s Hinges was essential to the genre’s survival. Not only was Hell’s Hinges one of the darkest and most brutal Westerns ever made, its craftsmanship was so flawless that it remains riveting even to this day. Hell’s Hinges is a searing fable of Old Testament wrath, not in the Holy Land, but in the land that God forgot: the Old West.