Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding
By Roderick Heath
Few movie productions can be described as legendary events, but the making of Hell’s Angels has surely achieved that status. This mythologising reached its zenith with Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which documented the extraordinary dash and cash expended on Howard Hughes’ would-be blockbuster. If one takes the modern concept of the blockbuster as a form that tries to dazzle an audience by constantly pushing its expectations for spectacle on screen, then Hell’s Angels is 1930’s equivalent of Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), and The Avengers (2012) wrapped up in one. Discounting early works like Intolerance (1916) where nobody really knew how much was spent on them, Hell’s Angels set a record for expense that took nearly 20 years to break, and it was released in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hollywood was starting to be more aware and wary of its profligate tendencies. Yet Hell’s Angels eventually piled up nearly $18 million at the box office and made Jean Harlow a movie star. All in all, not bad for an independent film. Hughes was, at the time, little more than a clever rich kid bedazzled by planes and movies, seeking to combine those two obsessions into one massive project. He poured his personal gusto and finances into a labour of love that took four years to complete, saw him wield the largest private air force in the world to make his vision come true, and resulted in the deaths of four airmen.
As that death toll alarmingly suggests, for anyone with admiration for the time when moviemaking meant really doing death-defying stuff, Hell’s Angels is still a rousing, hair-raising experience, yet the film itself has been largely neglected, even dismissed. Perhaps, such treatment suggests that’s one other thing it has in common with the modern blockbuster: grandiose spectacle allied to inconsequential drama. That’s not true, or at least not entirely. Yes, the basic plot of Hell’s Angels is pretty hackneyed: two brothers, one girl, war enough for all. As prejudicial as it sounds, Michael Bay’s awful Pearl Harbor (2001) can in some ways be described as its remake. But Hell’s Angels has, like many early talkies, an eccentric energy and an elastic and lawless sense of the new cinema on top of Hughes’ untrammelled creative vision that marks it as nearly sui generis, an exemplar from the time before Hollywood had firmly fashioned new templates and moulds for sound-era cinema.
The basic plot is just that, a framework around which the filmmakers weave a strangely antiheroic, erotically provocative, and morally open-ended drama, one that delves as insidiously and unremittingly into the notion of the Great War as a cultish auto-da-fé as many more self-consciously arty attempts. It definitely belongs in the front line, with The Big Parade (1926) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), of the era’s WWI dramas. Still, Hughes was no actor’s director, and to handle the dramatic portions of the film, he went through three directors, including two truly talented helmsmen on the rise in Hollywood. Edmund Goulding, who was to become MGM’s reputed lion tamer of star egos, moved in after Marshall Neilan took an early powder. When Hughes decided to reshoot most of the film as a talkie, and Goulding had moved on, he hired British war veteran James Whale, then still largely unknown except for having directed the stage play Journey’s End. Whale only finished up with a credit for having “staged” the dialogue by Joseph Moncure March, who retrofitted Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook’s original scenario. Whale’s touch is, however, apparent throughout Hell’s Angels, in the eccentric scene shaping, the increasingly neurotic mood that permeates the drama, a greater interest in character behaviour than dramatic beats, and an intuitively engaged attempt to reconcile the theatrical settings he was used to with new cinematic freedoms, an intuition that would reach florid heights in the likes of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1932).
In the end, this was certainly Hughes’ baby, and it stands far above most of Hughes’ oeuvre: unlike The Outlaw (1943) and his big ’50s productions, Hell’s Angels isn’t chiefly a showman’s stunt, but a true attempt to make the biggest, boldest, and best movie he could. Scorsese wasn’t the only filmmaker impressed: Stanley Kubrick considered it one of his favourites, and elements of its ironic mix of antiwar saga and character drama with pervasive sexuality might have had an influence on Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), where, as in Hell’s Angels, that death-cult quality of war culminates in an act of self-sacrifice that result in mutual annihilation. The film also looks forward to attempts to paint war as a condition in which characters eddy in islets of frantic behaviour, like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) or Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity (1960), in the face of impending death. Hughes’ film certainly displays a fascinating approach to the action-adventure tale that forms its heart in that he’s not out to simply wow the audience with bravura flimflam, but also to evoke a vision of warfare that is at once exhilarating and gruelling.
