View Mobile Site

From the film archives: Aviator action, brotherly tale reign in 'Hell's Angels'

POSTED: May 22, 2014 1:00 a.m.

“Hell’s Angels” has everything it needs to be a great modern war film.

War, women and patriotic sacrifice, all accompanied by a generous dose of action, make this 1930 film one of the most iconic of its time. And it is no less entertaining today.

“Hell’s Angels” was the first movie directed and produced by Howard Hughes, the famed aviation enthusiast and eccentric, and features some of the most expensive flight sequences of the period.

The movie centers around two brothers attending Oxford University who enlist in the Royal Flying Corps after the breakout of World War I.

Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy (James Hall) Rutledge, while close, couldn’t be more different. Roy is the always loyal, dutiful soldier, while Monte is a womanizer who only enlisted because he was promised a kiss from a girl if he did.

This contrast facilitates a modernist interpretation of war. Monte frequently fears battle and laments the pointlessness of it all, while Roy calms his brother down and makes sure they perform their duty.

However, while Roy is the war-savvy brother, he lacks insight when it comes to women. Roy’s relationship with Helen (Jean Harlow), a beautiful but flighty socialite, is one of the primary conflicts of the movie. Monte, who has a brief affair with Helen, warns Roy there is nothing to gain from the relationship. But Roy remains blinded by devotion.

Everything comes to a head on the evening before the brothers embark on a dangerous mission to bomb a German munitions depot when Roy finds Helen in a bar fooling around with a British officer.

Following the bombing, Roy and Monte are captured by enemy troops. Charged as spies, the two are forced to choose between execution and turning over British military secrets. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a fitting and emotional conclusion.

Though sufficiently dramatic, Helen’s story line is my biggest gripe with Hell’s Angels. It seems every female character in the movie is disloyal and manipulative, serving no purpose but to reinforce women cannot be trusted. Monte sums up the mentality in two lines: “Listen, Roy, never love a woman. Just make love to her.”

That single complaint aside, Hell’s Angels is a fantastic movie. The dogfight scenes are nothing short of spectacular, despite being shot in black and white. Most of the stunts were performed by World War I pilots, three of whom died during production. Hughes himself crashed a plane while attempting a maneuver.

Even compared to modern big-budget action films, “Hell’s Angels” manages to wow audiences. Its dark depictions of battles and despondent relationships are more akin to an Ernest Hemingway novel than to other classic films.

With Memorial Day on Monday and the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I only two months away, I highly recommend giving this movie a look.

“Hell’s Angels” is more than two hours long. It isn’t available on any major streaming platforms such as Netflix, but it can be purchased on DVD from Amazon for $9.86.


Contents of this site are © Copyright 2010 The Times, Gainesville, GA. All rights reserved. Privacy policy and Terms of service

Powered by
Morris Technology
Please wait ...