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
Download link
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)

The Air Force Story (1953)

Did I mention that the Internet Archive is an amazing resource? In addition to the thousands of freely and legally downloadable fictional films (I am only scratching the surface in this blog), there are also thousands of documentaries, propaganda, instructional films and other historically interesting items made available by the American government. These include some true classics, such as the Why We Fight series from World War II, but also a good number of lesser known jewels. Today, we take a look at The Air Force Story, a history of the US Air Force produced early in the Cold War.

Boening B-17 Flying Fortress bombers during World War II in The Air Force Story (1953)

There is very little information available about this series of films. No information, not even year of production, is given in the films themselves, except that the music is played by The Air Force Band (which apparently had a male choir as well). The descriptions at the Internet Archive only give keywords for the contents, and the year of release as 1953.

For anyone interested in the history of aviation, though, the series is a gold mine. Here you will find information about and spectacular film sequences of classic military aircraft such as DH-4, JN-4 “Jenny”, B-17 Flying Fortress (image above), P-38 Lightning, B-29 Superfortress and B-36 (image below). Just to mention a handful.

The Air Force Story is at times almost ridiculously detailed, especially the chapters dealing with World War II. When I started watching the series, I thought I was only going to see a handful of chapters; the early ones, the final ones, and some samples from the war years. But the more I saw, the more fascinated I became, and I ended up watching the entire 26(!) episodes.

It is very interesting to watch some of the later episodes after first having watched Victory Through Air Power, since that film describes many of the tactics that were actually used in the war.

The propaganda, fairly light in the early episodes, becomes more and more pronounced the closer one gets to the “present” (i.e. 1950s). Near the end, it actually becomes quite embarrassing, as Hiroshima was said to be a military target (about 50,000 dead civilians as a direct result of the blast and fire).

Here is a list of all the chapters, and links to the Internet Archive for each.

  1. The Beginning
  2. After the War, 1918 – 1923
  3. Struggle for Recognition, 1923 – 1930
  4. Between Wars, 1930 – 1935
  5. Air Power Advances, 1935 – 1937
  6. Prelude to War, 1937 – 1939
  7. The Air War Starts, 1939 – 1941
  8. The Drawing of the Battle Lines, December 1941 – April 1942
  9. The AAF Fights Back, April – July 1942
  10. The Tide Turns, June – December 1942
  11. North Africa, November 1942 – May 1943
  12. Global Operations, 1943
  13. Expanding Air Power, June 1943
  14. Schweinfurt and Regensburg, August 1943
  15. Two Years of War, September – December 1943
  16. Maximum Effort, October 1943
  17. Road to Rome, September 1943 – June 1944
  18. Prelude to Invasion, January – June 1944
  19. D-Day, June 1944
  20. Ploesti, March – August 1944
  21. Superfort, August 1943 – June 1944
  22. Victory in Europe, June 1944 – May 1945
  23. Retreat and Advance, June 1944 – March 1945
  24. Air War Against Japan, 1944 – 1945
  25. A New Air Force, 1945 – 1947
  26. Cold War, 1948 – 1950

Even for an aviation nut like myself, watching the entire series will become tiresome after a while. There is a lot of reiterated propaganda, and some episodes contain relatively little information. If you just want to watch a few parts, I would recommend 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 19 and 26 for starters. Most other episodes have something to offer, however, and especially if you are interested in World War II.

As if the original 26 parts were not enough, there is also an Air Force Story, Volume 2 from a few years later (chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; chapter 2 appears to be unavailable). I have not decided whether I will watch that, too.

This series is best enjoyed if you are interested in military history. It must be remembered at all times that this is propaganda, but though some details may be left out or exaggerated, the overall story reflects true events, and it is told in an interesting way. Most important, however, is the huge amount of unique film material used for the series, much of which is publicly available nowhere else.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker bombers during the Cold War in The Air Force Story (1953)

The Air Force Story
Download link (Chapter 1)
Year: 1953
Running time: 6 h 10 min
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Today it is ecaxtly one hundred years since World War I broke out. This tragic conflict, one of the most terrible in human history, has been depicted on the silver screen many times. One of the first great films (perhaps the first) to emphasize this tragic aspect was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the film that catapulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom.

