Thursday, March 30, 2023

Hell’s Heroes (1929)

Peter Kyne's story Three Godfathers was filmed twice during the silent era. The first sound version was made in 1929. It was adapted again in 1936 and yet again in 1948 (that version being directed by John Ford). It’s the 1929 Universal version, entitled Hell’s Heroes and directed by William Wyler, with which we are concerned in this review.

Three men are headed for the remote desert town of New Jerusalem. They intend to rob the bank. A fourth accomplice is already waiting for them in the town.

The robbery does not go off very successfully. A bank teller is killed and one of the robbers is killed as well. The three survivors make their getaway, but with very little loot to show for their efforts.

Things get worse. They’re caught in a sandstorm. They lose their horses. They’re low on water and all the waterholes are dry. They have quite enough to worry about, and then they find themselves with a baby. And in circumstances in which even three hardbitten outlaws feel they have no choice other than to take responsibility for the infant.

Their problem is that survival is going to be difficult enough for three strong healthy men. The baby’s chances seem slim. The three outlaws face a long long trek through the desert, without food and with their water supply almost exhausted. Even worse, their only chance of finding water is to return to New Jerusalem and they know that as soon as they get there they’ll be hanged. Without the baby they might have a chance of reaching some other source of water, but with the baby there’s no choice at all. To save the baby they will have to return to New Jerusalem.

The original novel dates from 1913. Assuming that the novel follows the basic story outline of the movie it’s easy to see why it would have appealed to readers at the time. It’s a story about redemption and sacrifice, a tale of three bad men who discover inner reserves of decency and nobility. It has a very Victorian vibe. It’s also a story dripping in sentimentality. My problem in dealing with this movie is that this is just not the type of story that appeals to me. I have a major problem with sentimentality.

The movie tries to combine that basic sentimentality with some grittiness, but the sentimentality is inherent in the story.

The three lead actors are pretty good. Charles Bickford as Bob Sangster is the standout. Bob is both genuinely a very bad man and a very hard man which makes the redemption angle a bit more interesting.

The other two main characters just don’t manage to be convincingly evil enough. Raymond Hatton is OK as Barbwire although the character is very irritating.

This movie dates from the very early days of sound. It also dates from an era in which location shooting with primitive sound technology would have been quite a challenge.

Wyler rises to the challenge extremely well.

It’s a visually impressive movie with a very effective atmosphere of desolation. The desert is the enemy. It’s the real villain of the movie. It seems to be actively malevolent. There’s no romanticisation of nature in this movie.

This movie has been paired with the 1936 version (called Three Godfathers) in a Warner Archive DVD release. The transfer is acceptable given the age of the movie and the fact that it’s not a movie likely to get a full restoration and a luxury Blu-Ray release.

Hell’s Heroes is not by any means a bad movie. It’s just not my cup of tea. If you don’t mind some sentimentality and some religious elements and you enjoy stories focused on redemption and sacrifice then you might well enjoy it a lot more than I did.


  1. Dee, I liked your honest and fair write-up on HELL'S ANGELS(1929). Clearly, I like this Western Movie more than you do. Personally, I like movies just fine, that deal with sentimentality, religious elements, redemption, and sacrifice. I think this movie as a lot going for it.

    HELL'S HEROES is a time capsule. Watching this movie made me feel like I traveled back to the "Old West." Fact is the so-called "Old West" wasn't yet over at the time of filming in 1929, by any means. That was the real, still lived in town of Bodie, California, which is now a state historic park.

    You write that the movie has a Victorian vibe running through it. Well, that may be so in a semi-penny dreadful sort of way. These are three bad men. They are bank robbers and Bob Sangster(Charles Bickford) likes to dally with a town soiled dove. When they first come upon the woman in the desert, they argue who is to have their way with her, first. I could go on, but I don't want to give away any more than I already have.

    It would be a dull world if we liked the same things, so to each their own. Look forward to your next write-up.

    1. It's not that I thought HELL'S HEROES was a bad movie. Just not my cup of tea. But I was impressed by the visuals and the atmosphere.