It's one of the great movie images of all time, and seen in 2004, it's at once familiar yet strange. A sleek, streamlined nose bursts into the frame, and as it emerges, we suddenly understand that we are seeing just the tip of a very long and dangerous piece of war machinery; it goes on and on and on.
No, it's not the beginning of "Star Wars" but clearly George Lucas had seen "Hell's Angels," the 1930 Howard Hughes-directed aviation epic. That scene from "Hell's Angels" depicts a gigantic German zeppelin bursting out of a cloud bank on a bombing raid over London in the early days of World War I.
James Hall, left, and Ben Lyon as the British brothers -- and World War I pilots -- at the center of "Hell's Angels."
In "The Aviator," the upcoming biography of the dynamic filmmaker-industrialist-flyboy Hughes, Martin Scorsese re-creates the shot. In fact, so fascinated with "Hell's Angels" is Scorsese -- he may see in it a parallel to his own embattled "Gangs of New York" -- that he spends the first hour in the three-hour film chronicling the incredible saga of what was until 1939 the most expensive movie ever made, at about $4 million. ("Gone With the Wind" would supplant it.)
Hughes made and remade the film over three long, draining years, the budget climbing higher and higher as he assembled the largest private air force in history -- close to 150 planes -- and shot and reshot dogfights and bombing sequences. Three pilots died but, you could coldly argue, at least they could be easily replaced. Far worse, sound was invented, and so the movie itself had to be replaced. The film -- well, it was a hit, but so expensive it never broke even.
After its release, the movie wasn't seen again for years because of legal problems that surrounded much of Hughes's material. Now Universal has issued it on DVD. And what, 74 years later, do we make of this film brought newly to visibility by "The Aviator"?
The film came to life right on the cusp of the shift from silents to sound, and the directors Hughes brought in to shoot the new sound scenes (Edmund Goulding and later James Whale, of "Frankenstein" fame) didn't realize that the florid, theatrical exaggerations of the silent film were inappropriate to the sound film, where vocal inflections carried the feelings previously communicated by facial gymnastics. Thus a lot of "Hell's Angels" seems over the top, particularly as the young stars Ben Lyon and James Hall go all manly-intense on us.
The plot is simple. Lyon and Hall, as the Rutledge brothers, Monte and Roy, are Oxford twits sucked into British World War I aviation. The fact that neither was British, that nobody even tried a British accent, didn't bother the evidently tone-deaf Hughes, who was interested only in the flying sequences anyway. Hughes just stood aside as Goulding and Whale let Monte and Roy declaim like 19th-century thespians trying to raise the rafters while running their fingers through marcelled hair and breaking frequently into sobs.
Roy falls for Helen, an upper-class hussy (Jean Harlow, hired for the sound reshoots, in the role that made her a star), who treats him miserably, even making out with an obligingly weak-willed Monte at one point. It's in this sequence that she utters an unforgettable line, even if everyone has forgotten which movie it came from: "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?"
One of the ironies is that although Harlow was such a terrible actress by the standards of her time, hers is the best performance by the standards of ours. She never tries to "act" in the energetic way everyone else in the film does, and is content to keep her gestures small and let her beauty and bosom do most the work.
The movie is deadest when airships and Harlow aren't on-screen. We spend much time with the Rutledges, learning that it's Roy's character to persevere nobly and Monte's to betray callowly. That pattern is followed at the front, where Roy keeps believing in Helen and Monte, Helen (now, conveniently, a canteen girl) keeps making out with anybody in pants and Monte keeps ducking duty and breaking down.
What remains are two first-class aviation sequences, all the more stunning for having been shot for real, at full speed above a California desert that admittedly had little similarity to the Western Front. The first is the zeppelin raid and the zeppelin itself, a terrifying movie illusion, appears to be one of the few miniatures Hughes used; but if it's a special effect, it's certainly a special special effect.
In Part 2, after a 10-minute intermission, the action moves to the front and the climactic mission follows as noble Roy and yellow Monte (trying to redeem himself) fly a captured German AEG bomber to destroy an enemy ammunition depot and then battle their way back while German fighter planes -- aware now that the two are British -- try to knock them down.
Wow! Guns blazing, cameras whirring, Hughes's small air force loops and dips and pinwheels and dives and flutters this way and that above the scorched desert; the planes are real, there are so many of them, and they come so close so many times (though an air-to-air collision appears, to my eyes anyway, to be a crash of miniatures) it's dazzling. Hughes mounted cameras inside many of the cockpits, looking up at the stunt pilots so that one can see their grim faces as behind them an enemy plane closes in, fires a lethal burst and sends them spinning out of control.
But as much as the film includes, it excludes a great deal, too. I wish, for example, it had eschewed the ludicrous big-raid scenario for the more resonant and common Western Front fighter experience: month after month of combat with little chance of survival. Other films portrayed that much better, including "Wings," "Dawn Patrol," the overlooked 1970s masterpiece "Aces High," the famous "Blue Max" and an on-the-cheap account of the last days of the Red Baron called "Von Richthofen and Brown," which doesn't, thank God, feature Snoopy.
That was a terrible war: The kid aces were lionized at home but forced to fly on -- there was no 40-missions-and-home deadline that marked a stopping point. They flew until their luck ran out, and the stress among them was similar to that of their infantry counterparts stuck in those muddy trenches year after year after year.
As drama, "Hell's Angels" never really transcends the year of its making; as a historical document, it feels false and trite; as an airplane extravaganza, it's superb.