Hellgate (1952)





Director:     Charles Marquis Warren. 

Starring:     Sterling Hayden (Gil Hanley),  Joan Leslie (Ellen Hanley),  Ward Bond (Lt. Tod Voorhees),  James Arness (George Redfield),  Peter Coe (Jumper Hall),  John Pickard (Gundy Boyd),  Robert J. Wilke (Sgt. Maj. Kearn),  James Anderson (Vern Brechene),  Richard Emory (Dan Mott),  Dick Paxton (George Nye),  William Hamel (Lt. Col. Woods),  Marshall Bradford (Dr. Pelham), Sheb Wooley (Neill Price).

a remake of Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"It is not for us to decide at this date that the man, Gilman Hanley, was the victim of a nationís unintentional injustice. Rather, it is our duty to see that the fate that befell him can never again befall any man." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Justice, U.S. Supreme Court

Under guard by military men, Gilman Hanley, is taken to his jail cell carved out of the rocks.

Kansas, 1867. A state overrun by guerilla terrorists in the wake of the Civil War.

Four men ride up fast to an intersection on a dirt road. Two of the men turn right to go check on the old Wilson homestead. The other two wait for them. One of the men, the bandit Vern Brechene has some of his ribs broken. He fell off his horse while escaping from the town. Vern tells his buddy that the people back in town wanted to burn him.

The two other bandits return to say that they canít hole up at Wilsonís old place. Wilson is dead and there are new people living there. So the bandits ride off to find another place. They run into a sign saying: "Gilman S. Hanley Veterinary".

The bandits decide to pay a visit to the veterinarian to see if he can help Vern. They knock on the door of the Hanley residence and Mrs. Ellen Hanley opens the door. The men explain that their friend was hurt badly from a fall from his horse.  Ellen goes and gets her husband. Gil says heís no medical doctor, but he can provide some help. But the injured man must quickly see a medical doctor. He asks the men if they are going into town to see what is going to happen to the bad man. Gil says that the man probably does deserve whateverís coming his way, but he thinks the law should handle it.

Gil fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and now he is in an area dominated by Yankees. But he is determined to make a go of it in this community.

Gil finishes wrapping a long bandage of gauze around Vern and ties it. He tells the men that there is no charge. Outside the bandits steal Vernís horses and leave Gil the worn out horses. Vern is just about to shoot through the window and kill Gil and Ellen, but riders approach and they have to get away quick.

The riders are three soldiers. They come into the house looking for the bandits. The lead man asks permission to look around the house and barns. Sure. The fellow in charge says that a butcher named Vern Brechene shot down an army lieutenant and a peace officer.  Gil says that he did bind up the ribs of a man who was half out of his mind with pain. Just then the two other soldiers come in with a saddle bag. Inside there is $5,000 dollars in cash. And they found the horses stolen by Brechene and his men. The fellow in charge says they have been looking for a man who has been helping Brechene hide out in this area and he thinks that Gil is that man. He arrests Gil and takes him away.

Now Gil faces a military tribunal. Vern Brechene was a deserter from the US Army, so Gil faces a military trial. Some witness testifies that Gil couldnít have done it, but Gil is found guilty. He is placed in jail. Ellen comes to see him there. Gil tells her that she has to get to someone higher than these military judges.

While Gil and Ellen speak with each other, Brechene is brought into the jail. Ellen asks the bandit to tell them that Gil is innocent, that her never saw Brechene before that night. But Brechene does the very opposite. He then tells Gil that he did a lousy job on his ribs.

Brechene is executed by a firing squad. Gil has his sentence commutated to a prison term. One of the military officers tells Ellen to take his advice and just forget about her husband.

Gil is sent to Hellgate in the southwest corner of New Mexico not far from the Mexican border. A long line of men are shown going into the mines to work with picks and shovels.

The water wagon arrives with six prisoners, one of which is Gil. Gil is the only one who has his hands shackled. It seems that the soldier guards already now about the "guerrilla" Gil. Sgt. Major Kern gives him a hard time and then Lt. Voorhees, the warden of the place, gives him more trouble.

The Lieutenant singles out Gil for special condemnation. He tells everyone that Gil is the only prisoner with guerrilla on his record. Guerillas burn down homes with women and children in them. He then gives the prisoners a little tour of the place. The mine left a big pit behind with walls of rock  208 feet high. Even if the men could climb the wall without being shot, they could be killed by the guards on top of the walls. If they get past that, they have to get through the desert. And that will be especially difficult because he has a number of Pima Indian scouts who earn $25 dollars for an alive prisoner and $50 dollars for a dead one. He also shows the prisoners the "bake oven". It is a kind of case made of metal in which two men can be put laying down. The men then bake in the sun in the oven.

Lt. Voorhees explains that they have no water source here at the prison. It has to be brought in once a month by a water wagon. He says thatís why he has the men digging away, to find water.

