Judge Gordon Sullivan went to Hell's Gate. The legend read, "Post No Bills."
Justice was delivered by the fastest gun
There was a time when the Western wasn't freighted with the weight of the entire history of America, when it was just a guy in a white hat versus a guy in a black hat out in the lands beyond the Mississippi. Blame it on John Ford (The Searchers), Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), or Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) but sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, the Western suddenly couldn't (or didn't) just show good guys and bad guys but flawed men seeking out some form of justice (or revenge, take your pick) at the wild edge of our growing country. With a few exceptions (The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. comes to mind), the super-serious Western has reigned pretty much supreme for decades. Though it still falls into some of the same ruts as the more existential Westerns, The Legend of Hell's Gate: An American Conspiracy strives mightily to regain some of the adventure found in Westerns before they had to say something about the state of humanity.
Hell's Gate is an actual land formation in Texas (now buried under Possum Kingdom Lake), and The Legend of Hell's Gate follows a trio of outlaws through 1870s Texas as we learn just how the Gate got its name.
The first thing I noticed about The Legend of Hell's Gate is that it looks like a post-Deadwood Western. No, there's no gruff British man cursing up a storm in the first few minutes. Rather, the look and feel of the movie reminded me strongly of the look and feel the creators of Deadwood conjured: lots of grays and browns, a bit of vignetting to the frame, and solid costuming that sells the period feel. I don't think the film is a dead ringer for Deadwood, but this announces from the beginning that it's not a film obsessed with reality. Instead, it aims high on the style meter and succeeds visually.
However, style alone does not a good Western make (or at least it hasn't in many decades), and The Legend of Hell's Gate has a decent story going for it as well. It involves the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and a whole host of famous Western characters like "Doc" Holliday and Jesse James and his gang.
The second thing I noticed about The Legend of Hell's Gate is that pretty much every actor is someone I recognize. Rarely does a film that gets this little fanfare have such a solid cast, but this is an exception. Eric Balfour is fine as a leading man, and Jim Beaver is always appreciated as a grizzled Western actor. The more rarely seen Henry Thomas brings a touch of class to his character, and Summer Glau's presence is wonderful as usual. It helps that many of the actors were born and/or raised in the great state of Texas, so their performances benefit from insider knowledge.
The Legend of Hell's Gate has a highly stylized look that translates well to DVD. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is intentionally desaturated and slightly vignette in many scenes. Colors therefore don't pop, and detail can be a bit low, but that's an intentional choice. Overall, the look of the film is well-supported by this clean transfer. The 5.1 surround audio is similarly appropriate. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, with some good use of the surrounds during action sequences.
Extras include some deleted scenes, a photo gallery, and the film's trailer.
The one serious problem with The Legend of Hell's Gate is that its look and style promise a certain amount of weight and the plot never quite delivers on that promise. Though the subtitle hints at conspiracy, this is really a chase film as the outlaws run across the wilds of Texas. This can sometimes produce dissonance between the dark, super-stylish sets that promise existential angst and the relatively simple plot that delivers more thrills and chills. It's not enough to make the film unwatchable by any stretch, but some viewers will likely feel they've been cheated by the film's look into expecting a film of more substance than this can deliver.
Fans of the flick would also probably prefer a few more extras; a commentary or behind-the-scenes featurette featuring at least some of the excellent cast would have been a huge plus in this disc's favor.
Though we get one every few years, there aren't that many quality Westerns coming out in the new century. In that respect, The Legend of Hell's Gate: An American Conspiracy delivers solid Western action with style to spare. Recommended for genre fans, especially those from Texas, and anyone interested in this cast.
As the great John Ford said, "print the legend." Not guilty.
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