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Hell's Angels
cast: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow, John Darrow, and Lucien Prival

director: Howard Hughes

127 minutes (PG) 1930
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
One of Hughes' early ventures into film, this focuses on two brothers, Roy and Monte Rutledge as they enter the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. Monte is a well meaning ne'er do well whilst Roy is a high-minded, valorous man who continually cleans up his brother's messes.

Hell's Angels occupies a fascinating position in cinema history. Begun as a silent film it was changed to take advantage of the new technology and as a result, the script is a hybrid of the two forms. In fact, some of the most interesting scenes remain the ones that were written for silent film. The opening duel, shot in colour, is an almost minimalist piece of cinema whilst the astonishing zeppelin sequence, again shot in deep blue, is the highlight of the film.

Monte and Roy's squadron is sent to intercept a Zeppelin on a bombing run, unaware of the fact that the bombardier is their old student friend and opponent of the war, Karl Armstedt (John Darrow). The acting alone is fascinating; with the Zeppelin crew swaggering around and all making huge gestures, clearly acting for the silent screen. It gives the sequence a nightmarish quality, made all the more effective by Karl's presence in a tiny car suspended beneath the Zeppelin targeting the bombs. As the planes close in, the scene balances tragedy with heroism in an incredibly sophisticated manner. It's easy to forget this film is over 70 years old especially when the narrative is handled, at times like this, significantly better than a lot of modern films. In fact, the special effects are consistently amazing. The zeppelin sequence aside, the closing dogfight is superbly staged, location shooting combining with model work to great effect. Technically, this is a vastly impressive film even now.

The performances however, are where the film really shows its roots. There's a theatricality to how the actors perform that shows how used they are to working in silence. Gestures are overblown and emotions expressed to the point of caricature, in particular in the second half of the film when the action moves to France. By the time the Rutledge brothers are drowning their sorrows in a French bar with ladies of ill repute draped over them the film has descended into near-operatic levels of emotion.

This aside, there are some genuinely affecting moments in the film. Monte's descent into cynicism and hysteria is well acted by Lyon, his transformation from fly-by-night to world-weary cynic never less than believable. Similarly, Hall movingly portrays the constant battering Roy's innocence and decency receives. It would be all too easy for Roy to be the saintly figure of the film but instead he comes across as a good man in a bad situation and as a result, at times, genuinely heroic. His scenes with a wonderfully spiky Jean Harlow are particularly good.

Whilst the film has some problems, most notably the hugely stereotypical portrayal of the Germans, Hell's Angels is a fascinating piece of cinema. With one foot in the silent camp and one in the talkies, it shows not only what was to come for film but also how much modern cinema still owes to the past.
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