Being the severely-obsessed movie geek that I am (I’ve seen nearly 5,000 movies and keep a list), combined with the fact that William Wyler is my favorite director (Mrs. Miniver; Ben-Hur), I spent most of my life dying to see his 1929 version of the classic Western story by Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers, titled Hell’s Heroes.
Thankfully, TCM unearthed a print a few years ago, and I finally got my chance to see it. The movie is great—far superior to either of John Ford’s versions (from 1926 and 1948) or the 1936 version. I will even go so far as to state that Hell’s Heroes is the Best Picture of 1929, which, admittedly, was a dreadful year for movies with the change over from silent to sound. But Wyler was such a great filmmaker that he immediately understood how to make sound films, unlike almost anyone else.
Hell’s Heroes is the story of three bandits who rob a bank, kill the teller then escape into the desert. They find a covered wagon with a sick woman in back and, naturally, their first inclination is to rape her (the Code of Decency didn’t kick in until 1933). Unfortunately, they quickly realize that the woman is in the last stage of labor. They deliver the baby. She says to take the baby back to the town they just left and give it to her husband, the bank teller they just killed. Whoops!
This being 1929, when you could basically get away with anything in filmmaking, every scene in the desert is with a real baby. During one particularly outrageous scene, one of the bad guys keeps poking the newborn infant with a stick, and he’s really poking a newborn infant with a stick.
Hell’s Heroes offers some wonderful visual shots, including a very fast tracking shot that I’m convinced David Lean stole for 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia.
At 68 minutes, Hell’s Heroes is an incredibly snappy, visual, unsentimental telling of this oft-filmed tale, which, at this point, has seen at least six versions, including a TV movie and a Japanese anime version.
Josh Becker is the internationally-known director of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules, has directed seven feature films and has been a proud member of the Director’s Guild of America for 17 years. His latest book is Going Hollywood by Point Blank.