An Introduction to the First Black US Marshal of the American West

Hell On The Border hits home video Tuesday, Feb 11 from Lionsgate.

Bass Reeves was a real western legend who was born into slavery but escaped to become a frontiersman, rancher, lawman, and eventually the first black deputy U.S. Marshal of the American West, credited with over 3000 arrests and responsible for sending many an outlaw to an early grave. His life reads like a Western epic, and some have even theorized that he may have been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

So why the hell have I never heard of him?

Hell on the Border, new on home video this week, opens by displaying this telling quote:

And therein is the heart of this film, which chronicles the story of how Bass (David Gyasi), at this point established as a frontiersman, gunslinger, and family man, earns his badge by taking on the deadliest outlaw of the territory, Bob Dozier (Frank Grillo).

Setting out with him as his lone posseman is one Charlie Storm (Ron Perlman), an outlaw apprehended by Bass himself, who volunteers his service as an alternative to the hangman’s noose.

On their trek, the skillful Bass continues to earn the respect of the casually racist Storm, and recruits additional helpers, including his native friend Sam Sixkiller (the terrific Zahn McClarnon, currently enjoying the success of his villainous turn in Doctor Sleep).

All of the film’s main handful of stars (who are also executive producers on the film) are doing solid work here. Gyasi is sincere as the virtuous and honest Reeves, though his air of quiet humility (necessary to survival as a black man in the post-Civil War era) lacks screen dynamism. I’d love to see a sequel where he gets to cut loose a bit more. Perlman is characteristically good because, well, he’s Ron Perlman. Grillo’s villain feels a little underexplained for an audience not familiar with the historical Bob Dozier, but even so he’s presented as more than just a generic baddie, with political and religious convictions and his own moral creed.

One of the most surprisingly great aspects of the movie is its terrific music, which mixes a more traditional western-style score and folk songs with the modern flair of guitars and the rhythmic beats of R&B and hip-hop.

The biggest obstacle to this film is its budget and rushed production (which is described a bit in the commentary). Some of the scenes set in town, for example, feature buildings which are clearly of modern construction. It’s just a background detail, but a particularly distracting one. The ultra-clean digital photography also feels antithetical to the rustic western aesthetic, making it a rare movie where the low-light scenes play better (more film-like) to my eye than the daytime ones.

The world of low budget action movies is often one of similarly low expectations. Effects, costumes, production time, and talent — all cost money. Even recognizable actors are often guilty of phoning in their performances. In this difficult genre, it can be especially hard for a filmmaker to stand out. A few, like Jesse V. Johnson, Isaac Florentine, and Roel Reiné, manage to carve out a niche or fandom, often by their association with particular stars or franchises.

A few years ago a newbie screenwriter got in touch with Cinapse after we had posted a negative review of his first movie, and rapped with us a little about the script in response to some of our comments. It was a positive interaction, and since then I’ve taken an interest in the filmography of Wes Miller, who transitioned into directing.

Even working in the low-budget and DTV world, he’s a unique filmmaker with the potential to become one of those actually-memorable directors, because he has what so many lack — a voice. I’ve watched most of his films, and you can really start to trace the throughline of his unique identity — lawyer by trade, Christian by choice, and African-American by birth— as these elements of his person weave through all of his stories dealing with criminal justice, racism, and faith. I frankly didn’t like some of his other movies, but with River Runs Red and now Hell on the Border, we’re seeing a more capable, continuously improving director starting to make some really interesting and conscientious films.

This is a low-budget western and it has some of those hallmarks of limited production values, but I really dig that it’s doing something different and introducing audiences to a western legend of color who’s every bit as interesting as such colorful personalities as Wyatt Earp or Jesse James.

The title card of Hell on the Border carries the promising subtitle “The Chronicles of Bass Reeves Vol. 1”, and I for one would love to see future installments bear out that promise.

The Package

Hell on the Border arrives on Home Video from Lionsgate. I received a media-only Blu-ray screener so I can’t comment on the packaging aspects of the release, but the available formats include Blu-ray™ (plus Digital), DVD, and Digital.

Special Features

Commentary with Writer/Director Wes Miller & Camera Operator Ronald Bourdeau — A commentary which may be of particular interest to aspiring filmmakers. Miller does most of the chatting, describing challenges met, historical and legal insights, and the nuances and ideas behind some of the scenes. There are a few spots (typically the more exciting scenes) where things get quiet and they just let the movie play for awhile but this is for the most part a pretty solid commentary track.

Theatrical Trailer (2:10)

Promotional Trailers:
Gone Are The Days (1:21), Escape Plan: The Extractors (2:37), 10 Minutes Gone (2:03), The Tracker (1:34)

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
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Hell on the Border Blu-ray:

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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