Hell’s Angels follows a familiar arc in tracing three young men, friends at Oxford, and their fates in the coming struggle. It opens in Germany just before the war, where German Karl Armstedt (John Darrow) is spending break with his English friends, brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall). Libidinous and variably honourable, the young men are up to the usual business of young men, and Monte passes on a German girl he’s picked up onto a bemused Karl so he can pursue classier game: Monte, the quintessential lover not a fighter, is caught in flagrante delicto with the Baroness Von Kranz (Jane Winton) by her husband the Baron (Lucien Prival), a peerless Prussian officer who, with coolly humorous dignity, presents Monte with his card to arrange the necessary satisfaction. Monte, having no intention of risking death in such a fashion, packs his bags and flees the country, but Roy, who trails clanging old-fashioned qualities like cans on string, poses as his brother for the Baron’s friends, fronts up to the dawn duel in a strikingly geometric, expressionistic scene, and cops a bullet in the arm. When the young trio are reunited at Oxford, news of the outbreak of the war on the continent sends Karl into an episode of anguish whilst Monte ignores it entirely. Karl leaves soon enough for his homeland. Roy quickly joins up, an act Monte, who maintains an ethical as well as personality-dictated pacifism, initially spurns. But he’s soon roped in by the promise of a kiss from a girl (rising starlet Marian Marsh) at a Royal Flying Corps recruiting station.
Undergraduate hijinks give way to the initially, collectively invigorating new reality, as Roy and Monte finish up as trainee pilots together, whilst society reorganises itself according to the new exigencies of war. Roy is head over heels in love with the upper-crust proto-flapper Helen (Harlow), the daughter of Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall). Monte avoids meeting his brother’s object of fancy on the assumption she’ll be someone as drably upright as him. Roy is roped in to helping organise a ball Lady Randolph gives for departing servicemen and the girls, including Helen, who are joining the canteen service she’s sponsoring. The ball, filmed in a two-colour process, is an interlude of ebullient fin-de-siecle romanticism where Helen and her various boy-toys flit in and out of the shadowy garden like Shakespearean nymphs before a fall. Of course, the moment Monte claps eyes on Helen, sparks fly, to the point where they absent themselves from the party for a tryst in Helen’s apartment. Cue Harlow’s contribution to the language, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” as Monte is startled to find her someone who surpasses himself in libertine indulgence. An elided sex scene later, Monte is immediately stricken with self-disgust for betraying his brother, who idolises Helen: he sparks Helen’s catty wrath, and he tries to warn Roy that Helen isn’t the girl he’s romanticising, but Roy will need more direct evidence.
Helen embodies the shattering of apparent faiths that becomes the leitmotif of Hell’s Angels, as she refuses to play the beauteous embodiment of femininity to be defended, and rather treats the war as a smorgasbord of attractive masculinity just as the lads acted in peace time, an act that is consciously equated with the way the men use themselves up in the interests of systems that have no apparent interest in them. Early in the film, Monte watches as a radical preaches against the war, shouting “Down with capitalism! Down with war!”, only to be assaulted by the crowd; Monte’s bemused disquiet at the scene prefigures his own mounting misgivings about the great adventure. It’s fascinating to see Hughes, who finished up as the American Right’s ogrish caricature of its own paranoias, playing at radical chic in places throughout this film, which encompasses some of the popular anger of the postwar period against war profiteers and manipulative official rhetoric. Rather, war becomes a kind of heroic-sentimental religion of sacrifice, a note that reaches an apotheosis in one specific scene. Monte, as the only one who senses this and becomes almost schizoid in his simultaneous wish to prove his mettle whilst his good sense says run away, whittles him down, and he emerges a tragic antihero. Roy continues to live in a bubble of romantic certainties, whilst Monte, at once cynical and too aware of the underlying reality, is unable to maintain a stoic front and devolves into wild swings between tremulous anxiety and stony, maniacal bravado.
Made before the war film had become a programmatic genre, and indeed probably contributing many clichés-to-be to its lexicon, Hell’s Angels, like others from the spurt of WWI epics of its time, tries to encompass war as an entire social experience, not focusing merely on individuals in combat, but also on the jarring shift from civilian mores to military ones, and trying to summarise aspects of the milieu’s ethos and tragedy. To that end, Hughes and Whale offer a sprawl of discursive yet organic observation, in illustrative vignettes like the kiss that catches Monte in a moment of very Chaplinesque character comedy and the hectic group shots that punctuate it, from scenes of Germans eating and drinking and the giddy young Oxfordians, to the carousing soldiers that sprawl with Hogarthian humanity. Such shots, essayed with a technically impressive depth of field, try to give the film a constant, recurring contrast between the business of life in communities, endlessly rich, and the ruthlessness of the warfare.
