TNR Film Classic: 'Hell's Angels' (October 1, 1930)

by Malcolm Cowley | June 11, 2011

Hell’s Angels, according to the unexpectedly accurate statement of its corps of press agents, is “the most pretentious spectacle ever produced.” It cost four million dollars. It took four years to write and film. The producer and director, Mr. Howard Hughes, assembled for it the largest fleet of aircraft ever brought together by an individual—a larger air force than is possessed by the governments of many great countries. In an aerial conflict between Mr. Hughes and China, between Mr. Hughes and the Argentine Republic, between Mr. Hughes and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, it is conceivable that Mr. Hughes would be the victor. He staged such a battle in the skies, a dog fight between twenty-five Fokkers on the one hand and twenty-five British S.E.-5’s and Sopwith Camels on the other. It was perhaps larger and certainly more sensational than any actual air engagement on the Western front. The picture of which it is the climax is one that “tops the world”; it is “breathtaking, stupendous, everything imaginable.” It took no less than four years to write and produce. It cost four million dollars.

I have often seen advertisements of motor cars on which all the resources of a great corporation were lavished. Their seven-bearing crankshafts were designed and equilibrated by experts after thirty years of experiment. Their eight or sixteen cylinders were fashioned by machines more complicated than the human brain. Their upholstery was copied from fabrics preserved in the great museums of Europe. And cradled on this upholstery, directing the power of these eight or sixteen cylinders, were human beings so stiff, so empty, so inane, that they seemed to be merely the by-product of some imperfect machine. I have seen Broadway at night, with fifty thousand wan faces under the splendid glow of the Neon lights. Hell’s Angels is like Broadway; it is like a Cadillac or a Lincoln crowded with imbeciles.

It is a film in which machines are the heroes and villains. Every expense is lavished upon them; their authenticity is guaranteed. The airplanes, many of which survived the minor battles of Picardy and Flanders before being heroically wrecked in the California clouds—the Sopwiths and Fokkers and Avros are all of the types really used in the War. The dirigible so sensationally destroyed is an exact reproduction of one downed over Calais. The machine guns are real machine guns, the bombs are real bombs, the drum of motors is the drum of genuine motors. But the actors themselves are false, puny, inadequate, the only real automatons in a world of vital steel.

 

The people are incredible—but after spending so much money on a real dog fight in the air, why should the producer waste other months and millions on the details of a pillow fight at Oxford? What does it matter if the students there are made to act like fraternity boys in a cow-country college? Why shouldn’t British officers at mess be given chuck-wagon manners and the accents of the South Brooklyn waterfront: who really cares? Why shouldn’t a splendid Hollywood orgy take place in a village behind the lines? All these minor errors will be forgotten in the tictac of genuine machine guns overhead and the sight of raw death tearing the nerves like bullets tearing the fuselage.

 

The story “distinguished by its originality and historic fidelity”—the story doesn’t matter. It is about two Oxford men, brothers with round American faces, and a platinum blonde from Kansas City, “strikingly beautiful and only nineteen years old,” who doesn’t bother at all to act like an English lady. There is a lot of sex stuff, a lot of thrill stuff, a lot of expensive photography, and finally both brothers die in the best theatrical tradition. It isn’t much of a story. But behind its confused and mechanical details, there is the private drama—now rendered public—of its producer, director and angel.

 

Consider the case of Mr. Howard Hughes, aged twenty-four, the inheritor of Texas millions and a representative of the class which everyone thinks should produce new Romans with all their Suetonian vices—but which so rarely does! Mr. Hughes is unexpectedly true to the cult of the Twelve Caesars. Like Nero, he has a strain of the artist in his nature: he has spent four of his brief years and four of his Texas millions in producing a “dream picture” which Nero would have admired. Like Tiberius and Domitian, he seems to delight in the spectacle of death: at least we are privileged to draw this inference from Hell’s Angels. It is full of deaths: men dying in surprise, dying in wooden discipline, dying in remorse, or in shrieks of impotent rage, or in a last suicidal act of defiance that stretches through a hundred feet of film. This evening in the American theater is more crowded with corpses than was ever the Colosseum. To all these deaths, however, Mr. Hughes has added a feature significant of advancing civilization.

 

They are symbolic. . . . In very early times, a living representative of Adonis was crucified or torn by wild boars in order to restore the fertility of the earth. A living victim was cast into the sea to appease the storms that threatened the fishing fleet. Later, the god died only in mimicry and the waves were asked to accept an image. Tiberius, Caligula, Domitian were primitive rulers in that they required real victims to die a visible death. Mr. Hughes belongs to our own perfected era. Watching Hell’s Angels, we have the pleasing assurance that these aviators are acting death for wages, that soon they will be drinking, not mead out of skulls, but soda-pop, that this burning Zeppelin is empty of human freight, that our blood lust is being satisfied symbolically—and with dividends to the producer who hired the symbols, who set them in authentic machines, who flew about them directing the fictitious details of their agony. Hell’s Angels is the realization of a Neronian dream. It is a vicious picture, too, but not for this reason. It is vicious because it is anti-human—because the people who enact these simulacra of death are themselves only the simulacra of people.

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