Hell’s Angels (1930)

Today, many people argue that the best thing about Hell’s Angels is the dramatic and well produced flight sequences. That may be true, but even though the film would have been pretty much forgotten without the airial stunts, the plot and character portraits hold enough interest to make the film worthwhile. One section of the film, as well as one special effect, are in colour. This was not unique for the time, but due to the high costs it was only seen in high-budget films, so this is another reason why the film remains special.

James Hall, Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

In Hell’s Angels, we follow the destinies of two brothers, Roy and Monte, during the course of World War I. Their personalities are extremely different, so there is plenty of room for conflict, and especially so when they start to compete for the same girl. Or perhaps it should rather be said that she makes them compete, for reasons known only to herself.

Hell’s Angels is an early sound film, and much of the silent aesthetics remain, for good and bad. Indeed, the film was first intended as a silent, and much material had to be reshot (with the female lead replaced) when the decision was made to produce a talkie. There are even some title cards left for translating the German airmen’s conversation, where subtitles would be the norm today. On the plus side, it is certainly refreshing to hear German spoken in the first place. Most Hollywood war films in the following seventy-plus years were to use English in place of foreign language dialogue.

If you are used to Hollywood film from the 1940s and 1950s, you will find that Hell’s Angels is surprisingly overt in terms of sexuality and strong language. This is because it was made in the period before Hollywood’s self-imposed production code was created. Indeed, the decades following the early 1930s were to become much more bland and boring in some ways.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of aviation or war movies. The aerial battles are truly spectacular, and there is plenty of the drama that only the backdrop of war can create. Hell’s Angels is a classic in its genre that is not to be missed.

Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

Hell’s Angels
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Year: 1930
Running time: 2 h 11 min
Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding, Fred Fleck
Stars: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942)

Normally, I do not do short film on this blog, but because of the rich treasure of classic short films available at the Internet Archive, I have decided that October is Short Film Month. First out is the classic cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo, Benito Mussolini on bass drum, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Joseph Goebbels on trombone and Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

The beginning of the film cannot really be described any better than Wikipedia does it: “A German oom-pah band—composed of Axis leaders Joseph Goebbels on trombone, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo and Benito Mussolini on bass drum—marches noisily at four o’clock in the morning through a small German town where everything, even the clouds and trees, are shaped as swastikas, singing the virtues of the Nazi doctrine.” There, the tone is set, and the rest of the film continues in the same crazy, satiric and nationalistic spirit.

Due to its propagandistic content, the film has not been released on DVD and Bluray as many times as most other Donald Duck films from the 30s and 40s, especially not in Europe. Still, some say it is one of the best. At any rate, there are many brilliant gags, and it is a film well worth watching.

The film has many neat little details. For example, in the image below, note how even the telephone poles (barely visible) are shaped like swastikas. Another detail, for anyone interested in how Disney cut corners in the war year animations, is when the band marches back across the screen just after the titles. The swastikas on the uniforms are mirrored, because the entire section is just mirrored from the first time they marched past.

Der Fuehrer’s Face received an Academy Award for best animated short. At least two other nominees from the same year can be found at the Internet Archive: the Tex Avery cartoon Blitz Wolf and George Pal’s Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow. Both are excellent, and highly recommended.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the Disney shorts from the classic period. This is one you may have missed if you relied on the official collections from Disney.

A factory with swastikas in the Donald Duck film Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

Der Fuehrer’s Face
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Year: 1942
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Jack Kinney
Stars: Clarence Nash (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (76 M)

Ich klage an (1941)

Over 70,000 people were killed as a direct result of Hitler’s Aktion T4 in the early stages of World War II. Some were jews, but many more were mentally or physically handicapped children and adults that, so Hitler said, would have meant an unnecessary cost for the “Vaterland” in times of war. As terrible as it is to think about all that, there was one arguably good thing to come out of that terror, namely the propaganda film Ich klage an, financed and produced to gain popular support for governmental use of so-called euthanasia (mercy killings).

Paul Hartmann and Heidemarie Hatheyer in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Thomas Heyt is a medical doctor with a good career and a loving wife. But his life is turned upside down when his wife Hanna becomes the victim of severe, painful and potentially lethal mutiple sclerosis. Heyt seeks in vain for a cure, but Hanna’s condition becomes ever worse. She asks him to take her life before her pain becomes unbearable, which he eventually does. This, however, is not the end of the film, because Heyt thereafter has to stand trial for his actions, accused of murdering his wife.

