Hell's Angels could have been a masterpiece. Or at least a 'great flawed film' according to Truffaut's characterization of Marnie. Unfortunately it is neither, for too many indecisive compromises between discordant directions eventually make for a disjointed, self-contradictory work. However, it remains a fascinating thing to watch, and not only because of schadenfreude (since it is a failure of such epic proportions that only true hubris can achieve). It is the clashing of two powerful undercurrents that make it at the same time baffling and fruitful.
The most obvious of these streams is that of the spectacular. It is, of course, striking in the two 'action' sequences. Both the attack on the airship bomber and the large-scale sky battle bring combat on film to unprecedented, grandiose levels. Maybe, the dogfights in Wings were more accurate in their restraint; maybe, the editing of the aerial scenes in The Dawn Patrol was better from a narrative point of view. Yet, neither are as outrageously extravagant as Hell's Angels.
Battle in the sky
Naturally, Hugues overdoes it. A suicide RAF pilot destroying an airship manned by German lemmings? Seriously. And in the last battle, the conspicuous risks taken by the actual pilots don't mix well with the dramatization of deaths. But the same stream flows in the veins of the scenes with women. Jean Harlow may be a poor British heiress, but she's a formidable slut in her actual late-twentyish clumsiness; and the two French prostitutes are too bad not to be true. One has to pay tribute to Mr. Hugues in admitting that sometimes, on screen, nothing succeeds like excess. Be it at the price of indigestion.
The second undercurrent is more discreet, as its attempts to burst on the surface are repeatedly blocked by correctness. Hell's Angels often develops a neurotic, desperate atmosphere, which probably shows best in Ben Lyon's character. Was it Howard Hughes, was it James Whale? Hard to say. Nevertheless, the total inadequacy of the younger brother's hedonism with the war is quite moving, and the gloom is reinforced by the older brothers' useless sense of morality.
Fools, what are you fighting for?
Yet, while those two men being on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the middle of a war should have lead to a series of fantastic disasters (of the Dr. Strangelove kind), it unfortunately always deflates in patriotic endings. The same phenomenon shows in the 'soapbox scene': the anarchist's rant is delivered quite convincingly, and then nullified by a line that makes the whole moment almost nihilistic. Furthermore, neither depression nor anti-war sentiment do blend well with the unabashed exhilaration of the spectacular moments, much as if Hell's Angels were two different films.
The inner contradictions of the movie shouldn't be dismissed, as they seriously undermine its overall quality. Certainly, the hectic conditions in which the production took place had serious consequences, but clearly the film not knowing where it was going wasn't due to technical issues. Its contradictions are deeply human in nature. They're the reason why this puzzling film has inspired great filmmakers in the second half of the Xxth century, somehow encouraged to solve the inconsistencies; and the reason why watching Hell's Angels is still a unique experience today.
Hell's Angels at imdb
DVD edition (Universal)