Having seen "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" recently, that film came to mind soon after Hell's Highway began. The similarities were obvious-- chain gangs, road work, harsh guards, escape, pursuit and capture. Even the music was similar-- worksong spirituals sung in rich harmony by black male choruses. But where "O Brother" wove humor and comedy throughout the story, "Hell's Highway" was hard, gritty, and definitely humor-less. You're told at the beginning this film is on the bandwagon of penal reform that must have existed at that time, showing the abuses and brutality and the efforts to stop it. It does this quite well, even with the corny (by today's culture)"Oh gosh, gee whillickers, Ma" script and acting that appeared occasionally. Producer David O. Selznick must have been a closet pyromaniac--a powerful scene in which the prison camp burns certainly called to mind the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind." This Depression-era film showed that even decent folks could find themselves behind the 8-ball of life. Overall, an excellent insight into one aspect of early 20th century American culture. Ignore the outdated-ness of the film and you'll learn a lot.
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