When I first saw the film, I had no idea about its connection with Aktion T4. Nevertheless, I expected a propaganda film, but I was surprised to see how mild the propaganda is. So mild, in fact, that if it were not for its connections with Nazism, it could very well still be used to argue for voluntary euthanasia (and sometimes is, for that matter). The film does not in any way bring forth the subject of involuntary euthanasia that was actually the foremost purpose of Aktion T4, but it stays ethically within what several democratic countries legally allow today, apparently including the state of Oregon.

In an ironic twist of fate, the film came too late to save the project that had spawned it. In what has been described as the only successful popular protest against Hitler, public opinion was so strongly against the project that it actually had to be cancelled in 1941, only five days before Ich klage an premiered, heavily censored due to the criticism. (I am not sure whether the copy at the Internet Archive is the original or censored.) But even though Aktion T4 had been officially cancelled, Euthanasia according to the guidelines adopted by the project continued in many places throughout the war, killing tens of thousands more.

The available copy of this film has a unique feature, one that I have never seen before. The initial frames of the video file contain a slideshow with very interesting background information about Aktion T4 and about the film itself. If you have a player that can freeze the film on the first frame, and then step frame by frame, I can highly recommend these interesting slides, either before or after watching the film itself. The slides are pro-euthanasia, as is the film itself, but regardless of your own opinion on the subject, they provide a good historical background.

This film is best enjoyed in one of two very different ways. It can either be seen from a historical perspective, remembering that it comes from the same ideas and ideals that led up to the holocaust. Or it can be seen purely as a work of art: a film which, though controversial, is rich with excellent dramaturgy and acting. Indeed, these two perspectives may not be possible to disassociate entirely; they certainly complement one another and provide the watching with further depths.

Paul Hartmann in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Ich klage an
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: Wolfgang Liebeneiner
Stars: Paul Hartmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (661 M)

Triumph des Willens (1935)

Last week I wrote about the American World War II propaganda film The Nazis Strike (1943), a film which made heavy use of the enemy’s own propaganda films, showing them in a very different light. One of the sources most prominently used in The Nazis Strike is Leni Riefenstahl’s classic Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nazi congress at Nuremberg.

Sieg heil! to Adolf Hitler and the swastika in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Riefenstahl had already made a similar film about the 1933 Nazi party congress, Sieg des Glaubens (1933), which is also available at the Internet Archive. I have not seen the older film (which is said to be of great historical value), but I have been told that Triumph des Willens is much more polished and better propaganda.

If you are interested in Riefentahl’s career, incidentally, you will also want to check out the silent film Der heilige Berg, where she participates as an actor before becoming a director.

I think Triumph des Willens has much to teach us about today’s political climate. It teaches us what can hide behind seemingly harmless rhetorics; it teaches us about the power of mass psychology; hopefully it also teaches us that in order to build a peaceful world, you have to look beyond your own borders and beyond your own social group.

This film is best enjoyed in small pieces. The entire film, with all the speeches by almost-forgotten Nazi officials, feels rather stiff today unless you have a strong interest in Nazi propaganda and ideology. But it is certainly both educational, and to some extent enjoyable, to watch some classic sequences, not least the beginning with Hitler’s flight to Nuremberg and ensuing triumphant motorcade. Another classic is Hitler’s concluding eight-minute speech, containing a lot of tosh about the superiority of the German people in general and its leaders in particular. If you have already seen The Nazis Strike, it is very interesting to watch this film to see the material in its original context.

Adolf Hitler: "We carry the best blood and we know this." in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Triumph des Willens
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Year: 1935
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (619 M)

The Nazis Strike (1943)

When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it became necessary for the government and military to explain to people in general just what the war was all about. Why they were fighting and who they were fighting. The assignment to create a series of propaganda films, collectively titled Why We Fight, went to Frank Capra. These classic films are all available at the Internet Archive, and today we take a look at the second of the series, The Nazis Strike.

Swastika over world map in Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike (1943)

The film describes mainly Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and thereby the events immediately before and after the beginning of World War II. It does so mainly by using German news and propaganda films. Through ingenious editing and splicing the whole thing together with animations (mostly strategic maps) made by the Disney Studios, Capra puts the German material in a new light, turning the German propaganda into American propaganda.

