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Robert Walker Jr.,
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 (email@example.com)
A Flawed But Fascinating Look At The World Of Safety Films
"Hell's Highway" is a documentary focusing on the men who created the now-infamous highway safety films of the mid-twentieth century, in particular those involved with the Highway Safety Foundation (HSF) during its life as a procurer of the macabre as an educational tool. The film's director, Bret Wood, manages to capture the audience's interest without ever guiding their thoughts or beliefs towards a discernible argument or standpoint. We as an audience are never led to think or feel in a certain way about the film's subject, a characteristic that will be lauded by some and looked down upon by others. While the neutral position taken by Wood may seem like a noble endeavor, it unfortunately causes the documentary to be hollow at its center, and the viewer is left to feel that the only reason he or she is watching it is to see the usually shocking safety films contained within. Doc lovers will probably recognize the lack of form that this hollowness forces upon the film, causing it to not live up to expectations, while the casual viewer may find greater entertainment value in it, but will more than likely still recognize the empty space at the film's core.
Another flaw of this film is its over-reliance on clips from the actual highway safety films produced by the HSF and its lack of supporting evidence and arguments from interviews. The interviewees seem like they have a lot to say, but are never given the opportunity to fully express their ideas and thoughts behind the making of the safety films. Instead, Wood inserts usually the most shocking scenes from the films being mentioned for sheer entertainment purposes, as if he were afraid that the audience would lose interest in the doc's subject matter.
In addition to this, the film suffers from being overly-long and drawn out. At a running time of approximately ninety minutes, this film sets out to stretch a subject a little too thinly over a lengthy period of time. It is more than likely due to Wood's hesitance to take a stance on his subject that causes the film to seem extended beyond its limits. One cannot help but wondering what the film would be like if it followed a more rhetorical or dramatic arc, rather than focusing on interview footage that has a tendency to beat around the bush, so to speak. The film's final third suffers the most from this forced extension of time and topic as it skews into mentioning the other safety films produced by the HSF as it began to expand that had little or nothing to do with automobile accidents or cautions. The section on the HSF's rumored involvement with pornographic films seems like a complete digression and an ignorance of the doc's central idea and topic. And while the safety films dealing with shoplifters, child molesters, and the like are interesting in their own right, their presence in the film as a whole seems awkward and out of place.
Overall, this is an interesting film dealing with an extremely interesting subject. Its untraditional and neutral approach to its subject is a detriment, though, as is its overly-long running time. As a documentary, it succeeds on some levels but fails on more, but as an opportunity to see some of the most shocking and amazing highway safety films ever produced, it will definitely not disappoint.
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