Often referred to as an imitation of Warner's legendary prison drama I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), RKO's stirring Hell's Highway was actually released a few months earlier. The two films were in production at the same time, but RKO was determined to beat the competition (which also included Universal's Laughter in Hell, 1933) and not a few corners were cut. All three films were set in a generic Southern state (read Georgia) and depicted a horrid penal system more akin to the Middle Ages than the supposedly enlightened 1930s. In Hell's Highway, the chain gang prisoners wear uniforms with a large target printed on the back and the torture instrument du jour is a so-called sweatbox, in constant operation so that unscrupulous contractor Billings (Oscar Apfel) may construct his "Liberty Highway" on time and under budget. When a prisoner dies from exposure in the dreaded contraption, Duke Ellis (Richard Dix) concocts a plan to escape. The escape comes to an abrupt halt with the sudden arrival of his kid brother, Johnny (Tom Brown). The latter ends up in the sweatbox, but Duke has the kid transferred to office duty by using a bit of blackmail. There is a climactic prison riot, during which Duke is killed after saving his brother once again. Or at least that was what a preview audience saw. The death of the film's hero proved so shocking that RKO hastily filmed an alternative ending and Hell's Highway, as it survives today, concludes with Billings being charged with murder (the sweatbox situation) and Duke asked to testify against him. Typical of pre-code Hollywood, Hell's Highway features an openly gay prisoner (who bats his eyes at the prison guards), several scenes of torture, an appearance of near equality between black and white inmates, a bible-quoting polygamist (Charles Middleton), a wife-murdering guard (Warner Richmond), and, for added verisimilitude, a handicapped character who, when mortally wounded during the riot, signs his farewell to this world. Hell's Highway may not have enjoyed the status of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but it remains a powerful indictment of the Georgian penal system of 1931 and a fine, well-acted film in its own right.
by Hans J. Wollstein synopsis