HELL’S ANGELS is a 1930 American war film, directed and produced by Howard Hughes and starring Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon, and James Hall. The film, which was produced by Hughes and written by Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook, centers on the combat pilots of World War I. It was released by United Artists and, despite […]
HELL’S ANGELS is a 1930 American war film, directed and produced by Howard Hughes and starring Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon, and James Hall. The film, which was produced by Hughes and written by Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook, centers on the combat pilots of World War I. It was released by United Artists and, despite its initial poor performance at the box office, eventually earned its production costs twice over. Controversy during the Hell’s Angels production contributed to the film’s notoriety, including the accidental deaths of several pilots, an inflated budget, a lawsuit against a competitor (The Dawn Patrol), and repeated postponements of the release date.
Originally shot as a silent film, Hughes retooled the film over a lengthy gestation period. Most of the film is in black and white, but there is one color sequence – the only color footage of Harlow’s career. Hell’s Angels is now hailed as one of the first sound blockbuster action films.
Roy (James Hall) and Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon) are very different British brothers. Strait-laced Roy loves and idealizes the apparently demure Helen (Jean Harlow). Monte, on the other hand, is a womanizer. Their German friend and fellow Oxford student Karl (John Darrow) is aghast at the idea of having to fight England when World War I breaks out.
Meanwhile, the oblivious Monte is caught in the arms of a woman by her German officer husband (Lucien Prival), who insists upon a duel the next day. Monte flees that night. When Roy is mistaken for his brother, he goes ahead with the duel and is shot in the arm.
Karl is conscripted into the German Air Force, and the two British brothers enlist in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Monte only to get a kiss from a girl at the recruiting station.
When Roy finally introduces Monte to Helen, she invites Monte to her flat. Monte tries to rebuff her advances for his brother’s sake, but gives in. The next morning, however, he is for once ashamed of himself.
Meanwhile, Karl is an officer aboard a Zeppelin airship sent to bomb Trafalgar Square, London. As the bombardier-observer, he is lowered below the clouds in a spy basket. He deliberately guides the Zeppelin over water, where the bombs have no effect. Four RFC fighters are sent to intercept the Zeppelin. Roy pilots one, with Monte as his gunner. To gain altitude more quickly, the airship commander (Carl von Haartman) orders everything possible be jettisoned. When that is not enough, he decides to sacrifice Karl by cutting the cable that secures his pod. He then accepts the advice of another officer; the officer and other crewmen obediently leap to their deaths “for Kaiser and fatherland”. German machine gunners shoot down three aircraft; Roy and Monte survive a crash landing. After his machine guns jam or run out of ammunition, the last British pilot aloft dives his fighter into the dirigible, sending it crashing in a blazing fireball. The brothers narrowly avoid the debris.
Later, in France, Monte is branded a coward for shirking his duty when his replacement is shot down in his place. When a Staff Colonel asks for two volunteers for a suicide mission, Roy and Monte step up. They are to destroy a vital enemy munitions depot their squadron had tried to blow up for days. They will sneak in using a captured German bomber the next morning so that a British brigade will have a chance in their otherwise hopeless afternoon attack.
That night, Roy discovers Helen in a nightclub with Captain Redfield. When he tries to take her home, she turns on him, revealing that she never loved him, that she was, in fact, not the young innocent he believed her to be. Devastated, Roy joins Monte for some carousing. Monte decides not to go on the mission and nearly persuades Roy to do the same, but in the end, Roy drags Monte back to the airfield.
The raid on the German munitions dump is successful. However, they are spotted in the act by a flight of German fighters from the Flying Circus, led by Manfred von Richthofen. Monte defends the bomber with a machine gun until their squadron arrives, and a dogfight breaks out. Their buddy “Baldy” shoots down the one German who is still targeting the bomber, but then von Richhtofen swoops in and shoots the brothers down. They are captured.
They are given the option of talking or facing a firing squad by none other than Roy’s old dueling opponent. Monte decides to save his life. Unable to change his brother’s mind, Roy convinces Monte that he should speak with the German general alone. He offers to tell what he knows on condition that there is no witness to his treason. The general is persuaded to give him a pistol (with one bullet) to kill Monte. Roy fails to get Monte to do the right thing, and has no choice but to shoot his brother in the back. Afterward, Roy is executed. The British attack gets off to a successful start.