Railroad to Hell: A Chinaman's Chance
21 May 2022
Aki Aleong, James Taku Leung, Tiago Mesquita
Reggie Lee, Timothy Bottoms, Olivia Hussey, Ernest Borgnine, Jason Connery
The opening frames of Railroad to Hell were immediately familiar and comforting. A cool soundtrack with dusty images of a wild frontier brought to mind the classic Spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone. It draws inspiration from the overlooked brutalisation of Chinese labourers who built the great American railways in the late 19th Century. The best history lessons on the big screen are often wrapped in a gripping story of struggle and survival.
Sing (Reggie Lee) has ostensibly grown up as an American with Chinese parents. His people endure appalling conditions as they build the railways that will eventually turn the USA into a leading industrial nation. Sing’s brother dies under suspicious circumstances and he wants the truth. Members of the Christian Women’s Association led by Mrs Duncan (Olivia Hussey) ask questions on the family’s behalf. However, the wily Judge Holliday (Ernest Borgnine) warns that no Chinese people can question the white man. The Chinese community are befriended by respected local Thomas (Timothy Bottoms), but when his daughter is found dead suspicion falls on the innocent Sing. He goes on the run with a posse led by the thuggish Sam (Jason Connery) in hot pursuit.
The narrative moves along at a sharp pace and exploits some well-judged performances from various cast members. Ernest Borgnine delivered a nice cameo in one of last film performances; and Jason Connery borrowed his Dad’s mannerisms to useful effect as Sam. But it’s Reggie Lee who steals the honours as Sing; a character caught between two worlds and wrongly accused of murder. He’s desparate to integrate but anxious to embrace his own heritage. It’s an age old story of slavery with a unique spin as the practice didn’t only affect African Americans. The very same treatment was metered out to anyone who wasn’t white. The Chinese were afforded the same status as African and Native Americans; they were classed as 3/5 human with no legal rights. It’s a startling revelation and a sobering thought.
The only downside is the erratic editing which at times looks like it’s been done with a razor blade. As a result the sound and visuals look very choppy as bits of dialogue disappear. But fortunately it doesn’t disrupt the portrayal of an important episode in American history.