Holiday Review: ‘Hell’s Heroes’

One of my favorite themes in holiday films is a redemptive character arc. Beginning with Ebenezer Scrooge, the spirit of the Christmas season provides a way for even the worst among us to find a way back. The legendary director William Wyler tackled this idea in a particularly bleak 1930 Western based on a story from 1913. While John Ford made the first adaptation of this story 3 Godfathers, during the Silent Age and remade it again with John Wayne in 1948 this Pre-Code version of the film entitled Hell’s Heroes still stands as the best adaptation of the tale to ever be put to cinema.

Following a deadly robbery in the town of New Jerusalem, three outlaws; Bob, “Wild” Bill, and “Barbwire” flee into the desert to lay low. At the supposed watering hole oasis where they planned to find some relief, they find no water but instead discover a ravaged camp with the sole survivor being a woman in labor. In her dying moments, she appoints these men her child’s “godfathers” and promises them to deliver the newborn to his father in New Jerusalem…..who just happens to be the teller they murdered in the robbery. Not only are looking towards a trip to the gallows upon returning, but they have to confront the 40 miles of unforgiving desert to get there. Against all odds, the trio of hardened criminals decide to make this trek with nagging injuries and little supplies to get the child home by Christmas even if it means they have to give their lives.

There is no other way of putting it I love gritty Westerns and Hell’s Heroes is one of the grittiest. At the same time, this is a different flick than most others of this ilk. There are not tons of set pieces nor is there particularly a lot of action. It is a simple tale of three hardened criminals facing not only the brutal natural landscape but also the demons within their own souls. Adding to the harsh environment of the film was the fact that Wyler actually shot the film in a real desert where temperatures would often reach 110 degrees, taking a toll on the actors which naturally its way onscreen. During high school Lit classes I am sure we all learned about the three “Man versus” story types. What Hell’s Heroes accomplishes is the rare double threat of antagonism towards the film’s antiheroes. The character of Bob especially experiences a compelling characters arc as from the start he is the one advocating to abandon the child to the harsh desert. However, when his compatriots die leaving him to finish the job alone, he gives his own life to ensure the child is safely delivered. Despite the brief minute runtime, his redemption journey is complete and proceeds in a completely believable and bittersweet fashion.

Given that the plot of this film involves three men travelling for the sake of a child at Christmas, there are obvious parallels to the tale of the Three Wise Men. The characters in this film even make reference to this as they travel with the dead woman’s Bible. Rest assured none of these men are wise, Wyler establishes that the trio of protagonists are characters who have no problem stealing and killing. With the film being produced in the era when talkies were just beginning to emerge, Wyler had to find talented actors to bring his three kings of crime to the big screen for both sound and silent audiences. Lead actor Charles Bickford who plays the lead role of Bob was part of the mass migration of actors from the stage to the screen now that Hollywood needed performers who could deliver dialogue. While his costars Fred Kohler and Raymond Hatton were veterans of the silent screen, they had their origins of the vaudeville stage so they were quite capable of keeping up with Bickford.

Unlike the other film versions of 3 Godfathers, Hell’s Heroes has little warmth or charm. This is a bleak movie about three men going tackling their own moral dilemmas while the life of an innocent newborn is at stake. Sure there are challenges in their quest, but the true challenge is for these three characters to find redemption even if it comes at the cost of their own lives. Hell’s Heroes is a compelling film with an ending which will punch you in the guts.