The Western Lock Up
The Civil War has been over for a couple of years and former Confederate soldier Gilman Hanley (Sterling Hayden) is happily married to Ellen (Joan Leslie) and making a living as a vet. But not all Confederate soldiers have given up and when Gilman feels obliged to treat an injured Confederate Geurilla who shows up at his door it leads to him to being charged and found guilty on court of being a Geurilla sympathiser. Sent to Hellgate, the hellish prison in the middle of the desert, cut off from everywhere, Gilman finds himself having to deal with Lt Tod Voorhees (Ward Bond) who hates Confederate Geurillas and makes Gilman's life a living hell. But Gilman knowing he is innocent isn't going to be beaten and along with some other prisoners plans an escape.
For wesetern fans "Hellgate" is an entertaining curiosity because whilst it is set in the West it is in fact a prison movie. So what do you get in a Western Prison movie I hear you ask? Well in truth you get many staples of the prison movie genre with Gilman being the innocent man banged up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also have Voorhees as the sadistic prison warden who enjoys making his prisoner's lives a complete misery. There are other typical elements as well from inter prisoner issues through to an escape attempt all of which are entertaining because a Western Prison movie is pretty unique.
But what "Hellgate" also has is a setting and the idea of a prison in the middle of a desert canyon where water is brought in in barrels and they have a metal tomb right in the baking sun as a punishment really makes it feel like hell. And that is before we are taken into the rocks to the prison cells in the dark and the barbaric treatment which goes on. But what we also get is a twist which takes the movie off on a bit of an entertaining tangent although considering the character of Gilman it is not such a surpise.
Aside from that "Hellgate" features a stereotypical Sterling Hayden performance with what at times feels like he is just saying the lines which he has just read. But whilst Hayden doesn't really command the screen other performances are more entertaining be it Ward Bond as the sadistic Voorhees or James Arness as George Redfield .
What this all boils down to is that "Hellgate" is not a bad movie which is mostly down to the curious set up of being a western prison movie. It is by no means perfect but it has some interesting twists and a great setting to make the story come to life.