Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Hell's Highway (1932)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Hell's Highway (1932)

In director Rowland Brown's hard-hitting indictment of the sadistic prison chain-gang system (the first of its kind in the film industry), by RKO's David Selznick, similar to Warners' soon-to-be-released I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) - about prisoners employed to construct "Liberty Road County Highway" for unscrupulous private contractor William Billings (Oscar Apfel) on a tight budget and timeline:

  • the opening credits sequence (with a chorus sung by Frieta Shaw's Etude Ethiopian Chorus) - a montage of newspaper headlines detailing the cruel atrocities of a prison 'death camp' inflicted upon various inmates; a prologue stated: "Dedicated to an early end of the conditions portrayed herein - which, though a throwback to the Middle Ages, actually exist today."
  • the sequence continued with the chained-up prisoners roused from their bunks to wash and prepare for their grueling day of labor on the "Liberty Highway" - all prisoners had targets on the backs of their jumpsuits
  • the introduction of the heroic character of 'forgotten man' prisoner Frank 'Duke' Ellis (Richard Dix), a tough con and repeat offender
Targets on Prisoner Jumpsuits
Carter's Sweat-Box Death-Suicide
Inmate Protest Led by Duke
  • the early scene of the torture and death of hapless young prisoner Joe Carter (John Arledge), who paused during the harsh workday (to look down at his blistered hands) and was punished by being taken to "the hospital" (prison-speak for a coffin-shaped sweatbox composed of sheet metal) where he committed suicide by self-strangulation (on the chain strapped around his neck to help hold him in place); the word of his death spread fast: ("Carter's dead. Strangled to death in the sweat box. The contractor says the boy committed suicide")
  • the resultant angry protest by fellow prisoners about Carter's death before a meal, when they passed along the news ("Carter's dead"), and Duke complained about not having spoons to eat when lined up in the mess hall at tables facing bowls of soup
  • the scene of Duke saving his younger brother Johnny Ellis (Tom Brown) from being incarcerated in the sweatbox, in exchange for agreeing to get the other prisoners to cooperate and complete the road project
  • the whipping-punishment scene of Duke, whose military tattoo on his back caused the guard to pause in mid-air
  • the masterminding and execution of a major prison-break, fire and riot, causing retaliation and a massive search party of men with guns - who were promised: "You'll get $50 dollars a head for every convict you bring back"; after freeing several guards from the fire before escaping himself, Johnny was shot and wounded by a search team, then found by Duke, and carried back to the camp; instead of both brothers being charged wth murder and as ringleaders of the escape attempt, Johnny was vindicated for saving the guards ("Why this boy saved every guard in camp from being burned to death!")
Search Party After Prison Break
Johnny Shot and Wounded
Duke's Rescue of Johnny - Carried Back to Camp
  • in the conclusion, after Johnny was taken to the hospital, the governor informed Billings that he was under arrest for Carter's murder and was responsible for the inhumane sweatbox: "When I think of what's happened here ... It's going to affect your treatment of the human beings in the state...It wouldn't have happened if you hadn't driven the men into it. This finishes you, Billings...this looks as if you have to answer for the death of that Carter boy" - and Duke was called to testify as a witness against him (Duke to Billings: "You always wanted me to turn stool-pigeon, Billings. I never knew what a pleasure it could be until now")

The Liberty Road

Prisoners Chained In Their Bunks

Frank 'Duke' Ellis
(Richard Dix)

Duke Saving Younger Brother Johnny

Duke's Whipping - and Display of His Military Tattoo

Ending: The Governor (on left) Charged Road-Building Contractor Billings With the Murder of Carter


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