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Western Wednesdays: The Toll Gate (1920)

SYNOPSIS:

A group of bandits referred to as “The Raiders,” led by Black Deering (William S. Hart) are forced to vote on if they will retire or pull off one more job. Deering wants to quit, but his lieutenant Jordan (Joseph Singleton) has another heist planned for the group. The band of thieves decides to go ahead and take on one more job.

The following Monday, The Raiders set about committing their final crime, stealing over forty thousand dollars worth of gold from a mail train. Unfortunately for them, the authorities ambush and overtake the posse and promptly arrest all of them, including Deering. As it turns out, Jordan led the posse in to the trap to collect the bounty that was on their heads. It is also revealed that Deering once saved the post of his arresting officer by warning him and the town of an impending invasion by Apaches.

While the officers are busy playing a game of dice, Deering escapes the train. Days later, Deering happens upon the town of Rincon, where Jordan also happens to be operating a business from. After being laughed out of a saloon, Deering discovers Jordan and attempts to gun him down. Jordan arranges a posse to hunt down Deering, however Deering lights the cantina on fire, stealing their money in the process.

Over the next days, with Jordan and posse hot on his trail, Deering rides towards the border. Sadly, his horse suffers a broken leg and is promptly shot by Deering. While Deering is on the run, he sees Mary Brown’s (Anna Q. Nilsson) young son (Richard Headrick) take a fall into the body of water below. Without skipping a beat, Deering takes the plunge himself to save the boy. As it turns out, Brown’s husband disappeared over a year ago and never returned. Deering uses this to his advantage and coerces Brown into allowing him to masquerade as her husband so he can avoid the law.

Later that night, with the sheriff (Jack Richardson) and his posse taking up temporary residence in Brown’s cabin, Deering contemplates leaving, however he stumbles upon a bible, which contains a photograph of Brown and her husband. This prompts Deering to turn himself in and end the charade. News comes that Jordan is planning an ambush and Deering offers himself to fight the double crosser, which the Sheriff accepts.

During the skirmish, Deering corners Jordan and throws him off the side of the cliff. He then returns and gives himself up to the sheriff. Moments later at Brown’s cabin, he bids her and her son farewell until he is informed by the sheriff that since he is south of the border, he cannot arrest him. Although he is now a free man, Deering decides it best to leave Brown in the custody of authorities and rides off in the sunset.

REVIEW:

The more I review the films of William S. Hart, the more I am not only impressed, but also amazed at the fact there has been little to no attention given to his fascinating career and beautiful filmmaking. “The Toll Gate” represents only my second helping of Hart’s film-making prowess and I adored the film as much as I did “Hell’s Hinges” before it.

“The Toll Gate” is filled with genuine performances, especially from Hart and some solid writing. The story was co-penned by Hart and the film’s director Lambert Hillyer and the story is captivating and executed beautifully on screen. The film also features one of the most impressive stunts I’ve ever seen in which Hart plunges seventy feet into the Tuolumne River to save Headrick. Yes, Hart did indeed plummet into the body of water himself, which caused him to nearly drown.

As with the previous film I saw with Hart, “Hell’s Hinges,” the film’s main message draws itself from the Bible, with the quote “By their fruits, ye shall know them,” coming straight from the gospel of Matthew (7:16-20); as a Christian man, this endears me to Hart. It is also interesting how in both films, Hart is an anti-hero of sorts and a complex one at that. One moment he is carrying out a devious heist the next he is shown consoling little Richard Headrick,

Hart was an intelligent filmmaker and there is much care and consideration put into this film. Hart’s writing is amazing, and it is a shame that we did not get this level of craftsmanship at the dawn of the Tom Mix era. Hart’s filmmaking causes you to take considerable pause and there are some riveting lines uttered by the film’s heroine, such as “Little son, are all the men in the world outlaws and murderers?” You would not see such writing in western films as time wore on, at least not until the dawning of the John Ford era. It was also refreshing to see that Hart’s Black Deering does not wind up happily ever after with Brown, choosing to instead leave for her benefit. This was also a rarity as time wore on.

I heavily enjoyed “The Toll Gate,” a western film with a great message and one I would recommend to anyone looking to not only introduce themselves to silent westerns but also the unjustly forgotten cinema of William S. Hart, an intelligent filmmaker who was more than one of the screen’s earliest western stars. I look forward to revisiting Hart’s films in the future.