VCI Entertainment have released the 1952 B Western Hellgate as a burn-to-order DVD. Viewing it is a worthy experience, as this film is representative of so many fine features that have largely been lost to time. Sterling Hayden plays Gil Hanley, a quiet veterinarian living in post-Civil War Kansas. The place had been terrorized during the war by marauding parties of renegades fighting on both sides. These raiders often killed and tortured indiscriminately (see The Outlaw Josey Wales). With the war over for two years, the U.S. Army is trying to track down these criminals and bring them to justice. Hanley's life changes for the worse when he treats an escaped criminal for injuries without knowing his identity. Circumstantial evidence leads the army to arrest him and, in a kangaroo court held by a military tribunal, he is sentenced to hard labor at Hellgate Prison. The place is appropriately named, as it's set in the middle of the desert and prisoners are housed underground in dank, dark cells carved out of the stone. Life consists of senselessly breaking rocks in the blazing heat, all the while on a limited diet with and sparse water provisions. Making matters worse, Hanley is singled out for abuse by the warden (Ward Bond), who harbors a grudge because his own family had been killed by marauders and he believes Hanley is also a terrorist. Hanley's cell mates are plotting an ambitious escape. He's reluctant to join them, but after being virtually baked alive in a torture device, he throws in with the lot. This sets in motion a well-scripted series of events that are genuinely interesting and occasionally suspenseful. The film even delivers a meaningful message about the dangers of rushing to judgment, abusing prisoners and the appropriateness of having civilians tried by military courts (a timely matter even today). The movie begins with a notice that indicates the film was based on fact, though I couldn't find any historical record of the case.
The film was written and produced by Charles Marquis Warren, who went to create several popular Western TV series, most notably Rawhide. Hayden makes for a solid leading man, though it's amusing to see that in early films like this his performance was somewhat bland when compared to his classic roles in later movies such as Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather. Ward Bond is particularly effective, cast against type as the prison's Captain Bligh-like warden and James Arness makes an early screen appearance as Hanley's fellow prisoner. Other future notables associated with the movie are editor Elmo Williams, who went on to become a major producer and Andrew V. McLaglen, who has an early Assistant Director credit.
Hellgate is by no means a classic or high art, but it is an intelligent, well-made Western that holds the viewer's interest throughout.
(UPDATE: reader Peter Hogan advises the film is an unofficial remake of The Prisoner of Shark Island.)