149. Hell On Wheels (1967)
Director: Will Zens
Writer: Wesley Cox
From: Cult Cinema
Del is jealous of his brother Marty’s success, both as a race car driver and country singer, and starts repairing moonshiners’ cars to fund his own racing ambitions.
Country superstar Marty Robbins stars as Marty Robbins, the world’s greatest country singer and race car driver. We know how good he is at both because all the other characters in the movie are only interested in telling us how great he is.
Before you cry, “Gary Stu!,” as I did, let me note that Marty Robbins actually was a racing celebrity. He literally plays himself! That’s why it’s surprising that the movie’s so bad. The story of a person pursuing two dreams at once that don’t intersect would be plenty dramatic, but this movie avoids that. Instead, he’s already successful at both so the story has to be about something else.
Marty has two brothers, Del and Steve. Del is Marty’s mechanic who’s jealous of the credit and attention Marty gets, especially from Del’s girlfriend (the jealousy thread goes nowhere). Del feels that it’s his mechanical talents and brilliance that’s making Marty win the races, but that Marty gets all the credit. So after the race that opens the movie, Del quits.
Steve is a G-man working on busting moonshiners. They’re evil criminals, don’t ‘cha know, making that booze and stuff and driving fast all over the county. I don’t know how much of a concern moonshine was in 1967, but it is so strange to watch what is basically a pro-prohibition film from that period.
All three brothers have to be involved in the drama so, of course, Del is approached by some gang leaders who want him to work on their cars. The cars are used for running moonshine, but Del chooses to be ignorant of that and takes the job. The movie treats this as a huge moral compromise, but it’s hard to see how a mechanic being hired to work on cars crosses some moral line. Maybe that’s a reflection of the age we’re in. Back then, if you sold something that you knew could be used in a crime, then you were morally culpable for it. Now, in our age of mass shootings, we see how morally backward such a stance is.
Then nothing happens. The movie pauses the non-action periodically for a concert—not just Marty performing but an actual mini-concert featuring an opening act—or for undramatic racing footage. There’s even a pause in the movie where we cut to Steve addressing his officers about the dangers of moonshine which amounts to the movie stopping for a PSA from the ATF. I have the phrase, “Padding: the Motion Picture” in my notes, but this is what the director did.
Zens favored a variation of what Red Letter Media refers to as “shooting the rodeo,” a tactic involving filming an event that happens to be occurring near production and then incorporating it into the movie. Zens seems to make short industrial/promotional films and then use them as groundwork for a feature. So there’s The Road to Nashville that’s about a filmmaker meeting with various country stars to ask them to be in his movie, and they perform their songs: a movie built around music videos. There’s also The Starfighters (episode 0612 of Mystery Science Theater 3000) where nothing happens in-between industrial footage of jets refueling. In other words, he’s not padding his movies with stock footage, he’s padding his stock footage with a movie.
The same sense dominates Hell On Wheels. A scene starts, characters are interacting a bit, but the drama never advances. Instead every scene, the entire movie in fact, starts with the characters already at the emotional endpoint, and then it’s interrupted for racing footage or a concert. So while there’s a plot, there’s no story, and the whole thing feels like an excuse to profit off of promotional footage the director had already filmed.
So Del works for the gang guys, buys his own racing car, and wins his first race, beating his brother. Marty congratulates him (cause Marty is holy and perfect and has no flaws), confronts Del over his hostility, and then convinces him to quit working for the gang.
At the same time, the gang has decided there’s too much pressure from the ATF so they’re going to pull up stakes. Some thugs are sent to pick up the car that Del is working on and they overhear Marty talk Del into turning down future jobs. So in response they emerge with guns drawn and kidnap them both because they don’t want Del to turn down the future jobs that there won’t be?
They get tied up, escape, but Del gets shot in the process. Marty steals one of the moonshiners’ cars and is racing Del to the hospital, but is at once being chased by the other moonshiners and, unbeknown to anyone, heading for an ATF roadblock run by Steve. Cops catch the bad guys, brothers all help each other out, THE END.
There’s not much to say about it. In terms of plot, it sounds fine. Similar to The Manster, there isn’t any groundwork laid for who these characters are so we don’t see how they’re changed by the events of the movie. That means there’s no inherent drama: where the characters are at the beginning is where they are at the end. All of this adds to the Gary Stu sense of the piece. The only strong emotions people have are for how fantastic they think Marty Robbins is.
I’d compare this to something like Wild Guitar starring Arch Hall, Jr. That’s a movie about a naive young kid going to LA to become a musical superstar and… immediate does! That feels like a vanity project for Hall, Jr., especially since it was produced by and co-stars his dad, but it has a different sensibility. Whereas Hell on Wheels has everyone telling Robbins how great he is, Wild Guitar has everything going great for the characters—all the characters. The latter feels like a kid’s fantasy where, despite the struggles that come up, in the end we can all be friends and share these riches with each other. The former feels like a product of insecurity, like the central figure has to be told he’s worthy and everything else is secondary to that.
So Hell on Wheels is not a recommend. It’s dull and self-serving. The musical performances are interesting in their way. I’m not into country so some of the performances seemed like something done by aliens (the first band features a woman on guitar doing the strangest quasi-Riverdance thing I’ve ever seen), but even I could tell Robbins was a good singer. If you want a taste of the mid-60’s Country-Western scene, you could fast-forward to those performances, but your time would likely be better spent watching The Road to Nashville. Apart from that, there’s occasional fun to be had with the incompetent production, but not enough to justify the rest of the film.