Lt. Voorhees takes Gil by himself to his office. He says that according to the instructions from headquarters, they must want Gil to stay alive. But, he says, the orders do not apply to a man who tries to escape. Voorhees then tells Gil that guerrillas burned his home with his wife and daughter in it. And thatís why he is going to give Gil a very hard time.

Gil is finally put in a jail cell in a cave area. Inside Jumper is the first to greet Gil. He introduces Gil to the other guys. Dick Nye is a former artillery man who went guerilla. Gundy Boyd was a New York infantryman. Neill Price is the very sick man laying on the cave floor. The Pima Indian killed one of his own men. And, finally, there is George Redfield, a big fellow who controls the group.

Redfield comes over to Gil and tells him they should try to make the best of their situation. He says that Gil must remember not to talk about what he sees to anyone, not even his cell mates. Then Redfied asks if they have an understanding. Acting tough, Gil asks: "Why do we need to have an understanding?"

The men are interrupted by a visit from the Sergeant Major. Nye asks Kearn for permission to see the doctor. He says he hears terrific noises in his head that cause him great pain. The Sgt. Major denies him permission, he says, because he is a guerilla. Nye asks Kearn to at least not slam the cell door. So Kearn deliberately slams the door hard.

Gil asks about the sick man. He takes a look at him. He says the man has internal injuries because he is bleeding through the nose and mouth. Gil asks why the sick man gets no water. Redfield says heís just going to die anyway. The men get angry with each other. Redfield starts a dirty fight right from the start by sucker punching Gil and then kneeing him. Gil holds his own. The fight is broken up when Kearn arrives.

Gil gives the sick man some of his drink. He tells Redfield that the man is dying. Redfield says the fellow better not die. (The sick man is the only one who knows the path to take to get through the desert and into Mexico.) He says Gil is supposed to be some kind of a doctor and he wants Gil to keep the man alive a little longer --  at least until he is ready to escape.

Nye canít take it anymore so he decides to commit suicide by prison guard. He starts running away to one of the walls shouting for the guards to shoot him. Voorhees has the guards wait for awhile. Nye starts climbing up the walls. When he is half way up Voorhees gives the order to fire. Nye is shot dead.

Gil is taken to work with the other prisoners. One of the guys tells him to dig slowly because there is no water here. Thatís just something that Voorhees tells the guys to justify all the working.

Redfield tells Gil that he thinks he can get out by digging upwards through a crack that goes all the way up to the surface. They have some broken pick heads that they stole and use these to dig out the rocks.

Back at home Ellen Hanley writes a letter to her husband saying that she is going to meet with Senator Caldwell about his case. Gil goes to see Voorhees to ask him where are the letters from his wife. Voorhees has them in his desk. He only tells Gill that sheís been to Washington, D.C. to talk to politicians and others. Gil asks: "Do I get my letters?" The guards just take him back to his prison cell.

Voorhees tries to break Gil by giving him double duty. The sick man dies, but not before whispering to Gil that he scratched the map on the wall just above the gate about at eye level. Redfield asks Gil what the dead man told him. Gil is looking at the wall above the gate, but there is no map there. He tells Redfield what the man said, but he can find no map on the walls.

Redfield thinks he has got the way out. Theyíve broken through! Gil tells the men that he wonít go with them to make the escape. Instead, he wants to get those letters from Voorheesís office. Jumper is able to unlock the gate lock. Gil starts to sneak out but is soon spotted and shot at. Gil makes a bee-line back to his cell.

The Sarge shows up asking who tried to escape. No one talks. So he is going to take Gundy out to be beaten until he talks. Gil then speaks up to say that it was he who tried to escape. The Sarge ignores him and tells Gundy that he knows the punishment for lying to the guards. They start lashing Gundy.

The prisoners in other cells use this distraction to overcome a guard, get his keys and unlock the cell doors. The prisoners start chasing Kearn and his two helpers. And they make a break for the outer gate.

The sarge and other guards rush out of the final gate. But as they get out, some prisoners are right behind them. A big fight breaks out around the outer gate. Gil arrives and he starts attacking the sarge. It seems he is determined to strangle Kearn. Redfield has to pull Gil off the man.

A wall of soldiers meets those who try to leave the caves completely. The revolt ends. Voorhees shouts at Gil that he is now guilty of inciting to riot and heíll be here in the caves for a long time.

Gil is placed in the bake oven. Itís brutal inside, but Gil finally sees a map scratched above the doors to the oven. The dead manís map shows the way over the desert to Mexico.

Ellen learns from Col. Wood that Gil is to be released but be under the supervision of Col. Wood.  Neighbor Neil Price says to Ellen that this is just a scheme by the military to catch guerillas seeking help from Gil. Ellen doesnít really care, as long as her husband is home.

Back in his cell Gil now says heís ready to escape with the guys. He will personally show Redfield the way through the desert.

