- Written and Directed by Wes Miller
- December 13, 2019
After shooting five men seeking to kill a judge, Bass Reeves heads into Indian Territory to capture a marshal turned dangerous outlaw.
The real Bass Reeves is a fascinating figure and definitely one you should take your own personal time out to read up on. He was a lawman of the Old West that really did many of the things that fictitious characters have only done in entertainment. He was a force of nature and tougher than the toughest.
Hell on the Border is one of the few films to touch on him that I have come across. Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Jesse James, and others have received numerous incarnations on the screen-big and small-over the decades. Why a badass like him has received scant attention even in the present is a mystery.
As with any dramatic presentation, don’t take this as fact but rather as a starting point. There are real names used in this. Look them up and learn more. Whether or not they are really connected with the real Bass Reeves I don’t know. Then again this is the starting point and not an accurate depiction.
They do a good job of making Reeves (David Gyasi) a human being, but at the same time tougher and dare I say harder than the rest of the people around him. He has an inner strength. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt the character as portrayed walks softly but carries a big stick. He has a moral clarity and unshakeable sense of purpose that makes him someone to be feared by those on the wrong side of the law. He is a Wild West terminator!
The main flaw in Hell on the Border is that Reeves gets pushed aside for other characters. Reeves is a man of few words but this is (or should be) ultimately his story but there are far too many moments here where he is not present and other characters are the focus. And they go on far too long. Or others talk a great deal to the point of directing what happens next and Reeves largely observes and waits.
In this story Reeves is paired with an outlaw named Charlie Storm (Ron Perlman) whom at the being of the film Reeves helped to capture. Charlie is a lot of bluster and a bit of a jerk, but not totally irredeemable. He takes the job to avoid dangling at the end of a rope. Under most other actors, Storm might be forgettable or an irritating and unnecessary diversion but with Perlman’s talent he is rather charming and likeable. Perlman is like bacon. He makes everything better.
Frank Grio is rather good and dark in the part of the story’s villain Bob Dozier. He is sinister and threatening without being ridiculous or over the top. He is a man seeking to watch the world burn for all it has done to him both real and perceived. Dozier is a violent man but is not bad villain indiscriminate violent. He uses terror intelligently in the story. He kills to send a message or eliminate a threat.
This is not a revisionist Western. Hell on the Border takes more of its spirit from the mythmaking Western as it builds up Reeves. Not purely but Reeves is made larger than life. Dozier is built up to be a great evil making their final showdown a battle between titans. Reeves has a mission that he is going to accomplish while Dozier is evil and seeking revenge. He was once a marshal himself but after getting falsely accused (or so he says) decided wage as much of a one-man war against the US as he could.
In keeping with the mythmaking during the course of the story Reeves’ example inspires others to be better. He is a figure that others look up to and see something they want to be like. He is a bit of a leader and legend in his own time. They follow him and help because there is a quality in him they seek to emulate.
This is on the cheaper side and I was not expecting acting. Fortunately I was wrong. Sam Sixkiller (Zahn McClarnon) has a bit of a roguish charm to him. Judge Isaac Parker (Manu Intiraymi) is rather stoic and proceeds hesitantly even though he knows Bass Reeves is the best person for the job (and probably the best person for the job ever) that he will encounter. We get enough from most of them to understand where they stand and why they do what they do.
The two previously mentioned characters are based on real individuals and among several historical figures that make an appearance to one extent or another. Ulysses S. Grant (David William Arnott), Belle Starr (Amber Sweet), and Frank James (Alexander Kane) show up here as the film liberally mixes fact and fiction.
Hell on the Border does not shy away from bigotry. They are not evil and all racist but more ignorant as they cannot see that Reeves is a human equal to them. That is a fine line and perhaps splitting hairs. There are a few straight up bigots but not all are. There are also the issues in the legal system which make it virtually impossible for Reeves to serve as a marshal let alone get ahead in society.
Hell on the Border is a great Western with a true Western legend as its central character. I think this is something that will appeal mostly to Western fans but I do recommend it!