William S. Hart “The Disciple”

December 21, 2009

All of the films I’ve seen directed by and starring William S. Hart contain an element of Christianity, either directly (quoting of Psalms in the cards for “Toll Gate) or by heavy-handed allegory (everything else).  I’m not sure if Hart was a believer or if he just felt that this sort of sentiment belonged in his films.

In his Dartmouth class notes, Charles Starrett lists his religious affiliation as Episcopal.  I wonder if the Christian elements of Hart’s film helped to make him Charles’ favorite Western star.

Charles would have been eleven when “The Disciple” came out in 1915.  For the first time that I know of, Hart plays an actual man of God.  He’s Jim Houston and the card tells us he’s “The ‘Shootin’ Iron’ parson of the frontier, strong of jaw and good at prayin.'”

He rides into town with his wife, daughter and bible.  The good citizens have sent for a parson and Jim’s here to fill the job.  His first act is to save a man from a drunken lynch mob.  Doc Hardy, the saloon keeper, doesn’t like the sky pilot much, but he does like the look of his wife.

Hart made no sound films, except for the short introduction to the 1939 re-issue of 1925’s “Tumbleweeds.”  However, he was a trained and successful Broadway actor not afraid of the big, dramatic roles — he famously played Ben Hur on stage.  Even in silent dumb show, his sermons in this film are powerful and remind one of Barbara Stanwyck’s turn in Capra’s “Miracle Woman.”  I wish I could have heard them.

He also handles a gun well, even if old “Two-Gun Bill” is short by one.  He pulls it on a crowded bar and sends them to church.  “Are you goin’ to force me to preach to cripples?”

Jim Houston’s religious journey is a twisted path.  In short: he begins full of zeal, his wife splits with Doc Hardy, he tears it with God — “You and me is done”, he becomes a hermit in the hills, his young daughter falls ill — “You’ve struck me another blow from behind”, there’s a big storm, he falls on his knees — “God, I surrender, I surrender”, lightening takes out the roof of a nearby cabin where is wife is hiding, she seeks refuge and finds her sick child — “She must have a doctor”, there ain’t any in the county, but WAIT!  DOC Hardy!

This is Houston’s enemy, the guy who stole his wife and destroyed his faith.  Will he shoot him or ask him to save his daughter’s life?

A little of both.  He holds a gun on the guy and MAKES him save his daughter’s life.  Unlike the ending of a more typical WSH film like “Hell’s Hinges” where he gets righteously angry and burns the whole damn town down, here he forgives his wife AND Doc Hardy.

We then cut to a shot of the three crosses atop Golgatha and a card reading: “God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.”

I guess he does.  It’s sort of boring, though.  Imagine a Clint Eastwood, or Charles Bronson, movie where Clint or Charley takes a pile of shit throughout the film and ends up forgiving his enemies.  It’s like that.

So, by that count, maybe this is the most Christian of Hart’s films.

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One Response to “William S. Hart “The Disciple””

  1. sage said

    God knows, a Western couldn’t be made today that had some morality in it. I think Hart isn’t given near enough credit for his early roll in Westerns and his personal life. Charles M. Russell played a much heavier influence on Hart’s Westerns than has ever been told. Hart finally had to give up authenticity visually to compete with the fanciful outfits of Tom Mix. -Sage

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