“Listen, Roy, never love a woman. Just make love to her.”
Hell’s Angels is pushing 90 years old, but I know a little a bit about it without ever having seen it. I know professional billionaire and amateur piss collector Howard Hughes directed it. I know he almost finished it once as a silent picture, then scrapped it and started again when talkies became all the rage. I know several stunt pilots were killed during the filming of the movie and that Howard Hughes himself got seriously injured in a plane crash when he had a crack at a stunt that no one else would even attempt.
What I didn’t know, is anything about the story or the stars. Which can often mean nothing good. If the making of the movie and everything behind the scenes are notorious, while the finished product isn’t very talked about, the finished product can’t be all that good, right? But still, Hell’s Angels holds an important enough place in film history, that even if the actual movie wasn’t anything great, I felt like I still needed to see it.
In Germany before the First World War, two English brothers, Roy (James Hall) and Monte (Ben Lyon) are living a pretty carefree life, with their German mate, Karl (John Darrow). But when Germany declares war on France, the two Brits know their time in the Fatherland is numbered. Especially once Karl is conscripted into the German Air Force.
Back home in England, the noble Roy is quick to enlist in the Royal Air Force out of his pure sense of duty, while the knock about louse Monte enlists just to get a kiss out of a girl at the recruitment office. The brothers become flying aces and a great team in the air. But things get complicated on the ground when the sexy Helen (Jean Harlow) comes in between them.
Reading about Hell’s Angles while I watched, my fears were somewhat justified when almost every article focused on the making of notoriety of the movie, and only ever mentioned the story and actors when taking shots at how clichéd and hammy they were. But I have to say, based on my not too limited experience with this era of film making, it all seemed kind of par for the course to me. The story is clichéd, the acting is hammy, but it’s what stories and acting were at the dawn of sound in cinema.
But none of that matters, because it’s all just an excuse to get to what Howard Hughes did best, film aerial stunts and acrobatics. The dog fights in Hell’s Angels are almost as good as anything done half a century later in Top Gun. And better than all of the fake, CGI stuff done in the last 20 or so years. Knowing that everything on screen was performed by real pilots in real, period accurate planes, makes every dive, strafe and barrel roll all the more impressive, and the story all the more compelling. So, I guess in the end, knowing all of that behind the scenes stuff made me enjoy Hell’s Angels more.