Gunfighter William S. Hart is transformed by the love of a religious woman, defends the construction of a new church in town and becomes a powerful force against evil. It all begins out East with young pastor Jack Standing, a pathetic man of the cloth with his spoiled, “weak and selfish” ways. The clergy see that sending him to big city will spell trouble, so they ship him out West to a town aptly named Hell’s Hinges (which has to be one of the greatest movie titles I’ve ever heard). The place is lawless and moral-free and kept that way by the slimy saloon owner (Alfred Hollingsworth) and resident gunfighter (Hart). The two villains agree to scare religion off before it gets a foothold and if that doesn’t work, resort to gunfire. The plan changes as soon as Hart lays eyes on the parson’s sister (Clara Williams) and instantly falls in love.
Hart’s philosophy has always been “shoot first and do your disputin’ afterwards.” This is the first time he’s ever seen something good, so he lingers and stares, listens closely to Williams’ words and commits to learning about the faith that makes her tick. He drives partiers away from the barn where services are held, then helps parson and sister build the new church house. As his friends wonder what’s come over him, Hart studies the Bible and talks to God like a new friend, humbly offering himself as a worthless soul, but one willing to be improved and used however He wishes.
Meanwhile, the saloon owner (easily) lures the parson into the clutches of one of the saloon girls who liquors him up. The next morning the whole town sees the preacher in the girl’s room, then the gang of sinners manage to get him even more drunk and talk him into helping set fire to the church. Hart returns to town to find the parson dead, his sister in shock and the church up in smoke. The reforming cowboy reverts to form, grabs his guns and unleashes fury on the wicked town.
This silent western fascinated me all the way through. Besides the thrilling story, it had beautiful tinting, with a fitting deep red during the final inferno. The camera work by Joseph H. August used wide and varied angles to capture grand sights like the coach making its way down a winding road or the entire flaming town sending plumes of smoke high into the sky. Several memorable images are formed against the backdrop of intense fire, when Williams cradles Standing’s body and Hart walks away from the saloon. The horizon and the damage are presented as big and wide as the promise of a better future once the tragedy is behind Hart and Williams.
The character names couldn’t be more symbolic, with the sister named Faith, the reformed outlaw named Blaze and the wily saloon devil named Silk. The Reverend gets the non-descriptive name Bob, because he’s so clearly unfit for his job, so shallow and so drawn to sinful recreation. Standing shows us those fatal flaws in some comical scenes. He imagines a western town means an entourage of senoritas will fawn over him, and when the saloon owner invites him to bring religion to the dance hall girls, Standing’s face lights up.
Hart is earnest, stoic and touching by turns and shows his heartfelt belief. He first approaches the siblings with a menacing face which melts into a bashful smile. He focuses on Williams’ prayers, and feels so deeply for her anguish. After seeing the death and damage, he marches into the packed saloon with frightening fury, declares he’ll send the town to the Hell where they belong, and shoots down the lamps to start the fires. On his way to redemption he’s served up one more round of violence, this time as a saviour, cleansing the town of its most evil characters. Hart and Williams leave to start a new life, and he asks God to comfort her and make him worthy of her love.
Hell’s Hinges was produced by Thomas Ince, and though director’s credit goes to Charles Swickard, Hart co-directed much of the movie with his assistant Clifford Smith. As a viewer who loves westerns but hasn’t ventured much into silent film (beyond horror and slapstick), it was great to see the familiar genre elements and character types presented in such a brisk and striking way.
*I picked this to watch after seeing it recommended so highly at Movies, Silently.