As you might know, I recently started University. At university, one of my classes is “film history”, where we watch and discuss older films, but where we’re also thought about the evolution of film from its invention up until the early 30’s. During this class, we watched one of the first feature-length films ever called Hell’s Hinges, and I surprisingly became really invested in the story. It’s a revolutionary film in many regards, which is why I’ve chosen one shot of the film to talk about for a bit.
Hell’s Hinges is a western directed by William S. Hart, who also wrote the film, and who also starred in it as the silent, Eastwood-esque protagonist. His character starts out being the cliched bad guy who everyone fears in the little town called Hell’s Hinges, up until a pastor arrives and introduces Christianity. Hart’s character sees something in the things this pastor preaches, and he starts to rethink his life decisions. He slowly becomes a better person, but a certain fellow in town makes it hard for him to do that.
What makes Hell’s Hinges so good, is that it deals with themes that are still relevant today, more than a hundred years after its release. The Victorian moral is one of them, but religion is as well. The film talks about how religion can unite, but also divide people and how it can bring both the best and the worst up in them. The film evidently leans more towards religion being something good, rather than the thing that destroys a society, as it was made in 1916, but nonetheless, I was amazed by how deep some of the film’s themes were and how well it explores them in just a short amount of time. With it being a silent film, there was a heavy reliance on conveying these themes visually, and occasionally with title cards. What Hart did with these title cards, by the way also, was also quite creative. Instead of having the text on the cards be very literary, he wrote them in colloquial language, and instead of having a plain black backdrop, the backdrop correlated to the things shown on screen in one shape or form. They were hand drawn and the colors matched the ones used in the situation the card appeared in. My knowledge of silent films is still very limited, so I don’t know if this was the norm, but I still found it quite creative and cool.
But of course, this article isn’t solely about praising this film, it’s about talking about one of the shots in it. To portray these themes, Hart utilized visual symbolism quite a lot, which I really appreciated. In my chosen shot, you can see the silhouette of a burning cross. At this point in the film, another bad guy and a bunch of people, who were adamant to become Christian, made the pastor drunk, convinced him there was no god and made him light the church on fire. In the process, a gunfight breaks loose between the Christians and the pagans, which results in the pastor dying. The hero of our story sees that the church is on fire and heads to the village as soon as possible, where he finds the pastor’s sister with whom he had a relationship sitting on the ground with her brother on her lap as she weeps. The usage of a silhouette in this shot is very Griffith-like and gives it an artistic touch that makes it stand out more. It’s at the climax of the film, and by having the shot look visually more distinct, it gives off a more powerful and emotional impact. I also believe that this burning cross is representative of the themes of religion and morals the film deals with. It brings a conclusion to the things the film wanted to say about the subjects, though you’re still able to form your own opinion on what this shot exactly means. There are multiple interpretations possible, but here’s my go at it. After Hart’s character has found the pastor’s sister, he is faced with a moral dilemma. He could either get revenge by heading off to the tavern where the pagans are celebrating, or he could forgive them and get his lover to safety. He has to decide. Unfortunately, he chose the option out of which he’d benefited the most and fueled with hatred, he starts to walk to the tavern. That is why I think that the burning cross might symbolize Hart’s decision. Getting revenge is contrary to Christian beliefs, and the cross being on fire might possibly symbolize how he betrayed those beliefs for his own good. Both literally and figuratively does he turn his back towards the church and walks away. It shows how he wasn’t fully converted, which he later on in the film also admits with the following lines: “God I ain’t knowin’ you well, but I’m askin’ you a favor. Let her be happy”.
I also liked how Hart colored the shot red, using the tinting method. With this method, the celluloid role is submerged in a certain color, so that all of the shots on that piece of film, are tinted in the color you submerged it in. The red color in this shot symbolizes the fire that rages in the church, and it might be representative for the bloodbath that preceded the burning as well. The tint also gives off an ominous atmosphere.
So yeah, that’s about all I have to say about Hell’s Hinges. It’s an incredible film, especially for its time, but it even holds up today, because of how it discusses topics that are still relevant. I was more than surprised to find myself invested in the story, saddened by the events taking place and finding out that an hour had passed while it felt like only twenty minutes. The film’s under public domain at the moment, so you’ll probably be able to watch it on archive.org, which I really recommend you do. It’s a revolutionary film that also played a pivotal role in the transition of short films to feature length ones. It’s an immensely important film, and a one good as well.