Young millionaire Howard Hughes was only 23-years-old when he started shooting his most famous film, Hell’s Angels, in 1927. This World War I epic would become one of the most expensive films ever made and one of the lengthiest productions ever – it took three years and cost $4 million. Its story revolves around two British air fighters, brothers Monte and Roy Rutledge (Ben Lyon and James Hall, respectively). Roy is an idealist and a romantic, while Monte is a womanizer who is skeptical of politics and war.
Just as the film was about the be released, The Jazz Singer swept the film industry off its feet by introducing mass audiences to motion pictures with synchronized sound. Sound-film would become the norm and after a disappointing preview screening, Hughes decided not to give up on Hell’s Angels and resume the production in order to adjust it to the new technological advancements. The aerial battle sequences could be dubbed in post-production but the dialogue scenes would have to be reshot, which meant that a new screenplay had to be written. Hughes hired James Whale to direct them. Whale apparently hated the original story and ordered for drastic changes to be made. It’s very likely that, although he remained uncredited, it was his introduction to the project that brought on changes to the film’s examination of masculinity and heroism that remain compelling to this day.
Though the film is praised for its spectacular battle scenes, the thematic aspects of Hell’s Angel are well worth discussing. Jean Harlow, an 18-year-old platinum blonde who was then unknown, was hired to replace original leading lady Greta Nissen, whose accent was too heavy. The sexually-charged presence of Harlow highlights the importance of sex in the movie. By saying “I wanna be free. I wanna be gay and have fun. Life’s short. And I wanna live while I’m alive,” in a film that is unapologetically dominated by a masculine perspective, she also states an acceptance and enjoyment of her role as man’s object of desire. Indeed, through her affairs with men who may be killed at war at any time, she actually plays an active role in the war. In many ways, she is not unlike the sexually active Monte, who tells Roy to “never love a woman. Just make love to her.” Furthermore, by refusing to be a man’s possession, she rebels against the patriarchal system. This is precisely the same thing that Roy does during his outburst against politicians and higher powers who don’t care about sending their men to die. As such, what is remarkably implied by Hell’s Angels is that it is as brave for a woman to be sexually promiscuous as it is brave for a man to rebel against the ideology of war.
There is another type of courage that is examined, more openly, by Hughes’ film: a rational one and an impulsive one. Roy represents the rational courage, the courage of making decisions and taking responsibility; Monte represents the impulsive courage, the courage of doing things without thinking twice about it. This too is represented by their sexuality. (In this sense, the careful wording in Helen’s famous line “would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” must be noted as more than mere provocation.) In an opening scene, before the start of the war, Monte sleeps with a German Baroness and is challenged to a duel Baron von Kranz (Lucien Prival), whom we’ll meet later. The Baron challenges him to a duel, and Monte flees. Roy decides to fight the duel for him, in order to protect his brother’s honour. But Roy’s decision is puzzling and somewhat unnecessary – it is as if he took pleasure in performing such acts of heroism. Meanwhile, it could be argued that Monte too was brave, though irresponsible, in having an affair with a German Baron. Nonetheless, the line between courage and responsibility is often very thin. Remarkably, the film brings these two kinds of courage together in the spectacular final aerial mission. Monte and Roy are on the same plane and both perform tasks that most suit their own rational/impulsive frameworks – Monte is the gunman, while Roy is the pilot. The outcome of the battle, while highlight man’s impossibility to change the course of history while simultaneously encouraging interesting conclusions on its other various themes (echoing, for instance, Helen’s desire to live while she’s alive).
During the filming of Hell’s Angels, Hughes began to learn to fly in a serious way, and allegedly would not ask his pilots to do anything he himself could not do. Despite this, three aviators would die in separate mishaps on set. To make this film, Hughes assembled the world’s largest private air force with 50 vintage airplanes and pilots from four different countries as well as 100 aircraft mechanics. The air battle scenes are spectacular and breathtaking. While Whale overlooked the dialogue sequences, Hughes made sure that the aviation scenes were made just the way he wanted them. His obsessive passion is present in every single frame. There is a sense of perfectionism that can be perceived through the groundbreaking cameraworks (camera angles and placement) and breathtaking choreography of the aircrafts. His choice to let the engines roar throughout these thrilling sequences is equally praiseworthy. In fact, the engines sound like instrumentalists soloing. Could it be that Hughes directed these scenes as if they were lavish and graceful musical numbers? Could it be that Hell’s Angels is a musical of aviation?
Having discussed all these achievements, it’s almost silly to focus on the film’s shortcomings, given the many technical challenges that it had to overcome. The acting is disrupted (sometimes just plain bad), and it’s difficult to believe that the film is set in England due to a remarkable lack of British accents. On the other hand, Hell’s Angels is surprisingly ingenious in unexpected ways: the German villains actually speak German and the gist of their conversations is understood through the occasional title card. It makes sense to highlight this, which may appear to be mere detail, as the outcome far more realistic than the German villains of numerous subsequent movies who spoke English with a borderline comedic German accent. Though it must be said that the melodramatic dimension of the film may appear sluggish, it certainly complements the spectacle of the ambitious battle sequences that are consistently praised. Hughes’ film is certainly one of the first sound action films, but it is also far better than most action movies of contemporary cinema. – ★★★★
HELL’S ANGELS || 1930, USA || Action || Directed by – Howard Hughes (James Whale and Edmond Goulding; uncredited) / Produced by – Howard Hughes / Written by – Harry Behn, Howard Estabrook (Joseph Moncur March; uncredited) / Music by – Hugo Riesenfeld; uncredited / Cinematography – Tony Gaudio, Harry Perry / Edited by – Douglass Biggs, Frank Lawrence, Perry Hollingsworth / Starring – Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow / Running time: 131 mins.