To many contemporary viewers the idea of a silent western is as bizarre as a silent musical or silent Shakespeare. To counteract that, one could easily point to the popcorn pleasures of many a Tom Mix western, such as The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926) or Just Tony (1922). However, dipping back a mere ten years before Great K & A we find William S. Hart’s Hell’s Hinges (1916) to prove just how bizarre the silent western could get.
Hart was the direct opposite of Mix, yet both actors had an authentic western past. Where Mix’s film were flashy, over the top, stunt-oriented, dime-store pulp western family fare, Hart offered up a gritty, dusty realism. Yet, Hart’s “realism” was also mixed (often uncomfortably) with a heavy-laden, dated pathos that could compete with Charlie Chaplin at his soggiest (Limelight).
“Hell’s Hinges” is, perhaps, the quintessential example of one of these uncomfortably strange William S. Hart hybrids mixing sentimentality with violence. Both qualities are presented with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles wrapped in a tear-drenched handkerchief.
Hart , who co-directed with Charles Swickard, plays Blaze Tracey, the meanest hombre in the town of Hell’s Hinges, a rowdy town similar to Chaplin’s “Easy Street.” The titles amusingly describe Hell’s Hinges as a “gun-fighting, man-killing, devil’s den of iniquity.” Hart’s Blaze lords over Hell’s Hinges, much like Eric Campbell lorded over Easy Street. Blaze has vowed that neither law nor religion shall ever come to Hell’s Hinges. Enter, on cue, Reverend Robert (Jack Standing) and his pure as the driven snow sister, Faith (Clara Williams), who have been assigned to pastor over the local church. Hart’s partner in crime, the beautifully named Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), informs Blaze that the new preacher has arrived. Blaze departs the saloon to “welcome” the new intruder.”
Greeting the town, Rev. Robert beams a big smile (that smile must have been excruciatingly difficult, and painful, to maintain), but the good reverend clearly becomes nervous as he discovers what he and Faith are up against.
Blaze is ready, willing and able to deliver an old west comeuppance to the whippersnapper preacher—that is, until he spots Faith in her Sunday bonnet. Suddenly, upon seeing this lovely maiden, Blaze’s heart must have grown three sizes that day, because the titles explain, “One who is evil, looking for the first time upon that which is good.” Faith, for her part, melodramatically extends her welcoming hand towards saturnine, tough guy Blaze. She bats her big, doe-like eyes, smiles, and clutches her lacy valentine virgin heart. The townspeople are expecting the worst, bugging their eyes and dropping their mouth in a “whoa Nellie, here it comes” expression. Blaze hand moves up and… removes his hat. Blaze walks away, not sure how he just got hit so hard with cupid’s arrow. The townspeople and Silk are just as mystified.
With the exception of Blaze, the townspeople follow the Rev. Robert and Faith into the church (a barn) and start turning the service into a barnyard orgy dance! Blaze, standing outside the ruckus, starts to walk off when he hears the virgin Faith offer up a prayer to the Lord. Images of Jesus on the cross, against a raging tide, mix with images of ever sweet Faith in prayer.
What’s a man-killing gunman with a heart of gold to do? At gunpoint, Blaze drives the interlopers out of the church. Silk is not quite sure just what has happened to his evil buddy! Even worse, Blaze sits down and listens to the sermon, hat in lap. (In a title, decorated in golden light beams) Faith asks, “Is there anybody here today who wants to give his heart to Jesus?” Blaze walks the walk forward, and tells Miss Faith, “I reckon the Lord ain’t wantin’ the likes of me, but when I see your face, I realize I been ridin’ on the wrong trail.”
Now a saved man, Blaze, along with several of the townspeople, helps Rev. Bob and Faith build their new church. However, Silk does not like the idea of his buddy being neutered. Playing the part of tempter, Silk starts to scheming and gives Rev. Bob a sip of the devil’s whiskey. Every time Rev. Bob drinks from Old Nick’s brew he reacts like a bouncing-off-the-walls Speedy Gonzales after smokin’ some of that ‘Reefer Madness.’
With that Jack Daniels sip, Pandora’s Box has been opened and this leads to yet another fall. Rev. Bob gallivants with the local floozy and succumbs to sloth and drunken reverie. With the fall comes death. Rev. Bob is murdered by Silk and crowd. Of course, the murderers do not stop there, and burn the church down. Faith cradles her dead brother like Mary clutching Jesus in the pieta.
Now, the film turns a somber 180 degrees. Upon discovering Silk’s aftermath, the music swells and Blaze is out for revenge. Like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (1973), Blaze sets fire to the entire town, torching every building in sight, including the saloon. Of course, before setting the bar on fire, Blaze walks in, gun in each hand, and kills dozens upon dozens of men, coming off a bit like Victor Mature’s Samson slaughtering the Philistines. With the town up in smoke, and hundreds of people dead and burning, the ashen-faced Blaze walks away, looking every bit like God’s retribution, towards the outskirts of town, retrieving Faith and her brother’s corpse. Together, they walk towards a divine sunset.
I have to admit that I could not take my eyes off this ultra bizarre, archaic curio. It is available, along with other films including the famous Great Train Robbery (1903), on an inexpensive public domain DVD set titled “Saddles, Saloons & Six-Shooters.”