There are almost essayistic excursions detailing the machinery of war—not just its technology, but its intricacies, from men receiving their uniforms to the arts of trying to catch zeppelins, parliamentarians announcing the war, power workers rushing to shut off the lights of London during a bombing raid, and shots exploring the workings of aircraft engines with a precise and fetishistic ebullience. Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive engineer’s sense of synergistic detail is here, albeit influenced thoroughly by the more sophisticated filmmakers of the ’20s, with hints of Vidor, Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov evident. Hell’s Angels is technically superlative and brilliantly shot, the film’s one Oscar nomination having been for Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry’s cinematography and, as with many early sound films, the lack of nondiagetic music except at the credits is noticeable in the way one can sense the filmmakers not leaning on it to sustain and punctuate scenes. Instead, they unfold the story with a mixture of the theatrical and the naturalistic, which is perhaps one reason why I find a lot of movies from the period perversely more modern than much of what was made 10 or 20 years later. In a touch that notably captures the conventions of cinema changing from the silent to sound era, rather than subtitles or, as would usually be the practise until the ’70s, just having the German characters speak accented English to each other, silent-style title cards are used to translate their conversations. Hell’s Angels is also a quintessential pre-Code film, as good old-fashioned cursing and flickers of adult sexuality make it through where the later, much finer mesh of the Hays Office would have caught them—not that Hughes stopped trying to get one over on them.
Most importantly, it’s the lack of artifice Hughes chased that makes Hell’s Angels a spellbinding show. Whilst one major set-piece involves model work, that work is remarkably good, and the climax involves colossal acts of set destruction, whilst Hughes shows his cast clearly braving the skies for stunts free of back projection and other tricks, heightening the sensation of real danger these sequences project. Whilst the drama of Hell’s Angels isn’t the peripheral distraction it’s often painted, it is, of course, chiefly an almighty action film, and it really catches fire in the first major set-piece action sequence, as a zeppelin mounts a bombing raid on London. Here, Hughes is attentive to a duel of war technique, as the airship lowers a man in a cockpit down through the clouds to spot where bombs should be dropped, whilst opponents on the ground listen with amplifying equipment for the sounds of the airship’s engines. Of course, the spotter for the zeppelin is Karl, turning his intimate knowledge of the city to use at the encouragement of the ship’s memorably intense, scar-faced Captain (Carl von Haartman), or at least he’s supposed to be. Queasy at the thought of bombing the city he loves, he instead misdirects the Captain to release his payload into a lake, the eruptions boiling and flashing under the water with a strange, alchemic beauty. News that an RFC squadron, including Roy and Monte, is chasing the zeppelin forces the Captain, in his need to gain altitude rapidly and desperation to keep the airship out of British hands, to lighten the ship by the most expeditious means available. His crew thus begin hurling themselves overboard in a consummation of perverse nationalistic liebestod. Not only that, but with Karl still dangling on his slowly lifting cockpit, the Captain orders the cable cut. The crewman who brings to bear a massive pair of chain cutters wimps out, so the Captain, declaring “Für Kaiser und Vaterland!”, does the job himself, and Karl plunges like a stone to his death. So much for him and the Fatherland.
As the RFC planes catch the zeppelin, Roy and Monte’s aircraft is damaged, forcing them to make a crash landing whilst the others continue the chase. The German gunners manage to beat off most of the attackers, the zeppelin’s titanic bulk gliding darkly through the eerily boiling nocturnal clouds, and the airplanes weave and dodge around it as they uselessly pepper it with bullets. But patriotic fanaticism meets its match as one of the British flyers, determined to bring the prey down, performs a suicidal dive from high above, and the exploding leviathan plunges to earth, nearly crushing Roy and Monte as they flee their plane’s wreckage. For most films, such a bravura sequence would be the climax, and the quality of special effects on display here is as high as anything Hollywood would see in the next 40 years. My earlier reference to Star Wars wasn’t entirely glib: it’s difficult to watch this scene and not recognise its conceptual influence, whether direct or as distant root, on the Death Star assault that climaxed Lucas’ film. Hell’s Angels shifts focus after an intermission to the Western Front, with the kind of stoic camaraderie that Hemingway was famous for projecting onto postwar civilian life, and which Whale’s stage work Journey’s End had also detailed is the norm. Monte, eaten up, unleashes his angry, sullen, hysterical feelings in a tirade against that code of grace under pressure, an explosion of rhetorical feeling that’s as excruciatingly exposed as a goldfish flapping on the carpet.
