Thursday, February 11, 2021

Race Month: Hell-Bound Train

Hell-Bound Train

You often see the Devil depicted in cartoons in red tights, holding a pitchfork, sitting on the shoulder of Donald or Daffy Duck. Those images of Satan are downright nuanced and sophisticated compared to the Prince of Darkness in the 1930 silent feature, Hell-Bound Train.

Hell-Bound Train was the creation of James and Eloyce Gist, African American evangelists who never intended their work to be seen in such a questionable, disreputable place as a movie house. It was intended to be shown in churches. The couple traveled from town to town, revival to revival, using the film to warn about the wages of sin. Theirs was the only print of the film, so it is rather surprising that preservationists have managed to present as decent a print as is now available. The original print was stored in the Library of Congress and much work went into its restoration.

There isn’t a lot of what we expect to find in a feature film. There are no credits at the beginning or end of the film. There isn’t much in the way of a plot. We first see the Devil (in a costume that would probably come in last in a Halloween contest) offering all who are interested free admission to the Hellbound Train -- “Just Give Your Life and Soul,” as the ticket reads. Plenty of folks take up his offer to ride his train.

The first car of the train features dancing, and a title card informs the audience, “dancing is indecent." Bootleggers are honored guests in the car, and women are encouraged to drink. The second car has drunkards. The third car is a Jazz Club (a title card warns that such music destroys the minds of innocent children). The next car has thieves, crooks, and pickpockets. Another coach represents immorality. There even is a car for boys who “mistreat dumb animals.”

We see scenes of sinful behavior on each of these cars, all followed by the Devil dancing and exclaiming, “How my heart does rejoice!”

The last car of the train is for “Backsliders and hypocrites who used to be church members!” We see a young man actually sleeping in his own bed rather than going to church! A card warns, “Some people serve God when in town but as soon as they get on their feet, it’s back to the devil.” We also see a man who claims, “I don’t drink, I treat everybody right, I pay my debts, even if I haven’t repented or joined a church. I am as good as some of those in church.” 

But a good preacher warns, “Poor boy, he’ll regret it someday,” because the man is also a passenger on the Hellbound Train.

That last car on the train also carries “False preachers who will get together with church officers and steal the church’s money. Often they walk hand and hand with the devil. While righteous preachers carry the program of Jesus Christ.”

We then see good people going to church as opposed to those passengers on the Hellbound Train. (A title card provides something of a non-sequitur: “While some serve God on the Sabbath, others worship automobiles.”) We read that the good, churchgoing folks follow II Cor. 6:17, “Therefore come out from among them and be separate.”

We then learn the fate of those who ride the Hellbound Train. As the train comes down the tracks a sign reads, “Entrance to Hell -- Welcomes to All” and the train jumps the tracks and bursts into flames. (It looks a lot like a model train being thrown off its track and burned, but effects aren’t cheap.)

A title card warns. “Get off the train by repenting, believing, and being baptized before it is too late!”

So what Movie Churches rating should we give? Though there were good and bad preachers in the film, this week I believe we will give some other clergy the Steeple rating. The filmmaking evangelists James and Eloyce Gist certainly deserve a lot of credit for pioneering this innovation in ministry. 

Cinema historians point to the Gists as important trailblazers for African Americans. On the other hand, the content of the film is simplistic and legalistic. It is interesting that Eloyce wasn’t strictly a Christian, but a practitioner of the Baha’i religion. Baha'is teach that every religion has value, which is why, I suppose, she was willing to support her husband James’ advocacy of fundamentalist Christianity. We'll give the Gists a generous Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples (weighing the Movie portion of things more than the Church portion).

(You owe it to yourself to get a glimpse of this unique film. You may look at a Youtube clip here.)

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