A successful author of Westerns has received a letter from his publisher telling him the public are tired of the old white hat versus black hat stories, with the hero so pure of heart that he is simply not interesting. So they recommend the author tries some more nuance, light and shade in his next book, and he takes this advice seriously as he stares into the Remington painting on his study wall: what if he could pen something more textured, and have Harry Carey take the lead in this adventure?
Credited here as Jack Ford, Westerns expert John Ford cut his teeth making them in the nineteen-tens, churning out dozens in a short space of time, of which Hell Bent was an attempt to try something a little different, as indicated by the offbeat prologue. Already, even a few short years into his career, he was experimenting with and investigating the genre, and he had quickly become one of the most popular directors of the style in his day, helped, of course, by the stars wanting to work with him.
Carey assisted Ford in concocting the plot of this one, and if the results were not wholly successful on an artistic level, the effort was appreciated. There were literally hundreds of Westerns made in the silent era, thousands even, and they were the most popular (and populist) of all the mainstream genres along with comedy, made all the more vital by dint of the fact the era they were depicting was not so long before the stage these were released. There would be viewers who remembered the setting they used.
Though with this kind thing in living memory, it was more likely the entertainment of that era they would recall, as the form was carefully cultivated to flatter the myth of the American hero that every man watching would imagine themselves part of. That Carey in his hit Cheyenne Harry character here was playing someone more morally shaded - supposedly - was going to make no difference to their championing of him as a heroic figure, they had seen his movies before and knew what he was like, so even if he shot someone in the narrative they would understand he had done the right thing and had the moral high ground.
Carey's co-star was Neva Gerber, forgotten now but well-liked in her day as a heroine of Westerns and serials (and Western serials), so this was the equivalent of two reliable blockbuster celebrities teaming up to lead a movie well over a hundred years later. Obviously it's going to look primitive, but Ford was too good at his job not to imbue it with some forward propulsion and energy, and while the plot tended to be episodic and over-busy simultaneously, it did pack in the action and indeed comedy, leaving the audience feeling as if they had their money's worth. With shoot outs, romance, horseplay, gold runs, outlaws and a climax that featured Carey and the villain literally crawling through the desert after giving Gerber the only horse to escape this fate, it was hokey, sure, but entertainingly archetypal too.
[Eureka pair this with Straight Shooting, another Ford/Carey silent rarity, on Blu-ray with all these features:
Limited Edition O-Card slipcase and reversible sleeve artwork | Both features presented in 1080p on Blu-ray from 4K restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures, available for the first time ever on home video in the UK | Straight Shooting - Score by Michael Gatt | Hell Bent - Score by Zachary Marsh | Straight Shooting - Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of Searching for John Ford: A Life | Hell Bent - Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride | Brand new interview with film critic and author Kim Newman | Bull Scores a Touchdown - Video essay by Tag Gallagher | A Horse or a Mary? - Video essay by Tag Gallagher | Archival audio interview from 1970 with John Ford by Joseph McBride | A short fragment of the lost film Hitchin' Posts (dir. John Ford, 1920) preserved by the Library of Congress| PLUS: A collector's booklet featuring writing by Richard Combs, Phil Hoad, and Tag Gallagher.]