Harlow, still a teenager possessing a slightly baby-faced, but defined predatory power, became the star with her speciality for playing vixenish blondes, but she was obviously still learning, and some of the other performances, including the inert Darrow, are unspectacular. Lyons is very much the driving human element in a theatrical but often volubly urgent fashion: moving from the slightly flaky rake of the early scenes to his blistering tirade in the flyers’ mess, he pulls off the mad swings between cool determination, sozzled disinterest, and crumbling character. As stock as the situations are, Hughes and Whale let their actors play them out with a conscious resistance to melodramatic emphases: when Roy discovers that Helen isn’t the woman he thought she was, there’s no subsequent revelation why Monte already knew that. Monte simply drags his brother away and helps him drown his sorrows with clingy French courtesans.
Roy and Monte happen upon Helen making out with drunken abandon with a moustachioed officer in a moment of surprising carnality. When Monte subsequently wants to shirk their duty, his brother at first acquiesces, and finally drunkenly reminds Monte that they’ll be shot if they don’t turn up. They venture into battle sozzled and depressed, a vision of official heroism as adjunct to personal, existential crisis. The actual mission the brothers set off on is a virtual suicide jaunt to bomb a German arms depot as a prelude to a big push that might work with the ammunition supply suddenly curtailed. The duo are given a captured German Gotha bomber, with all the speed and manoeuvrability in the air of a flying whale, to penetrate enemy air space, and in an truly epic piece of bad luck, drop their bombs that destroy the enemy depot just as Von Richthofen (Wilhelm von Brincken) and his Flying Circus are flying by.
What follows is an amazing piece of cinema, both in concept and execution, as the German pilots circle the bomber tauntingly, a frantic Monte battling them off as Roy tries to drive the cumbersome machine toward their oncoming friends in their squadron: the fighters run interference as the bomber tries to make it to the end-zone, and Roy and Monte’s likably eccentric squadron pal Baldy Maloney (Roy Wilson) does desperate battle with a German lieutenant, Von Bruen (Frank Clarke), who fixes upon the bomber. When the two sides collide (some literally), all hell breaks loose in a sequence that resembles the eye-popping drive of modern special-effects cinema without special effects, but it still runs on the same sense of quicksilver, observant detail as other parts of the film: a pilot takes a quick nip of courage from a secreted bottle as he’s being chased down, another waves farewell to the man who just shot him, and shots that present with surgical detail bullets tearing motors and men apart. Hughes’ constant use of cameras mounted in the nose of the aircraft makes it a relentlessly experiential affair, as the dying pilots spit blood or cry in agony as their planes spiral madly to earth, sun and sky turning into abstract maelstroms. In cumulative effect, it’s less a standard action sequence than a scene squarely in a tradition of the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998), trying to both thrill and horrify in accounting war as a fundamental process of intimate destruction. Hughes’ approach is made all the more intense by the lack of trick photography, and the obvious guts of the men doing this stuff. Pilots are riddled with bullets, roasted alive, and plunge pell-mell into the earth, including one jaw-dropping stunt Hughes finished up doing himself because none of the other pilots, many of whom were real veterans of the war’s aerial battles, would dare it; Hughes ended up crashing, receiving only minor injuries. Finally, Baldy manages to best the German pursuing his comrades, only for Von Richthofen, circling with Olympian interest in the contest, to swoop in and finish the bomber off.
The finale offers one of those wickedly intense moral quandaries that often arise in the war movie, as Roy and Monte, taken captive by the Germans, are faced with being shot quickly unless they spill the beans about where the upcoming attack will fall: for a final fateful joke, their interrogator proves to be Baron Von Kranz, who suggests the far less romanticised, more serpentine and aggressively purposeful twin to the humane Prussian Junker Erich Von Stroheim would later play in La Grande Illusion (1937). Monte, unable to cope with the fear of death, wants to spill the beans, so Roy cleverly manipulates Von Kranz into giving him a gun to kill Monte to cover up his own intended treachery. Considering how much of the film has equated war with sex and fidelity, both adventure and trial by combat, it finally segues into equating it with acts of familial loyalty. The story resolves in the gruesome spectacle of Roy shooting his brother in the back in what is finally more a mercy killing—Monte is happy he’s been saved from his own worst impulse—than fratricide, and the act of brotherly love is equated with what the two finally extract from their sacrifice, the chance for their brothers in arms to avoid being slaughtered. A final glimpse of victory partly mediates the bleakly deadpan shot of a depressed and sourly acquiescent Von Kranz, in his office, listening as Roy is marched out to meet his own deliverance, having proven that his own values were worth something, at the highest possible personal price. Over 80 years later, Hell’s Angels remains visceral, thrilling, and damn entertaining.