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A few years ago, to fill in some gaps left by my formal education, I took a community college course on African American history. The assigned textbook, Freedom on My Mind, contains a still image from the 1915 Civil War/Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation. “D. W. Griffith’s silent cinematic masterpiece The Birth of a Nation was the best movie of its time” the caption reads. “Unfortunately, it offered a lurid treatment of southern whites’ racist and erroneous rationale for overthrowing Black Reconstruction.”

It goes on to outline the film’s well-documented glorification of the Ku Klux Klan.

The first sentence annoys me for two reasons: One, Birth of a Nation wasn’t even the best movie of Griffith’s career (I nominate Broken Blossoms), let alone that of the entire period: Greed, Les Vampires, Sunrise, Metropolis, Un Chien Andalou, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and countless others have stronger claims. 

Two, the image/caption underscores the extent to which film history has narrowed and atrophied to a few, perpetually-referenced “canonical” titles—all the more depressing to find in a book geared toward alternative correctives to traditional US historical narratives. Part of this is a basic archival/preservation problem; films produced during the silent era were often recorded on highly flammable nitrate film stock, as much as 75 percent of it lost to history through fires, cost/space saving measures, and sheer shortsightedness. It’s hard to appreciate the stunning breadth of early cinema if you don’t have access to it.

New York-based film distribution company Kino Lorber has been doing some laudatory work of late to rectify this. I recently got my hands on their Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a 2015 box set containing over 12 feature films and several shorts directed by Black filmmakers spanning 1915 to 1946. Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) is probably the most familiar of the bunch, but others, such as Hell-Bound Train (1930), are entirely new to me.   

Though not nearly as cool as its Clive Barkerian title would suggest, Hell-Bound Train is nonetheless a compelling artifact. While the major studios consolidated and scrambled to conform to the technological menace of synchronized sound, traveling evangelical ministers James and Eloyce Gist used hand-held, 16mm cameras (which used acetate safety film) to produce a cinematic sermon to play in churches and meeting halls.

A title card explains that “the hell-bound train is always on duty, and the devil is engineer.” Cue an uncredited fellow in Satan garb, complete with cape and tail, his masked, horned head poking out of the side of a moving locomotive. I’m reminded of Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen appearing in his 1922 masterpiece Häxan (also a better movie than Birth of a Nation) as the Devil. Häxan wouldn’t find its way to the States until 1968, so it’s unlikely to have influenced James and Eloyce, though I wonder how they would have responded to Christensen’s wild, phantasmagoric imagery. 

Hell-Bound Train doesn’t follow a linear plot, per se, but is rather a series of morality play vignettes, each car of the damned themed, like Dante’s Circles of Hell, according to sins of varying severity: Murderers and Gamblers, Drunkenness, Thieves, Crooks and Grafters, and so on.

Sinners aboard the ‘Hell-Train’

The film’s towering moment of unintentional comedy occurs during a segment decrying Jazz music (“It destroys the mind of little children,” the cards warn us). We’re shown a woman enjoying music we can’t hear over the radio, an invisible intruder. She dances too hard, the Jazz too powerful. She collapses. A hastily-administered hymn book is brought too late to save her, and the woman seemingly perishes. 

The ironic cult popularity of social hygiene pictures like Reefer Madness (1936) have rendered it nigh impossible to view something like Hell-Bound Train through any lens but snark-goggles. But that would obscure its artistic strengths. During the “Indecent Dancing” sequence, for example, a fight breaks out amidst the revelry. One woman stabs another, the handheld camera panning to and fro as it attempts to follow the action. It doesn’t look like filmed theater, like other movies of its era, but instead foreshadows the intimate and gritty cinéma vérité aesthetic characterized by works like The Battle of Algiers (1966). The violence escalates to a shooting, while the Devil hops up and down in glee. A moment of real horror made all the more surreal by incongruous absurdity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Rosenbaum of late and came across a review of Ann Hui’s Eighteen Springs that he didn’t consider a masterpiece but still worthy of attention. Hell-Bound Train is by no means a masterpiece, certainly not the best of its time, but it was made with care and ingenuity outside the boundaries of an industry rushing toward market-friendly genre conventions. 

YouTube video

Hell-Bound Train (1930)

Runtime: 51 minutes

Streaming: The Criterion Channel

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Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....