Wednesday, January 6, 2021

HELL’S HEROES (William Wyler, 1930)


Three Unwise Men escape from the hangman’s noose in New Jerusalem only to find salvation by returning from the desert with a gift, not for a child but with one. One of many films based upon the story THE THREE GODFATHERS, William Wyler’s first sound film is a symphony of violence and pathos, shot mostly on location in the blistering heat which imbues the film with a sobering reality.

Bob, Wild Bill, Barbwire and Jose stumble upon the desert town of New Jerusalem, welcomed by a sign that plainly states it’s a bad town for bad men, while a noose hangs swaying in the hot desert breeze. They end up in a raucous saloon where Bob confronts the salacious Sheriff before encouraging a cat-fight between two of his paramours. DP George Robinson makes sure to get some seemingly exploitative low-angle shots of the dancing woman before all Hell breaks loose. This is more than mere Pre-Code exploitation though as it gives an important insight into the Sheriff’s nature as he pretends to drop something onto the sawdust floor so he can look up her dress. It’s a neat and compact revelation and tells us that everyone is tainted in this dirty town. In a few minutes even the Pastor will gun down one of the fleeing criminals!

Bob jokingly threatens to rob the local bank as he saunters from the saloon and, well, that’s exactly what he does. The four men, depicted as no less than thugs and murderers, rob the bank and one of the clerks is shot-down right through the “pump”. Barbwire and Wild Bill even argue about who got the killing shot, like some badge of dishonor. As they escape on horseback, Jose is killed (by the aforementioned Pastor) and the trio make their way into the arid wasteland. But a huge sandstorm is both a blessing and a curse, as it covers their tracks from the posse but also scares away their mounts. Now on foot, they trudge through the sand in tattered clothes, without shade or respite from the heat with lowering supplies hoping to survive until they reach a local watering hole. The first one is poisoned and the second one dry. But they discover a broken wagon and its seemingly succulent cargo: a young woman who seems to be moaning in ecstasy. They argue about who will be first to rape her (these are not morally forthright men) until Bob discovers that she’s about to give birth. The men also learn that her husband (and the baby’s father) was the man they murdered in the bank. The baby is delivered and the three men are stuck with a tiny bundle and a huge problem! Practically dying of thirst themselves, they baptize the baby in sand and grudgingly decide to deliver it back to New Jerusalem.

Bickering and arguing all the while, the men trudge back towards their fate as they drop-off one-by-one: Barbwire, shot in the arm during the heist, commits suicide when he can go no further; Wild Bill sleepwalks to his doom because there’s not enough water for both the men and the baby; and Bob, the last who agreed to help the child, drinks the poisoned water which gives him just enough energy to reach the town. On Christmas Day, Bob delivers his own miracle as he crumples to the floor of the church holding the crying child. Hell has given parole to three of its own and one hopes they have earned salvation.

Final Grade: (A)