No one was surprised in 1929 that aviation mogul Howard R. Hughes would produce a paean to World War I flying aces like Hell's Angels. Given Hughes' comparative inexperience as a moviemaker, however, everyone was taken slightly aback that the finished film was as good as it was.
The very American Ben Lyon and James Hall play (respectively) Monte and Roy Rutledge, a couple of British brothers who drop out of Oxford to join the British Royal Flying Corps. Several early scenes establish Lyon and Hall's romantic rivalry over two-timing socialite Helen (Jean Harlow).
While flying a dangerous bombing mission over Germany, the brothers are shot down. The commandant (Lucien Prival), who'd earlier been cuckolded by one of the brothers, savors his opportunity for revenge. He offers the boys their freedom if they'll reveal the time of the next British attack; if they don't cooperate, they face unspeakable consequences.
Roy, driven mad by his combat experiences, is about to tell all when he is shot and killed by Monte. The latter is himself condemned to a firing squad by the disgruntled commandant -- who, it is implied, will soon meet his own doom at the hands of the British bombers.
Nobody really cares about this hoary old plot, however; Hell's Angels culls most of its strength from its crackerjack aerial sequences. The highlight is a Zeppelin raid over London, one of the most hauntingly effective sequences ever put on film.
From the first ghost-like appearance of the Zeppelin breaking through the clouds, to the self-sacrificing behavior of the German crew members as they jump to their deaths rather than provide excess weight, this is a scene that lingers in the memory far longer than all that good-of-the-service nonsense in the finale.
Also worth noting is the star-making appearance of Jean Harlow. When Hell's Angels was begun as a silent film, Norwegian actress Greta Nissen played the female lead. During the switchover to sound, producer Hughes decided that her accent was at odds with her characterization, so he reshot her scenes with his latest discovery, Harlow.
While she appears awkward in some of her scenes, there's no clumsiness whatsoever in her delivery of the classic line about slipping into something more comfortable.
Originally, Marshall Neilan was signed to direct the film, but became so rattled by Howard Hughes' interference that he handed the reins to Hughes himself, who was in turn given an uncredited assist by Luther Reed.
Also ignored in the film's credits are the dialogue contributions by future Frankenstein director James Whale, who'd been hired as the film's English-dialect coach.
Modern audiences expecting a musty museum piece are generally surprised by Hell's Angels' high entertainment content: they are also startled by the pre-code frankness of the dialogue, with phrases like The hell with you bandied about with reckless abandon.
In recent years, archivists have restored the film's two-color Technicolor sequence, providing us with our only color glimpses of the radiant Jean Harlow.