There is, however, a problem. Jumper snitches to Lt. Voorhees about the coming escape attempt. The warden decides to let the men escape first, then he can kill the escapees. Heís willing to kill the other prisoners just to get the guerilla Gil.

The time comes to escape. But Jumper is afraid and says what if Lt. Voorhees knows about the escape attempt. They would all be killed by the guards. Redfield now thinks that Jumper has told Voorhees. So he has Jumper go first.

Voorhees is waiting for them with his soldiers and Pima Indians. They come out and start climbing up the mountain side. Voorhees has his men hold their fire. The escapees are allowed to get on top of the walls. Redfield uses this opportunity to kill Jumper. He hits the snitch and knocks him down the mountain side. The escapees then make a radical turn in their planned escape route and make it to the waiting horses that Redfield had set up with guys on the outside. The men get away!

Of course, the soldiers and Pima Indians come after the escapees. The escaped prisoners get into a nasty dust storm. Gil wants to continue on, but Redfield wants to wait because he doesnít want them getting lost in the storm. The men argue and start fighting. Redfield gets away from Gil and grabs his rifle laying on the sand. Just as he points the gun at Gil, an arrow goes right through Redfieldís throat. The Indians then kill the Pima Indian escaped prisoner. Gil and Redfield run to the top of a sand hill and start firing the rifle at the Indians. Gil kills three Indians with his first three shots. The others run away to regroup.

An Indian tries to sneak up on the two escaped prisoners. He is successful in that he is able to kill Redfield with an arrow, but he is shot dead by Gil. The remaining four Pimas start an attack up the hill to kill Gil, but the cavalry arrives and stops them.

Voorhees shouts for Hanley to come down. Gil leaves his rifle up top and comes down the hill. Voorhess tells Hanley that headquarters has official sent for him. But, they left the final decision up to the warden. Gil is taken back to his jail cell.

An epidemic of typhus breaks out at the prison. A detail has been sent out for water but the townspeople have erected a barricade at the critical intersections to keep the soldiers out. Voorhees waits for the detail to return. It does but they have lost two of their men to the rifles of the townspeople. Voorhees is furious at the townspeople, but thereís not much he can do.

Voorhess says that 50 men a day are dying from typhus fever. And all he needs is some fresh, uncontaminated water for the men. The camp doctor tells Voorhees that Gil could get into Mexico over the desert and return with water.

Voorhees talks with Gil about the plan. The men in the camp are begging for water. Voorhees tells Gil that he canít promise him his freedom or even that he will change his attitude toward him, but his situation may improve somewhat and, more importantly, he will be helping the men.

Gil looks at the dying men, but then recognizes one of the bandits that came to his house that fateful night. He tells the doctor and Voorhees that the man can testify that he did not know this outlaw Vern before that night. The doctor says he doubts the typhus-stricken man will regain consciousness. Despite this, Gil decides to go get fresh water.

Gil gets ready to leave. Voorhees gives him money, a letter of authority and some water. Gil is supposed to ride straight out through the desert headed for Mexico. Voorhees watches as Gil leaves on the horse. But then suddenly Gil veers off to the right and gallops the horse as fast as it can go. Voorhees issues an order to fire at the escaping prisoner, but they canít hit him with their rifle shots.

Two civilians are guarding an intersection. Gil gets the drop on them. He then has the two men take him to the other townsmen on guard duty at the barricade, so he can tell them something. They do so. Everyone holds their fire, except one guy who fires his rifle and grazes the left arm of Gil.  But Gil still gets to say his message. He tells the men that they cannot stop typhus fever by a barricade. The only way to stop the fever is to kill it where itís at: at the prison. He says stop it where it ought to be stopped.

At the prison a guard calls down to Voorhees to come look. Someoneís coming in. Itís Gil driving the water wagon with fresh water. Voorhees and the doctor are very grateful.

The doctor says he sadly has to inform Gil that the bandit died before he could say anything. But Voorhees speaks up saying the bandit did wake long enough to tell him that Gil Hanley was not one of the guerillas.  And Voorhees says he will say that in court.  

Ellen Hanley goes to mail a letter to her husband. As she opens the mail box, she sees Gil Hanley walking toward her. She runs to him. They happily hug and kiss each other.


I thought the movie was pretty good.  It tells the basic story of poor Dr. Mudd (here veterinarian Gil Handley) but sets it in a different time (1867 instead of 1865) and place (Missouri and New Mexico) instead of Washington, D.C.  An innocent man who does a good thing but for a bad man is unjustly arrested and found guilty of helping the bad man escape.  Most of the movie after the introductions deals with the escape attempts by Gil and his wife's attempts to get him out of prison by speaking to powerful politicians.  So it degenerates into an action film, but the action did keep my interest.  Sterling Hayden was very good as Gil Handley. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


See Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).


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