Hell's Angels Review

I think it’s fair to say that more people have heard of Hell’s Angels than have actually seen it. This is largely because of the extraordinary career of its progenitor, Howard Hughes. Already something of a legend in the mid-1920s, Hell’s Angels was meant to be the film to end all films, the work which would establish him as a force to be reckoned with in the movie business. But the film, budgeted at over three million dollars, flopped at the box office and while it added to Hughes’ legend as a profligate enfant terrible, it wasn’t until his production of Scarface in 1932 that he became a significant power in Hollywood.

In many ways, the story behind the film is a lot more interesting than the film itself and many people watching for the first time will be doing so because of Martin Scorsese’s Hughes biopic The Aviator which begins with the lengthy shoot of Hell’s Angels. However, it’s so typical of its era that it remains surprisingly watchable. The story centres around three friends, two British and one German, who find themselves on opposite sides when the world slides headlong into war in 1914. The brothers, Monte (Lyon) and Roy (Hall), become involved with Helen (Harlow), a society blonde who loves Monte but can’t resist playing around with his brother. Entering the air force, Monte reveals himself to be a coward and Roy is required to protect him. Meanwhile, on the other side, Karl (Darrow), finds it hard to adjust his attitudes, especially when called upon to fly a Zeppelin mission over London.

The plot is melodramatic and banal in the extreme but that’s not unusual for early sound films where the great leaps forward made by silent cinema in terms of complexity were soon abandoned in favour of stories which lent themselves to recorded dialogue. The characters frequently seem to talk endlessly to little effect and the first half contains scenes of stultifying boredom, relieved only by Jean Harlow’s explosive sex appeal. Yet somehow this doesn’t matter because part of the charm of early sound cinema is in seeing how the limitations are overcome. Although the dialogue is grim, the conversation scenes do feature a reasonable amount of camera movement, even if this means that the characters have to congregate around props which are rather obviously concealed microphones. It’s worth pointing out that the dialogue scenes were shot by James Whale, the brilliant English director who next began work on Frankenstein, by which time his daring disregard for the accepted limits of sound cinema was virtually complete.

James Whale was one of five directors who worked on the film, although the only credited director is Howard Hughes. The main reason for this, other than Hughes’s rampant egotism, is that Hell’s Angels was actually made twice. It was originally produced between 1925 and 1927 as a silent picture. But the sound revolution introduced by Warner Brothers in The Jazz Singer made Hughes think again. Deciding to re-shoot the film as a talking picture, he was able to keep his male leads but had a problem with his female star. Greta Nissen was originally cast as Helen but she was Norwegian and her accent made her unsuitable for the talking version. A search was conducted for a suitable replacement and eventually Jean Harlow got the part, although Hughes was never particularly enamoured with her. He placed her under an exclusive contract but failed to use her significantly in any other film and ended up selling her to MGM for $60,000. Considering that she subsequently became the nation’s favourite sex siren, this is an early example of Hughes’s poor judgement. In addition to having little interest in his actors, Hughes was not a fan of the theatre and regarded speech as a job for a lesser director. Consequently, Whale was left to direct the dialogue and gain crucial experience for his later career. The three other directors, Edmund Goulding, Marshall Neilan and Luther Reed, were responsible for various other parts of the re-shoot but it’s difficult to tell who did what.

In many ways, the film still feels like a silent picture. This is partly because the acting, typically for the time, is often exaggerated to the point of unintentional comedy. But mostly it’s because the best scenes are almost entirely visual or in German, thus featuring silent-picture type intertitles. However critical one might be of the dialogue sequences, it’s hard to do anything but sit open-mouthed in astonishment at the quality of the action set-pieces. There’s a brief example early in the film; an early morning duel which is tinted in blue and looks quite divine. This blue tinting recurs later on in the well known Zeppelin sequence which is brilliantly choreographed and beautifully atmospheric. The huge airship glides through the clouds, menacing and elegant, and the sheer kinetic excitement of aviation immediately comes to life. Hughes’s monomaniacal insistence on finding the right clouds to use as a background pays dividends here and the sequence is tense and gorgeous to look at. The editing is also impressive, not least because of the 249:1 ratio of film shot to finished print. Some of the claustrophobia later exploited (in a nautical vein) by Wolfgang Petersen in Das Boot is present in the Zeppelin scenes and the sense of divided loyalties and lost honour are eloquently evoked. This sequence lasts over fifteen minutes and remains riveting seventy- five years later. The subsequent dogfight sequences, featuring many real RAF and German fighter planes, are equally impressive with a sense of imminent danger that is compounded by the knowledge that three pilots died in crashes while shooting the film and at least one sequence was so dangerous that Hughes had to go up and do it himself when the stunt pilots refused – an insistence that brought him a crash and several broken bones. These scenes emphasise once and for all why physical action is always preferable to the dubious miracles of CGI – there’s a sense of weight and presence that no computer graphics can possibly match.

Hell’s Angels is often very stodgy and it’s made even more so when you compare it to one of the very best late silent pictures like Murnau’s Sunrise, a film which uses cinema as an evanescent dream which has the power to suspend reality. But it’s also an ambitious and engaging film, packed with points of interest. Apart from Jean Harlow’s first appearance – and she’s dynamite to look at, even if you might find yourself squirming at her baby-doll voice - there are several technical innovations and an eight minute sequence at an army ball filmed in that ghostly two-strip Technicolor which now seems even more removed from our experience than monochrome. It’s also interesting to see such an overwhelmingly cynical attitude towards war, something which is very much the product of its time but also seems alarmingly modern. The language and blatant sexuality are also very obviously of the time immediately before Joseph Breen clamped down upon such things. It’s also worth seeing as the first sound blockbuster and, indeed, the first sound mega-flop. It cost $3.8 million and is reputed to have lost Hughes at least a million dollars of his own money. But it’s firmly in the tradition of grand cinematic follies and anyone interested in the development of motion pictures will find a lot to interest them here.

The Disc

Considering that The Aviator is currently doing very well at the box office, it’s hard to imagine a better time to release Hell’s Angels in a feature packed special edition which makes the most of the extraordinary story behind the film. Sadly, Universal obviously felt differently and the film arrives on DVD in a barebones edition which has no special features at all.

Luckily, the transfer is extremely good. Now this has to be placed in context. No film from 1930 is likely to look as spotless as a recent blockbuster and if you’re expecting a crystal clear visual experience then you’ll be disappointed. But the UCLA team who worked on this restoration have done a very fine job. The greys are nicely graded and there’s a good level of contrast. Blacks are usually satisfyingly deep. The 2 strip Technicolor sequence looks remarkably good with the limited palate of colours well transferred.

The soundtrack is two channel mono. It’s very typical for a film from the early sound period with a fair amount of hiss and some crackling. But the dialogue is clear and considering the murky mess that passes for a soundtrack on some cheap editions of films such as White Zombie, it’s pretty damned impressive.

There are no extras at all on the disc. The film is accompanied by optional English subtitles.

Hell’s Angels has probably never looked better than it does on this DVD. It’s a shame that no extra features have been provided to put the film in its proper context but it’s still well worth a look.

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