One of the more fascinating movies out there is Hell’s Angels. It’s not just a great movie, there are many aspects to it that make it interesting.

Hell’s Angels came out in 1930, the oldest war movie that I’ve seen. Filming was started in 1927 and was meant to be a silent movie. It was still unfinished when The Jazz Singer released, which is the first movie with sound in America. This marked the ascendancy of “talkies,” putting an end to the silent film era. Hell’s Angels being unfinished then changed course and was converted into a talkie.

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Greta Nissen, a Norwegian-American, was the female lead for the movie until it was switched to sound. She had a Norwegian accent and thus became one of the first casualties of the sound age. They couldn’t have someone with a Norwegian accent playing the part of a British aristocrat so she was replaced with Jean Harlow.

Even today, reshoots and other changes to a movie can start to add up very quickly. I can only imagine that when changing a movie from being silent, which at the time was all anyone knew, to something more ground breaking with sound, it was a struggle. Hell’s Angels was directed and produced by Howard Hughes and he was filthy rich.

How rich was Hughes? Well, the budget for Hell’s Angels was $2.8 million. That’s the equivalent to roughly $50 million today. I understand that is a drop in the bucket when you look at anything coming out of Marvel Studios these days, but Hughes was independent. He produced the movie through The Caddo Company, which he founded.

Another interesting aspect of Hell’s Angels, being that it was released in 1930, was that it was in the sweet spot between the birth of the talkies and the start of the Hays Code. The code basically bonked everyone over the head before dragging them off to horny jail. You can read more about it on our Hollywood History piece about The Studio System.

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As I’ve stated, this is the oldest war movie I have seen, and I find it so interesting that it was made before World War II. I’m sure there are other war movies made during that time, but this stands out. It’s fascinating to watch this movie and think that World War II hadn’t even happened when they were shooting this. Most movies set during World War I that I can think of were made well after WWII.

I find it interesting that information was therefore missing for the cast and crew. Having no idea that a second World War would be coming and how devastating that would be. I’m probably just putting too much thought into it.

This strays more into fact-checking a movie than a review, but there are some compelling things about the movie that I want to address.

Hell’s Angels is a World War I movie about two dissimilar brothers, Roy and Monte Rutledge. They’re played by James Hall and Ben Lyon. I’ve never heard of these actors before seeing this, but they’re both great in their respective roles. Roy is a straight-laced guy that is proper in every way and is in love with Helen, played by the aforementioned Harlow. She puts on an act of being proper for Roy, but she’s anything but.

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Monte on the other hand is a womanizer who likes to party and drink. He’s basically a dude bro if that was a thing in the 1910s. He’s also a little more cowardly than his brother Roy. They both go off to fight in the war as fighter pilots for the Royal Flying Corps. Monte gets suckered into it basically by signing up just to receive a kiss from a random girl at a recruiting station. I’d argue that’s the ultimate simp. Strike that, I don’t want it in my review of Hell’s Angels.

The acting in the movie is kind of strange, which is another aspect I found intriguing. Although there was sound now for dialogue, the actors still emoted in the ways of silent movies. Acting in silent movies isn’t bad, it’s just very different.

Talking in movies is second nature now and only when going back and watching silent movies do you realize how different it was. So a movie like this, although it has sound, the actors don’t seem to know how to act with sound. It’s awkward like the actors just learned how to talk.

The acting is stiff but the performances were still great, especially in that transition period from silent to sound. The acting of the Germans can be off-putting, but it felt like the idea was to make them seem like buffoons and therefore unintentionally funny.

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The movie also had them speaking German. However, subtitles were not a thing so they would use an intertitle, much like in silent movies, to translate what they were saying. It’s a logical concept for the time but because subtitles and sound have been used for so long today it is still a surprise when it happens.

The best part of this movie is the aerial dogfights. You can tell that’s where the money really went on making this movie. There are some intense scenes that could rival some movies even today. Some of the night fight scenes don’t work too well, but it’s forgivable seeing the movie is 91 years old. Outside of that, it still has some of the best action you could ask for.

The movie came out at a pivotal time in history and although Hughes was overbearing during production, he had a vision of what he wanted and did everything to get it. It worked out masterfully as it is one of the best war movies ever made. It broke the mold when filming the aerial dogfights and they are truly top tier. Hughes himself, along with pilot Harry Parry, worked on designing the aerial stunts for the dogfighting scenes.

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Hell’s Angels wasn’t just at the cusp of a new era in movie making with sound, but it was also right there in showing how to create great action and how to depict war on-screen. I can’t help but wonder if it had come out a few years later, what things would have changed about it for the better and for worse.

If you are a fan of war movies or historical movies in general it’s definitely one not to miss. In fact it feels under-represented when talking about great war movies.

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