Before the Great War, brothers Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall) were living up the bachelor life in Germany, enjoying the frauleins and the beer wherever they could, along with their pal Karl Armstedt (John Darrow) who had studied at an English university where they had all met. They had no interest in the trouble brewing globally, simply thinking of themselves, but Roy was the more responsible brother overall, therefore when Monte hooked up with the wrong woman, who was married to a local Baron (Lucien Prival), and the Baron demanded they fight a duel for her honour the very next day, Monte left sharpish, leaving Roy to fight...
Hell's Angels set a pattern for Howard Hughes's Hollywood career that repeated itself over and over throughout the remainder of his long life: he would waste his millions on the productions of his epics, reshooting near-endlessly until he was forced to release whatever he had. Often these efforts would make a lot of money, partly because he was one of the most famous people in the world and audiences were curious to see what he conjured up, but also because he was fond of lacing these movies with sex and violence that would test the censorship laws of the day, not much that would make anyone alarmed all this time later, but for viewers of the day, pretty surprising stuff.
This film in particular seems to have been filmed twice, once as a silent and then when the technology was available, again as a sound picture, though as has been pointed out there are shots, scenes and sequences that appear to have been brought over from the silent with dialogue and sound affects added. So if the dynamics of project are a little sketchy now, at least there was one thing everyone could agree on: Hughes' reason for making the film, the aerial battle setpieces, remained as impressive today as they were back then, probably because they depicted actual daredevil stunt flying which sadly resulted in the deaths of three pilots - Hughes was nearly one.
Did this deter him? No, it did not, such was his monomania when it came to film and getting everything just so, precisely the way he wanted it. You could call him reckless, but it was his money to spend, though they were not his lives to lose, and you just have to look at the tragedy of his nineteen-fifties turkey The Conqueror to see that he was not too savvy with regard to sustaining a safe shoot. So it is with mixed feelings that you watch Hell's Angels, though artistically that may have been owing to the essential petulance of the screenplay, which again had been tempered to Hughes' demands. Although the bravery of the pilots is not in doubt, Monte pulls that into question with his anti-war sentiment, which was interesting to witness as the idea of the "forgotten man" began to surface while the Great Depression bit.
But for all his avowed pacifism, Monte does get out into the skies on the second half's big plotline, in the hope he can save more lives that way than end them. Though he is still ending lives, and that is causing him great anguish. Lyon would go on to be a huge star in the United Kingdom on the radio and television, but this showed him in a different light, he could play serious if he wanted, and he was certainly better than Hall, whose career stalled shortly after as he sank into the alcoholism that killed him before he was forty. But they were not the biggest celebrities here, for the woman they fight over was played by a bright as a button Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, saddled with a deeply misogynistic role as she embodied all females as two-timing and untrustworthy, hammering home the message that the bond between men means far more than any bond with the ladies. Harlow died young too, of course, but we can perceive just what it was that proved so fascinating to thirties audiences. When she is not onscreen, we have a spectacular Zeppelin attack and that dogfight to take us aback; by no means a great film, Hell's Angels does pummel you into submission, much in the way of a bombastic twenty-first century blockbuster.