A pair of well known figures of the western genre, Sterling Hayden and Ward Bond, face off against each other in this above average effort from Lippert Productions and director Charles Marquis Warren who served triple duty with the original story and screenplay credit added for good measure.
If you know the story of Dr. Samuel Mudd then you’ll easily spot where this fictionalized account of Hayden’s veterinarian during the post Civil War days takes it’s inspiration from.
Hayden and his wife, Joan Leslie, are the victims of happenstance when a group of 4 riders seeking aid turn up at his house/stable. One man clearly has broken ribs and Hayden who was once fought for the South but now believes in what the North were representing aids the man who clearly doesn’t like Hayden now that he is a Northern sympathizer. Unfortunately for Hayden when the gang rides on ahead they lose a saddle bag with money in it near Hayden’s corral. The next day when Union soldiers turn up and Hayden admits to aiding a man wanted for being a part of the ongoing guerilla attacks that plague the North, he is arrested as a co-conspirator.
Cutting to the chase he’ll be sent to Hellgate Prison while Joan is left to continue arguing his case to the higher ups in Washington.
Hellgate prison is located in a desert area box canyon near the Mexico border. The inmates are subjected to hard labor and inhumane punishments dealt out at the whim of the commandant Ward Bond and his second in command and another well known western actor, Robert J. Wilke. Hayden is immediately targeted by Bond who would like nothing better than to see his new inmate attempt to escape so he’ll have all the excuse he’ll need to kill him. Hayden begins imprisonment believing that he’ll still be released and has a belief in the good of man. Those two beliefs will quickly begin to fade when he meets his cellmates below in the cut out caverns of a cave coupled with Bond and Wilke setting out to make his stay an uncomfortable one.
Playing a loose cannon and Hayden’s violent cellmate is a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness. He’s quick tempered and sees Hayden as a threat to his dominance marking our leading man for death if he doesn’t toe the line which includes digging a tunnel to the surface and escape their hell on Earth. Hayden gives in to keep the peace though opposes Arness’ treatment of a dying cellmate.
Wilke is a sadist and while he watches a man whipped in Hayden’s place, the uprising is on. Hayden nearly kills Wilke with his bare hands before Bond turns up with more than a few soldiers to stem the revolt. It’s off to the bake oven for Hayden calling to mind Paul Newman spending his time in “the box” as Cool Hand Luke.
Enough about the plot of this 83 minute black and white afternoon time filler that I’m sure would have been perfect product for the days of the double bill. If you know anything about the real life Dr. Mudd than you might be able to figure out where this western prison tale is headed. Perhaps you’ve seen the earlier John Ford title made in 1936, The Prisoner of Shark Island which cast Warner Baxter as Mudd featuring John Carradine as his tormentor in prison.
Ward Bond does well here as the officer with hatred in his heart. We’ll learn that his wife and child were killed by the southern guerillas which is the reason that Hayden is to become his whipping boy. Bond would be seen with Hayden once again in the 1954 cult western hit Johnny Guitar. As for Hayden, he’d bounce around mainly between westerns, cop flicks and war stories for the decade with some notable classics including The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing which are still talked of today.
Alongside Miss Leslie and Sheriff Matt Dillon you’ll also spot Sheb Wooley. Another long time western character actor, Wooley, scored a huge hit on radio singing the zany 1958 song The Purple People Eater. Country music shows were sure to be found in his future. He’d make appearances on Hee Haw and The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960’s. Now don’t blink around the twenty minute mark while watching Hellgate either. If you do then you’ll miss Hayden’s The Killing costar, Timothy Carey in a small bit part. One more name that western fans might spot if you keep your eyes on the credits is that of Andrew V. McLaglen’s turning up as the assistant director during the years he was apprenticing before moving into the director’s chair on many 1960’s westerns.
Thankfully the trailer is included on the DVD release of Hellgate from VCI’s Darned Good Westerns Volume 1 line-up. In it you’ll see these classic advertising lines splashed across the screen…..
Doorway of the Damned!
The Curse of Convicts!
The Shame of a Nation
and America’s Devil’s Island!
If my knowledge of movie history is correct, I think the boys in the PR department lifted that Shame of a Nation line from a certain 1932 film. Do you know it?