#61 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
The amount of material covered in John Ford’s Hell Bent, his ninth feature overall and third surviving, is enough to comfortably fill an 80-90 minute long film. At fifty-one minutes, though, everything ends up feeling stunted and shallow. Remove a couple of things and allow the rest to fill out the abbreviated runtime fully, and you could have an entertaining little western on your hands. As it stands, Hell Bent just feels too threadbare to really garner any interest. There isn’t even a big showstopping action scene to fill out everything in the end.
There’s a roving gang of outlaws who have taken the small western town into its grip, able to operate with complete impunity, Jack (Vester Pegg), an employee of Wells Fargo who loses his job, perhaps because the gang of outlaws keeps succeeding at stealing the Wells Fargo money boxes from stagecoaches, Bess (Neva Gerber), Jack’s sister, who must degrade herself to working for a dancehall in order to support the household, and Harry (Harry Carey) who loves Bess and develops a strong friendship with Cimmaron Bill (Duke R. Lee). That’s a lot for fifty minutes, especially when you realize that Harry and Bill becoming best friends eats up about ten minutes of screentime.
That forging of a friendship is probably the best part of the film. Harry rides his horse into a tavern and inn on his horse, demanding a room. There’s only one bed that doesn’t have two people in it already, Cimmaron Bill’s and he’s meaner than hell, so there’s no way Harry will be able to sleep there that night. So, Harry just rides the horse into the bedroom where the horse begins eating the straw in the bed, waking Bill up. Harry kicks Bill out of the room through the window, and when Bill comes back up to do the same to Harry, Harry comes back up afterwards and they end up bonding. It’s amusing.
And yet, it’s hard to tell what the actual story of the film is supposed to be in retrospect. The most obvious storyline is probably the romance between Bess and Harry. Harry loves Bess, but when she takes that dancehall job he feels like she’s debased herself. That is, until the day he goes to the dancehall and decides to walk her home afterwards in the rain, realizing that he still loves her. It’s thin, and that’s the problem with the movie in microcosm. There’s a bunch of story stuff swirling around, but nothing gets explored in any real detail to arouse much interest.
The leader of the gang, Beau (Joe Harris) ends up capturing Bess where she discovers that Jack has joined the gang, and Harry goes off into the wilds to save her. Beau ends up taking Bess into the desert with Harry in out pursuit. With Harry getting lost in the wilderness, Bill gathers up a posse to pursue. Eventually, Harry and Beau have it out in the desert with each getting a gunshot in the exchange. Down to only a single horse, they give it to Bess to ride back to town as quickly as she can while the two stagger back side by side.
And that’s kind of it. Characters are threadbare. The situations end up just as thin because the characters make no impression. There isn’t even a big setpiece like the end of Straight Shooting to look forward to. It’s just kind of a meager little movie that doesn’t do much to entertain, not really having enough time to establish anything with any depth in any way. That it robs us of the spectacle Ford had shown himself quite able to deliver is also disappointing.
The movie’s not really bad, but it largely just sits there with little to offer an audience.