?The Hell-Bound Train is always on duty, and the devil is the engineer.?
Each year the Library of Congress selects 25 films to be added to the National Film Registry. The Registry includes a broad range of the diversity of American film?from blockbusters to home movies. One of the films included in the 2021 class is Hell-Bound Train, a 1930 film by two African-American evangelists, James and Eloyse Gist, for use in revivals.
The film doesn?t really have narrative or plot, but instead goes car by car to outline the various vices of the passengers on this train. We frequently see a horned devil in the cab of the train, or dancing joyously as people succumb to the temptations of drink, gambling, thievery and graft (including cheating in business), dancing, jazz music, and cruelty. Worst of all are the backsliders and hypocrites that were in the church but left. A frequent title card tells us ?The devil rejoices.? And throughout the film we see the train barreling down the track, always headed to the fires that await.
As the film went car by car, it made me think of Dante?s descent circle by circle into his idea of Hell. However, Hell-Bound Train does not have the same kind of political commentary, and certainly isn?t as deep in its approach.
The Gists were not trained in filmmaking, and this is pretty rudimentary. Its value rests in part in the fact that these are African-American pioneers in film. This is a time when blackface was common in films, because most films would not allow black actors. It is also an early attempt by Christians to use the medium as a tool for evangelism.
There is also a certain historical significance to the film as we consider the religious message that this film represents. This is a Holiness understanding of salvation and damnation. It is also very much in line with the kind of tent-meeting revivalism of the day. From my own theological perspective, I find it interesting the kinds of things that the Gists were preaching against?things that may seem laughable 90 years later, but were viewed as great immorality in the Gists? world. It?s also interesting the sins that are missing. This is clearly from a time before the civil rights struggle later in the century?and continuing today. Would racial animus be worthy of a ticket for this train? How about injustice? How about silence in the face of injustice?
The inclusion of Hell-Bound Train in the National Film Registry is a recognition of the importance of such films in the history of cinema and as a part of our culture.
Hell-Bound Train is available on The Criterion Channel and is included in the multi-disc set ?Pioneers of African-American Cinema? that may be available in local libraries.