About Christmas TV History

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hell's Heroes (1930)

Opening title to the 1930 film Hell's Heroes, adapted from the book by Peter B. Kyne.

What's the oldest Christmas movie you love to watch?  While I've seen many, many Christmas silent films--most of them only hold my attention for the sake of novelty.  But the early sound film, 1930's Hell's Heroes does entertain me.  It's quite dramatic.  And, the movie's Christmas themes feel quite contemporary.  Have you ever watched this film on Turner Classic Movies?

Barb Wire and Bill shoot the cashier at the bank during the robbery.

In this classic western, four outlaws rob the bank in New Jerusalem on Christmas Eve.  During the robbery, the robbers kill a bank teller however one of the robbers is also shot and killed in their escape.

Only three robbers survive to make their escape from New Jerusalem.

The three remaining robbers flee from the city across the desert, hoping to reach a well-known watering hole which will allow them to continue through the desert to reach the next city.  One of the thieves, Barb Wire, was shot in the shoulder during the escape and he worries about the wound becoming infected. 

After a sandstorm, the three thieves will have to make their across the desert on foot. (left to right) Barb Wire, Bob, and Wild Bill.

They'll have to conserve the little water they have in order to reach the next watering hole.

When the three men reach the watering hole, they find it has dried up.  The situation  has grown even more grave when they discover a covered wagon with a woman inside.  She is very weak and with her last efforts she gives birth to a baby son.  Unaware that these three men are killers and bank robbers, the mother convinces the men to promise to care for the baby.  With her final words, she asks that they bring the infant to his father--the cashier at the bank in New Jerusalem.  It is not lost on the men that they are being asked to save the son of the man they killed!

Bob stumbles across a covered wagon!

The men admit they don't know anything about babies!
Knowing they can't continue traveling across the desert without water, they admit they are now forced to turn back and return to New Jerusalem.  Any hope of survival means they must return to the city where they are wanted men. Their return journey on foot through the desert is arduous and the outlaw Barbwire is the first to succumb.

Barb Wire refuses any more water insisting it be offered to the baby.

The journey across the desert continues until sundown and the two remaining men and the baby bed down for the night.  When Bob awakens at dawn on Christmas morning, he finds a note from Bill.  Wild Bill has walked off into the desert to die alone.  Bob gives the remaining drops of water from his canteen to the baby and continues walking back toward the city.

Bill's note indicates he's left Bob and the baby a Christmas gift--he's sacrificed himself so they can share the remaining water and live a little while longer.

Still clutching the baby, Bob dumps the gold from the bank robbery along his path--a burden no longer worth carrying.

The last outlaw, Bob is carrying the baby back to the city that will surely hang the murderer upon his return. Unable to make it all the way back without water, Bob stops at a watering hole just outside of New Jerusalem that is toxic--it is filled with alkali and deadly.  Aware that returning to the city is a guaranteed death sentence, Bob courageously drinks from the poisonous water hole just to give him one more hour’s worth of life so he can walk back to town and give the baby a chance at survival.

Bob also makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to achieve redemption and help the baby survive.

When the bank robber enters New Jerusalem, it is Christmas morning and the town’s residents are all in church singing ‘Silent Night.’  Bob stumbles up the center aisle clutching the newborn and collapses and the residents discover the wriggling baby still in his arms.

On Christmas morning Bob finds the residents in church singing "Silent Night."

Though an early sound picture, the film is directed William Wyler who would see a tremendous amount of success later in his career.   Watching this you'll be able to see that this film is crafted by a masterful hand as there are some beautiful shots constructed to set this story above the mediocrity of other Westerns.  The cast includes: Charles Bickford as Bob; Raymond Hatton as Barb Wire; and Fred Kohler as Wild Bill.

One of the reasons I connect with this story is the complexities of the three outlaws' moral journey.  In the beginning, they are clearly bad guys with little regard for human life--they plan the robbery ahead of time and without much regard, they kill the bank cashier.  Yet when the dying woman begs them to look after her son, each of the three men feels too guilty to say no.  Though there is some selfishness about not wanting to share the little water they have left, when it comes down to it, each one makes the decision to help the innocent baby--and sacrifice themselves.  Bob, the last survivor, at one point in his desperate trek through the desert actually puts the baby down in the sand and walks away, hoping to finally rid himself of the burden.  But when the weakened baby cries out, just a little, he can't live with himself and picks the baby up again.  Christmas movies are often about hope, forgiveness, and second chances--three themes this movie embraces whole-heartedly.  I love it more each time I see it.

Based on the book by Peter B. Kyne, this Christmas-themed story has been made several times.  Supposedly there is an earlier silent version and even a 1970s TV movie version--however neither of these movies are easily accessible.  Up next:  the 1936 remake Three Godfathers.

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