Hell’s Angels (1930): Great Action, Decent Leads But Uneven

Hells Angels poster

     The film “The Aviator” lead me to check out “Hell’s Angels” as the first part of the film is Howard Hughes making this film. I got to say, it is a great film but it isn’t a favorite. It has some character issues that keep it from perfection, though visually it’s stunning and the ending is powerful. This is a film, like any good war film that explores the cost of war and what it means to be a person having to make though choices within it.

     The film was directed by Howard Hughes who also produced it with uncredited directorial help from James Whale, Edmund Goulding and Fred Fleck. and was written by Harry Behn, Howard Estabrook and Joseph Moncure March.

     The story involves brothers Roy (James Hall) and Monte (Ben Lyon) who are pulled into World War I as pilots and called upon a special bombing run they may not come back from. As each has his own reasons for taking the suicide mission.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry did a great job with the cinematography. There is great use of color to show conflict as well as great use of clouds for the shadows of war. The cinematography is easily the strongest part of this film.

The Three Leads – The three leads are the strongest part as each of them feels fully defined and should have received more development. Their interactions are what really made the film for me outside of the actions.

Karl – Karl is a German student going to Oxford who ends up becoming part of the German Army during the war. He ends up being sacrificed by his commanding officer after he bombs England when his Captain is trying to escape. His story is a tragedy as he described himself as more English than anything else and you could see how his duty was killing him before his Captain finally did. John Darrow does a good job.

Roy – Roy is the womanizer who doesn’t see anything deeper beyond experiencing the now. He only cares about Monte but even that only goes so far as at his base he just wants to live. We see him experiment with anarchy at one point before he joins the suicide mission to destroy the German Munitions factory. In the end Monte kills him when he is about to confess the military plans to the German Captain who has them captured. James Hall does a good job.

Monte – Monte is the hero who is the way he is because he needs surety. That is destroyed when he finds out that Helen’s been cheating on him but he comes back for the mission and is so by the book he kills Roy when Roy is about to confess the plans. In the end he dies alone calling out his brothers name though his sacrifice made England assaulting German headquarters possible. Ben Lyon is the best actor in this.

The Cost of a Mission – We see the human cost through everything that goes down. From Roy giving up, Karl being sacrificed and all the folks who die in the battles we see through the war. The cost is always there even when victory happens.

Loss – The three leads die and show the tragedy of war and how the three friends who could have grown old together had it cut short when they became tools of something bigger them.

The Cons: Helen – She sleeps around and cheats on Monte and that is the extent of her character. She’s a plot device that is never allowed to come into her own and have her own motivations.

Lack of Focus – This mostly applies to the battles which often times go on way too long. This film could have been cut if the battles had been cut in half, they purposes are achieved and when we get back to the characters the story is back in focus, but before that the story takes a lot of side detours for action.

   This is a great film that is worth checking out, though I wouldn’t call it a favorite or perfect. It explores a lot of themes that give it a lot of power, but the romantic lead just being selfish and given no depth hurt the story as did the fact that some fight scenes kept going on and took us away from the human drama of the brothers and their friend Karl.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

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