You're not going to find a bigger fan (on Amazon) for any studio bringing back the Western than I am, but vanity projects like THE LEGEND OF HELL'S GATE will probably do little to bring new fans to the classic oater. I love `em, through and through, because I think that they're (largely) the only truly original form of American storytelling. While I'd love to see more and more of them released theatrically, I certainly understand that the dynamics of Hollywood accounting make producing them fairly costly these days. Still, I'll embrace any of them, even one so curiously flawed as is HELL'S GATE.
By appearances, THE LEGEND OF HELL'S GATE is meant to tell the story of the fabled Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas. While it clearly establishes something took place that led up to its name, what the viewer is left with is mostly a mishmash of vignettes strung together by the weakest narrative I've ever seen in a Western - a genre that's usually rich with peoples of immense character and symbolism too vivid to escape detection. Instead, the film delivers a handful of scenes artfully photographed, but these characters seem to have very little basis in reality. Who knows? Maybe they've all been drawn from `legend'! (insert `rimshot' here)
Unfortunately, the main story doesn't begin until 45 minutes into the feature, and therein lies the biggest problem at the heart of HELL'S GATE. In order for anyt audience to appreciate any film, there has to either be (A) characters you can identify with or (B) a very clearly establish narrative with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. For the record, HELL'S GATE has neither until the 45 minute mark, and I'm strongly inclined to believe the writer/director Tanner Beard realized this when all that he shot came into the editing suite.
Why do I think so?
Because at that point someone (maybe it was Mr. Beard) concocted the bright idea to take a sequence from later in the film and tack it on to the beginning (it "sets up" the characters only visually, and it repeats later so as to "cement" the story) yet, at the beginning, it's given absolutely no context. So, as it stands, the film begins with people running and racing about a forest, carrying bags of something that's entirely unknown. Are they villains? They're being shot at. Are they our heroes? We're never told. Stylistically, this is like reading a book and having the author - for no explainable reason - take Chapter 07 out of the novel and, instead, re-label it as Chapter 01, while then also leaving it intact AS Chapter 07. Who are these characters? What are they doing? Why have they not been established? That's what happens here, which is an astounding disappointment. Seriously, I found that the first 45 minutes made very little sense UNTIL the film is viewed as a whole, and that's a dementedly flawed idea, whoever came up with it.
That's only part of what I found so disappointing about the narrative. While the film was chocked full of familiar faces from TV and motion pictures, these characters are given little more than a few convenient `beats' to act on. They're never clearly defined. Some of them are incidental - they turn up, and then they're gone without a moment's notice OR explanation. While others found this an interesting moment from history, I kept struggling with the context: why are we being shown these events? Why are there so many familiar names from wild West history (Abe Lincoln, John Booth, Doc Holliday), and what's their grand connection? And - for a film subtitled "The American Conspiracy" - I saw very little mystery or even mildly `conspiring' for that matter ... so what's up with that subtext, Tanner?
Sorry, but, outside of some excellent production values, this pistol fired one big dud.
THE LEGEND OF HELL'S GATE was produced by 4Go West Productions, Flatiron Pictures, and Phase 4 Films. DVD distribution is being handled by Lionsgate. The disc looks and sounds as well as it could, and there's a handful of respectable special features for anyone seriously interested in exploring it more. Not for me.
RECOMMENDED WITH STRONG RESERVATIONS. The essential problem I had with a film named THE LEGEND OF HELL'S GATE is that I see absolutely no basis for there to be any legend associated to HELL'S GATE or the people depicted in it. In fact, there's nothing `legendary' about it in the slightest. Excellent production qualities get overshadowed by the slim pickings of a story that's hatcheted together on a narrative that, at times, defies logic. It looks good, but, as an oater, it lacks ... well ... it lacks oats.
POST-SCRIPT: And, just for the record, there's a stunningly horribly tracking shot very early in the film where the camera comes across a homestead that's been decimated by fire. I believe the tracking shot is actually a combination of two separate tracks, and, frankly, it's just horrible. It's a herky-jerky shot so poorly done it really doesn't even qualify to be called 'amateurish.' It shouldn't have been included in the motion picture; yes, it's that bad. I'm stunned that the rest of the picture looks so well; in fact, that's the only reason I'm giving the flick any recommendation at all. Technically, it's very impressive, but otherwise it's a failure.
In the interest of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Lions Gate provided me with a DVD screener copy of THE LEGEND OF HELL'S GATE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.