The Toll Gate (1920)

Film Review


Release Date: 15 April, 1920

Studio: Paramount

Director: Lambert Hillyer

Starring: William S. Hart, Anna Q. Nilsson, Joseph Singleton

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.


Black Deering has led his gang of bandits on many daring robberies, and he thinks they should take their money and break up the gang. Tom Jordan, his right-hand man, proposes one more train robbery. Deering is against it but accepts the decision of the men. Jordan has tipped the authorities about the robbery, and soldiers meet Deering and the gang. Only Deering survives the shoot out. The soldiers recognize him as the man who had warned them of an imminent Indian attack on their fort and allow him to escape. Hunted by sheriffs and soldiers, he flees toward the border. Stopping in a town to get food, he finds Jordan and his gang of Mexican bandits. Deering tries to kill Jordan, but only kills two members of his gang, and he must flee again.

The local Sheriff proves to be an expert tracker and stays close on his trail. When he loses his horse, Deering proceeds on foot. As he is traveling along a cliff over a lake, he sees the young son of Mary Brown drowning and saves him. This act allows the sheriff to catch up, but Mary says that Deering is her husband. Actually, she lives alone with her son and thinks her husband is dead. The sheriff is suspicious, and he and a couple of his men stay in Mary's cabin overnight which forces Deering to stay in her room. When he discovers that Jordan, using the name Brown, is Mary's husband he contemplates attacking her as a method of revenge. Her statement that she trusts him stops those thoughts. He confesses his true identity to the sheriff and is arrested.

Jordan and his gang have trapped some of the sheriff's men and will slaughter them. Deering offers to go along and help save the men. When Jordan tries to escape, Deering catches him, kills him, and throws his body off a cliff. For his assistance the sheriff allows him to escape into Mexico, never to return. Mary and her son want to go with him, but his criminal past stands between them. He goes on alone.


The "good-bad" man was William S. Hart's staple character. This character fitted his stolid, austere demeanor and severely chiseled features. The plot of The Toll Gate is as uncompromising and unglamorous as the main character. Penalties are exacted in proportion to the crimes. Only the death of Singleton will pay for his betrayals of Hart, their gang, and Nilsson. The morality of killing Singleton and dumping his body off a cliff is not questioned. By contrast, Hart's lesser crime of robbery is paid for by the loss of the woman and the boy.