You’ve probably never heard of Hell Bent – a very early John Ford western, made in only his second year as a director. He’s credited as Jack Ford (his birth name was Sean Feeney). And yet, sometimes you can see the greatness to come.
At this point in his career, Ford was cranking out B westerns starring his much older friend, Harry Carey. An excellent actor with an extremely expressive face, Carey plays here a bad man with a good heart – a card shark who goes to a new town, makes friends, makes enemies, falls in love, and saves the day.
The movie has a strange prologue. A novelist reads a letter – presumably from a fan – arguing that fictional western heroes are too perfect. We need a hero who might also be a villain. The novelist considers the idea.
And that brings us to Cheyenne Harry (Carey, of course). We see the damage he’s done before we meet him, drunk and emptying his pockets of playing cards (mostly aces). He’s going to become a better person. There’s no mention that Harry is in any way a Cheyenne. There is a stereotypical “good Indian” character.
In some ways, Hell Bent feels like an early version of his 1946 masterpiece My Darling Clementine. The hero comes to a wide-open town. The film spends considerable time on day-to-day life, without making too much about action or suspense. And, of course, he’s awkward around the girl (although nowhere near as shy as Henry Fonda in Clementine).
The movie has considerably more comedy than you would expect to see in a Ford. It even has two cute meet sequences – one with the girl and one involving male bonding. Even in this silent movie, Ford can get laughs out of bad singing.
Things get less funny and more exciting in the second half. The climax finds Harry and one of the villains (who happens to be the girl’s brother) stranded in a hostile desert. It’s all the more amazing that it was directed by a relative novice working on a small budget and short schedule.
I give Hell Bent a B+.
How It Looks
Universal Pictures restored Hell Bent at 4K restoration from a print preserved in the Czech Republic. The image is pillarboxed to 1.37:1.
Despite the high resolution, the image isn’t spectacular. It looks like the print had been used a lot before it was preserved.
How It Sounds
I’m not familiar with composer Zachary Marsh, but he and his non-credited ensemble help the movie along. In one very funny scene, the music helps let us know just how badly the hero and his friend could sing.
The music is presented in no-loss DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
And the Extras
- Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride: The author of Searching for John Ford probably knows more about Ford than anyone alive. He discusses signs of Ford’s later work, his styles of handling framing, actors, and story lines. He also discusses a possibly intentional a gay subtext.
Archival 1970 audio interview with John Ford by Joseph McBride: 45 minutes. McBride was only 22 when he interviewed Ford, and you can tell his lack of experience. He admits as much in the new intro to the interview. Ford sounds a bit senile, and there are some awkward pauses. The best moments involve Ford’s sarcastic and angry answers. No visuals aside except the card below.
- A Horse or a Mary? A video essay by film critic Tag Gallagher: Nine minutes. Not all that interesting, but it does deal with lost films and actors who often turn up in Ford’s work.
If you’re a Ford fan, you need this disc.