Hell's Heroes (1929)

As far as I can tell, this is the earliest feature-length Christmas talkie that still exists. There's a movie released earlier in 1929 called "Auld Lang Syne" which I'm assuming was holiday themed, but no copies are believed to have survived, and I can't find so much as a synopsis online. If anyone knows anything about that movie or any other Christmas movies from the 1920s with sound, please reach out. But as far as extant Christmas movies featuring synchronized sound with talking, this appears to be the first.

I know that sounds like a lot of qualifiers, but I think the addition of synchronized sound - particularly sound with dialogue - is functionally the boundary between an earlier art form and modern movies. I don't want to disparage silent pictures in any way: they are a fascinating medium in their own right, and I have every intention of tracking down more silent Christmas films. But watching them is a very different experience than watching a film with dialogue, and watching Hell's Heroes really brought that point into focus.

Because Hell's Heroes - and I absolutely mean this - feels like a modern movie. That's not to say there aren't artifacts dating the picture: footage is sped up during action scenes in a way that comes across as unintentionally comical in hindsight, there's a minor female character with stylized makeup that was very much of the time, and there are certainly reminders that sound was a new tool. But as a storytelling medium, I was very much struck that this remains effective and poignant nearly a century later. It is a movie... and it's a good one.

Let's back up. Hell's Heroes is the first adaptation of the 1913 novel, The Three Godfathers, filmed with synchronized sound, and the fourth overall. Most earlier versions are apparently lost (though if anyone knows a way to view the one from 1916, don't keep it to yourself). While the story has largely fallen out of the popular consciousness, if the volume of adaptations is any indication, there was a time it seemed like a potential American answer to A Christmas Carol. It certainly feels like a contender to be the iconic American Christmas story: a western with Christian themes and liberal sensibilities. We tackled the 1948 adaptation starring John Wayne a while ago, but that version is sanitized and given a happy ending. There's also a 1936 version we haven't gotten around to yet but are planning to do so soon. Tokyo Godfathers is loosely based on the story, as well. 

The basic premise is three outlaws on the run adopt a newborn infant in the desert right before Christmas. Low on water, they need to get the child to town, mirroring the three wise men, and they make sacrifices for the child's sake. Different versions put darker or lighter spins on the story. The 1948 movie made the outlaws pretty good-natured and ultimately gentle. And of course, John Wayne survives and is eventually rehabilitated.

Let's talk about this version, which finds a way to be a smidge darker than the book.

This opens with three outlaws riding into the town of New Jerusalem to meet their partner, who we're shown behaving cruelly to women and the sheriff in the tavern. Once he's created a minor distraction, he joins his partners in a bank robbery. While there, a teller reaches for his gun, and the thieves shoot him before riding off with the money.

Hearing the commotion, the townspeople rally and fire at the escaping thieves, one of whom is shot dead - by the town's preacher, no less - and another is hit in the shoulder. The three remaining criminals escape in a sandstorm, but lose their horses in the process. They head for where they think there'll be water and find a covered wagon with a solitary woman inside.

Before realizing she's pregnant, one of the men is apparently planning to rape her. The movie doesn't outright state this, but it's the clear implication. When he realizes that she's in labor, the three men instead help her as well as they can. They deliver the baby, but the woman - already dehydrated - is dying. Without realizing that the men before her are criminals, she asks them to protect her child and bring it to their father in New Jerusalem. He'll be easy to find: he's the bank teller.

As a side note, that detail isn't in the original book. I can't say for certain if it comes from one of the silent versions, as two of them no longer exist, and I can't find any indication the third was ever released on video or streaming.

Compounding their problems, the well they expected is dry, so they've got a few drops of water to get them through forty miles of desert with an infant. The only other thing they have is three cans of milk. The worst of the criminals wants to split the milk, but his partners guilt him into not stealing from a newborn. Despite knowing it will likely result in their hanging (assuming they even make it), the three criminals start back towards New Jerusalem.

