In the early days of sound cinema, various studios and production companies were still feeling their way through the new technology. While it is thought that sound brought limitations to film, sometimes filmmakers could find that they could still be creative. Hell's Heroes, an adaptation of The Three Godfathers that would be remade at least two more times in 1936 and 1948, moves quickly in its brief running time and manages to move the viewer.
Three bandits arrive in the desert town of New Jerusalem to rob a bank. Waiting for them is their ringleader, Bob (Charles Bickford). The bank is successfully robbed, though a clerk is killed. One of the gang members, the lookout Jose (Joe De La Cruz) is killed, but the others manage to escape. Bob, along with his cohorts Thomas or Barbwire (Raymond Hatton) and William or Wild Bill (Fred Kohler) congratulate themselves on their latest heist.
Soon, however, problems emerge. They have little water and the water they passed is poisoned with arsenic. A windstorm drove their horses away. Worse is when they come upon a covered wagon with a baby and his dying mother. She has them promise to take her son to New Jerusalem to be with his father Frank Edwards, a teller at the bank.
Bob would rather leave the child to die, but Barbwire and Will Bill will have none of it. They agree to go back to New Jerusalem and save William Robert Thomas Edwards, Jr. It's forty miles to New Jerusalem, and the journey is daunting. Barbwire was shot in the escape and knows he is not long for the Earth. Bill knows that there is little water and milk for the baby. Will Bob rise to the challenge and save his godson or put himself first?
I was surprised that Hell's Heroes runs a brisk 68 minutes long given that its successors ran longer. I think it is because screenwriter Tom Reed (adapting the Peter B. Kyne novel) and director William Wyler opted to keep things pretty basic. We had the bank robbery, the discovery of the baby and the efforts to save him. Simple, direct. In that brief running time, however, Hell's Heroes manages to pack quite a lot in it.
The film manages some nice bits of dialogue. "Start reaching for Heaven, stranger, or you're headed straight to Hell," Barbwire taunts the unfortunate bank clerk in the holdup. The gang's discussion over the meaning of "toilette" is also good, a nice touch of humor in the film. When seeing a sign to New Jerusalem, the gang manages a nice quip. "3 Miles to New Jerusalem, a bad town for bad men", it warns. "How did they know we were coming?" Will Bill quips.
Wyler also has some wonderful visual moments that hold up quite well. When reading the sign to New Jerusalem, there is a shot of Bill metaphorically hung by the noose hanging on the sign. There is an amazing shot of us looking down on a stumbling, exhausted Bob that moves down to eye level. It is almost like a drone came down to see him.
We even get a bit of Pre-Code naughtiness when the randy Sheriff (James Walter) "drops" something in the saloon to get a glimpse at the charms of Carmenita (Maria Alba), the dancehall girl Bob is sweet on.
Wyler got good performances out of his three leads. Bickford seems a strange choice to be Bob given how future roles had him play mostly upright characters. Here, Bickford does well as this criminal who despite his own sense eventually gives his life to save an innocent. Raymond Hatton brings an almost sweetness to Barbwire, his last scene where he asks Bill not to let the baby die between two thieves is touching. Kohler's Bill brings some humor but also sadness when, realizing that there is not enough water for him, Bob and William Robert Thomas Edwards, Jr., he thinks on what he is to do.
Hell's Heroes is not subtle in some ways. Barbwire for example, dies under a tree curiously shaped like a cross. The minister at the Christmas Eve service the town attends is standing under a sign that reads, "Suffer little children to come unto me". On the whole, however, Hell's Heroes is a good film and a good adaptation of a story that would become better known.