But the most disturbing part of the film is the beginning, where Nazi methods of propaganda and infiltration are described. Most startling is, perhaps, a scene from a meeting of the Nazi American federation known as the German-American Bund (see image below). During the meeting, guards drag away and beat up a person who seems to a protester. Frightening parallels come to mind with today’s political realities.

The best versions of the films in the Why We Fight series can usually be found in the FedFlix collection, along with thousands of other films produced for the U.S. government. Not only military films with great historical value, but also films about energy, education, health and just about any other subject that a government could want to inform about.

Below follow links to the complete series Why We Fight.

  1. Prelude to War
  2. The Nazis Strike
  3. Divide and Conquer
  4. The Battle of Britain
  5. The Battle of Russia
  6. The Battle of China
  7. War Comes to America

I will probably write in more detail about a few of the others in the future.

This film is best enjoyed for its novel and beautiful turning German propaganda into highlighting the dangers of Nazism. For historical facts, this film, as all propaganda, should be used with considerable care.

Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund in Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike (1943)

The Nazis Strike
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Year: 1943
Running time: 41 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×366)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The border between fiction and reality is often a very thin one. Take the World War II film The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress for example. It is often labeled as a documentary, yet in many aspects, it is little more documentary than the almost entirely fictional Memphis Belle (1990), which it helped to inspire.

Captain Robert K. Morgan and Captain James A. Verinis before their B-17F Flying Fortress in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a documentary, sure, but like any good documentary, it was made with a certain purpose. That purpose was home front propaganda (the plane and crew were used to sell war bonds after they returned to America). In order to achieve that propaganda, the important thing is the drama and authenticity. Actual facts will have to take a back seat, unless they can help to raise abovementioned drama and authenticity.

Certainly, the film does contain many documentary elements: much of it was indeed shot during live combat missions over enemy territory, and you can see that the crew members are real humans, not actors, in the ways that they react to the cameras. But it does not portray the plane’s final mission, as stated. The film was shot during a number of different missions, some of them made with other aircraft than the Memphis Belle. One of the cinematographers is said to have been killed during the filming when the bomber he was on board was shot down over France.

Another example of how the film skillfully mixes real and fictional elements is that all sound, including the crew members’ on-board dialogue, was recorded and added during post production. Some people find it fascinating that they show wounded and dead crew members (of other aircraft) in a propaganda film, but this was common during the period. That way, the courage of the fighting man is shown to be even greater, because the audience is made to realize that the hazards of combat flying are very real.

Perhaps I make it sound like I disapprove of all the short-cuts that directory William Wyler and his crew have taken in the production of this film. That would be far from the truth. The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a great film, captivating and inspiring, not in spite of the fictional elements, but perhaps moreso because of them. Without the fiction, the story would be bland and boring.

This film is best enjoyed for its large amount of actual combat footage and for its considerable story-telling qualities. For the historical facts, you need to go elsewhere, though as a documentary of a combat crew’s situation on board a B-17, the film does have many fine qualities.

B-17 Flying Fortress formation in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress
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Year: 1944
Running time: 43 min
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Eugene Kern (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)

The First of the Few (1942)

As I have previously mentioned, it is 75 years ago this year that World War II began. One year later, the Germans were attacking in full force during the Battle of Britain, a battle which has been depicted in movies on several occasions. The battle ended on October 31, 1940.

The most important (or, at any rate, the most legendary) British fighter in that battle was the Spitfire. Spitfire was designed by R.J. Mitchell, who unfortunately did not live to see his creation in battle. His life and career inspired the film The First of the Few which was released in the middle of the war.

Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell in The First of the Few (1942)

The original title was inspired by a famous Winston Churchill quote. When the same film was released in America, it was unfortunately cut down and renamed to the bland Spitfire (that version is also available for download, though I strongly recommend the original).

The First of the Few, like many other films of its kind, is wartime propaganda, though its propagandistic elements do not disturb. It must be noted, however that like so many other historical dramas, this is not a good retelling of true historical events. Director and leading actor Leslie Howard chose to alter events and characters as it best suited the telling of his story.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of David Niven (who plays the fighter pilot Geoffrey Crisp) or if you like this kind of nice biographical pictures.

Supermarine Spitfire in The First of the Few (1942)

The First of the Few
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Year: 1942
Running time: 1 h 54 min
Director: Leslie Howard
Stars: Leslie Howard, David Niven
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (903 M)