The wounded thief continues as long as he can, before collapsing in front of a cactus conveniently shaped like a cross. His friends try to get him to drink some water, but he refuses, telling them to leave him. He also tells them not to let his godson die between two thieves. He draws his gun as they walk away, then there's a gunshot.

The next thief similarly refuses water. He vanishes in the middle of the night, leaving the last a note saying he's making a Christmas gift of the remaining water and going off alone. The last criminal is the worst of the three. While the other two embraced the role thrust on them, he argued in favor of leaving the baby behind. And he almost does so again alone in the desert before reluctantly doing the right thing.

It costs him. The trip is excruciating, which the movie conveys through some clever shot composition. He eventually gives the last of the water to the baby, threatening to kill the infant if he spills any. He continues on as long as he can, but he's too dehydrated to make it all the way. He collapses just outside of town beside a pool of water with a sign warning it's contaminated with arsenic.

Knowing he can't make it any other way, he fills up on the contaminated water and carries the child as fast as possible towards the town. The water will kill him, but he reasons it will take an hour: as long as he makes it before then, the baby will survive.

By now, it's Christmas day, and the people of New Jerusalem are gathered in church to hear a sermon from the same preacher who shot one of the thieves. The preacher praises a Christmas tree a member of the congregation brought, calling it a symbol of Christ's birth. He raises his head in prayer and doesn't even notice the criminal stumble in and hand off the child to members of the congregation before dying on the floor.

So, yeah, bleak as hell, but that's kind of in the title, right?

That's the plot, most of which is taken directly from the novel. I do want to take a moment to highlight a couple details I wasn't expecting, starting with the movie's depiction of the preacher. Obviously, this is a fairly religious movie, but the contrast between the preacher and the criminals felt somewhat subversive. This is a movie about forgiveness and redemption, and the contrast between the preacher's point-of-view and the story we follow implies that maybe institutionalized religion doesn't understand those ideals as well as it pretends to. Real spirituality, the movie implies, is evident in the kind acts of desperate people, and even the worst of us is capable of sacrifice.

I was surprised by the inclusion of that theme, but then I was surprised by a lot in this movie. I might not have been if I'd looked up the director beforehand: this was made by William Wyler, who'd go on to become one of the most highly regarded directors in history, making Ben-Hur, among countless other critically acclaimed films. He was basically the Spielberg of the '40s and '50s.

Even if I'd realized who was making this, I still don't think I'd have been prepared for just how sophisticated this felt. Hell's Heroes was filmed on location, rather than in a studio, and it makes for a grounded, believable film. The scenes in New Jerusalem were filmed in an actual ghost town, and it shows. More than that, I was impressed with how modern most of the cinematography looks. The way characters are framed or followed by the camera doesn't feel antiquated or outdated, aside from being in black and white and including a few dated artifacts such as sped up chases and antiquated sound effects.

But overall, this is simply a well-made, well-acted movie. Stylistically, it's aiming closer to realism than virtually any US movie I've seen prior to the 1960s, and it succeeds in that goal. There's an authenticity to the characters you rarely see in older movies. Or newer ones, for that matter.

This is aided by something that I'm honestly unsure whether is a choice or an oversight. The movie has dialogue, sound effects, and occasionally diegetic music, but there's no score. I think this helps sell the sense of realism in the picture, but I don't know if it was an artistic choice or if the existence of movies with sound recording was so new, scores weren't yet considered standard. Regardless, it works here.

Basically everything works. I could go through and nitpick a handful of scenes or moments where time hasn't been entirely kind, but these are all trivial. And for everything that doesn't work, there's something else that's surprisingly modern. Wyler was ahead of his time when it came to casting minority actors in minority parts. I'm not saying this movie is a shining example of representation (we're still talking bit roles), but this movie does a far better portraying its characters and world authentically than the vast majority of films Hollywood would churn out over the following fifty years.

I'm sure there are people who'd be bothered by the stuff that is dated, but I'm still recommending this one. As a whole, it's way ahead of its time, and - more importantly - it's simply a good movie regardless of when it was made.