Sunday, June 11, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Hell's Heroes (1929) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

HELL'S HEROES (1929), directed by the great William Wyler, is one of the earliest surviving films of Peter Kyne's story THREE GODFATHERS.

It's available in a two-disc set from the Warner Archive, along with the 1936 version. The 1936 version was directed by Richard Boleslawski, starring Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, and Walter Brennan.

The story has been filmed multiple times, although at least two silent versions are regarded as lost films. The best-known version is probably John Ford's 1948 filming with John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendariz, which I reviewed last fall after seeing it at the Lone Pine Film Festival.

As HELL'S HEROES began and a trio of outlaws approached the town of New Jerusalem, my mind exploded: There was no mistaking that New Jerusalem was actually Bodie, a Sierra ghost town located not far from Bridgeport, California. We try to visit Bridgeport most summers -- I'll be there in a few days -- and I've been to Bodie numerous times over the course of my life. While Bridgeport was immortalized on film in Jacques Tourneur's OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and NIGHTFALL (1957), I'd never before seen Bodie in a movie.

Bodie, a State Historic Park, has been abandoned and in a state of "arrested decay" for decades, although it was still lightly populated at the time the movie was made. A fire destroyed much of the town just three years after this movie was filmed, and the post office closed in the early months of WWII.

Seeing Bodie as a living, breathing town in this felt something akin to time traveling. My jaw dropped watching Bodie as it looked 90 years ago. I was amazed when the hearse I've seen in the museum came roaring up the street, pulled by two black horses. The church which is a key location in both the opening and closing sequences survived the fire, and I've stood in its doorway many times.

This would not have been an easy location for a movie company to get to. For much of my life, going to Bodie meant 13 miles on a dirt road from the turnoff at Highway 395. A number of years back they finally paved the first 10 miles, so only the last three are dirt. It must have been a rugged trek transporting all the camera and sound equipment over that road in 1920s vehicles. I'm grateful they made the effort, as along with making a very good movie they preserved some unique California history.

I found photos and more information on the filming at Jim Lane's Cinedrome, The Great Silence, and Captive Wild Woman.

As for the movie itself, having seen both this and another early Wyler film, A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931), in the past year or so, I'm of the opinion that Wyler was incapable of making a bad movie.

Many film fans will know the story, about three "bad men" escaping after a robbery who come upon a stranded covered wagon with a woman (Fritzi Ridgeway) about to give birth. She has a baby boy, and before she dies the men commit to seeing her child across the desert to safety. Their commitment will take enormous sacrifice but also provide them with a kind of redemption.

In the Ford version, Wayne, Carey, and Armendariz weren't really all that bad, they were more men who had gone astray. But the bad men played by Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, and Fred Kohler are really bad, especially Bickford. When they come across the wagon, they initially think the woman is just ill and basically argue over who's going to get to have his way with her. Inconveniently for them, she's having a baby.

This is a tough, gritty film which at 68 minutes is also perfectly paced. The Ford version had some fine qualities but it went on far too long, exhausting the audience as the men staggered through the desert. This movie was just right, a compelling saga which knew when it was time to wrap it up.

The three lead actors are all excellent, with Raymond Hatton particularly likeable as "Barbwire," who becomes the baby's advocate.  Hatton appeared in probably scores of Westerns over his long career, with over 400 film and TV credits. Bickford, who I fondly recall from later Westerns such as FOUR FACES WEST (1948) and TV's THE VIRGINIAN, seems impossibly young here, at least until he undergoes a startling physical transformation as he staggers through the desert.

Buck Conners has some great moments as the parson in the opening and closing sequences. He comes out of the church, gun a-blazing, then once he's picked off an outlaw he returns to the man with his Bible. This sequence, with the hearse racing up the street before the man's even dead, is a fantastic piece of filmmaking.

There's also an evocative cantina sequence with dancing by Maria Alba, and look for character actress Mary Gordon in a bit role in the church choir at the end.

The movie was filmed by George Robinson. The Warner Archive print is soft, which is probably not surprising given the film's age, but it's certainly quite watchable. In a strange way the slightly faded print adds to the strong feeling, while watching the film, that one has stepped back in time.

The article at Jim Lane's Cinedrome concurs: "Seen today...the movie's age works for it. The primitive technology of early sound, the rugged conditions on location, the stark frontier setting and the primal power of the story all work together to make HELL'S HEROES feel not like a movie but a relic, in the best sense of the word -- something rare and precious brought back by a time traveler just returned from 1880 or 1900." A beautiful description.

There are no extras on the DVD. As mentioned, the movie is part of a two-film set. I'll be reviewing the 1936 version from the set at a future date.

Update: For more on this fine film, please also see a review by Caftan Woman which was published just a few days ago.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD set. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Jim Lane said...

Thanks, Laura, for linking to Cinedrome in your excellent post on Hell's Heroes (we are of one mind on that unsung classic), and for sharing your own memories of Bodie. However, I ask your readers to see my post in its most recent incarnation at my new location:

The layout of the new site is more stylish and versatile, and the post looks much better there, I think.

Thanks again for the link; I'm honored, and much obliged!

4:57 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

The idea that these two films are available on this set is very exciting. The collector in me is screaming "must have". I love the story and all its filmic incarnations.

Linking to these posts only as more proof, as if any is needed, that in some alternate universe I believe we were separated at birth.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jim, I'm happy to be able to share your post. Thank you so much for providing the update link, I just updated both the links in my post to your newer URL. Thank you!

Caftan Woman, our tastes and reactions are so similar, maybe we really were separated at birth LOL. I'm a regular visitor to your blog but I had not yet seen your post on this film from late May, and I just added a link to the end of my post. I hope reading it will give potential viewers added impetus to check out this terrific film.

Best wishes,

8:43 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

That's so very nice of you to add my link. I wonder if there's a 3 Godfathers cult somewhere that we haven't been told about.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Terrific review, Laura! You make me want (need) to see this 1930 version very soon. It sounds like my kind of film.

My family and I visited Bodie 17 years ago and it was a highlight of our trip. I too was very grateful for those 10 paved miles LOL! I first saw a picture of the town in an article about it in the 1958 Speed's Western Film Annual so it was a dream come true to be there.

Incidentally, I very much look forward to your upcoming review of the 1936 version with Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan, easily my own favourite version of the story (well, so far anyway).

2:29 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

My pleasure, Caftan Woman, happy to spread the word about both the movie and your blog. :)

Jerry, since you've been to Bodie I think I can guarantee this movie will be a "wow" for you. I love that you remember exactly when you read an article about it! And that you live so far away but were able to swing getting there.

I've become quite a Chester Morris fan so I'm looking forward to the 1936 version!

Best wishes,

4:14 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

It doesn't happen too often for me with older films but I do love when I get to see a familiar town or area in an old movie. One of the things that draws me to classic movies is that they are living time capsules of bygone eras. It's very cool that you recognized the town the movie was filmed in!

6:18 AM  

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