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This film covers the early history of post World War II educational films, especially those involving traffic safety by the Highway Safety Foundation under direction of Richard Wayman. In the name of promoting safe driving in teenagers, these films became notorious for their gory depiction of accidents to shock their audiences to make their point. The film also covers the role of safety films of this era, their effect on North American teenage culture, the struggle between idealism and lurid exploitation and how they reflected the larger society concerns of the time that adults projected onto their youth. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For just about anyone who took a driver's ed course in the sixties and seventies, those grisly highway safety films were usually the first exposure to the horrible truth about human mortality. For me, it was a little opus called "Death on the Highway". In my high school, you heard accounts of just what was in that film long before you finally got to see it. I saw it when I was seventeen, before I ever saw "Faces of Death 1", rotten.com, the footage of Budd Dwyer blowing his brains out, or the actual suicide of an unemployed dishwasher who jumped from the roof of a twelve-story building on a summer afternoon in 1986. "Hell's Highway" contains excerpts from "Death on The Highway", including the unforgettable image of two dead toddlers lying side by side, one with an arm severed. I've carried that image with me for thirty years, and when I saw it again in "Hell's Highway", I discovered that it hadn't altered a jot in my memory.
What makes "Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films" so very satisfying as a documentary is that it strives to cover its fascinating and obscure topic from every possible perspective. Therefore we have interview footage of John Butler, retired Chief of Police of Mansfield, Ohio, Earl Deems, who produced several of these 16mm traumafests, and Mike Vraney, head honcho at "Something Weird Video" who now markets these films to the morbidly curious. Everyone who speaks in this movie speaks intelligently, and is portrayed respectfully. No one is satirized or treated condescendingly. Part social history, part memoir, part critique, "Hell's Highway" focuses mainly on a company called Highway Safety Films, the film-making arm of the Highway safety Commision, which operated out of Mansfield from 1959 to 1979, and produced "Signal 30", "Mechanized Death", "Wheels of Tragedy", and "Highway Of Agony", among others.
Many of the interview subjects discuss whether showing grisly footage of bloody corpses being pulled from car wrecks to teenage kids actually made them safer drivers. To my way of thinking, it can't be proved either way, and the rule of "you can lead a horse to water, but the rule of "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" applies here. In other words, it would be irresponsible for educators not to try to make every effort to impress upon young drivers the consequences of reckless driving. What they do with the knowledge is not under the educator's control or responsibility.
The version of this film that I found in my Public Library came with a bonus DVD containing uncut versions of three of the best-known productions of the Highway Safety commission's short subjects. Personally, I think that watching these things still have the power to make the viewer want to pay attention to every last stop sign.
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