Many people still think that Rudolph Valentino was a great actor. To me, it seems that his greatest talent was to look like he is about to burst into tears any minute. Even when he smiles. Well, even I have to admit that he was good at using small details in his facial expression and body language. Be that as it may, many of his films are wonderful; well-produced, epic and still today captivating. The Four Horsemen … is one of his best.

Bowditch Turner, Nigel De Brulier and Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Actually, the War does not begin until about halfway through the movie, and even though it is an imporatant backdrop to the later part of the film, this is a film about people and ideas, less about the war as such. It begins with a wealthy Argentine patriarch and his two sons-in-law. One French and one German. The film is clearly anti-German (at a time when the Nazi party had barely been established, the Germans in the film enbrace many ideas that would later come to be associated with Nazi ideology), and consequently, the French son-in-law and his son are favoured.

After the death of the patriarch, each part of the family moves back to Europe. We now follow the French son, Julio (Valentino) and his life in Paris as a playboy artist and dancer, constantly broke and falling in love with a married woman, thus causing a scandal. But just as things appear to go his way, war erupts and turns everything upside down.

This film is best enjoyed if you like Rudolph Valentino’s acting and good looks (he is said to be a favourite with the gay community), but if you are like me and feel some scepticism, it is still a great movie, well worth the more than two hours watching.

Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Download link
Year: 1921
Running time: 2 h 11 min
Director: Rex Ingram
Stars: Rudolph Valentino, Alice Terry and Josef Swickard
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly adapted to the images
Sound Quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.0 G)

Secret Agent (1936)

Alfred Hitchcock. One of the most deathless names among the great directors, and deservedly so. He introduced many cinematic storytelling techniques, and his amazing camerawork and timing can still take your breath away.

If you want to see his most classical masterpieces then (with a few exceptions) you must unfortunately go elsewhere than the Internet Archive. But if you are interested in digging deeper into his copious production, then the Archive offers many a forgotten gem (and some that should perhaps best remain forgotten). One of the best, and one which is almost never remembered today, is Secret Agent.

Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre and John Gielgud in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936)

Thematically, Secret Agent shares many features with the non Hitchcock thriller Dark Journey (1937), which I have previously reviewed. Both are spy stories made shortly before World War II, set during World War I, and mostly taking place in a neutral country (Switzerland in the case of Secret Agent). The main thematic difference is that the love story here is not between agents from different sides.

The plot of Secret Agent is somewhat problematic and may actually be one reason why the film is no longer very popular. The beginning, about a person whose death is faked in order to provide a good secret identity, is elegantly told but leaves only a really, really thin layer of credibility, if any. The ending is also somewhat blunt and not entirely satisfactory.

But in between, there is ample opportunity to enjoy Hitchcock’s indisputable genius. Ironically, for a film which is rich with interesting and groundbreaking use of sound effects, Hitchcock gives several nods to the silent film which saw his own beginnings as a director.

Psychologically, the film holds many interesting dimensions, and the actors interpret them excellently. Not least Peter Lorre in a spectacular role as an assassin who is in equal measures jaded and naive.

This film is best enjoyed if you love Hitchcock and want to start exploring some of his lesser-known films. Secret Agent deserves better than obscurity.

Escape through Swiss chocolate factory in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936)

Secret Agent
Download link
Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×616)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,017 M)

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is uncommonly well represented at the Internet Archive. I have found no less than 68 of his films there, out of a total 85 (as an actor). Most of those 68, however, are shorts and for that reason I will probably not write about them here.

Chaplin’s early career coincided fairly well with World War I. He started out as an actor in 1914, and in that year alone made 35 appearances (more than two fifths of his total output!). 20 of those he directed himself.

Today it happens to be exactly 95 years since armistice was signed by Germany, which in effect ended WWI. Chaplin, by that time a world famous star, had released Shoulder Arms a few weeks previously. In spite of his popularity, this was a very bold move. Many advised against making fun of a war that had killed millions and caused unmeasurable suffering. In fact, Chaplin himself had his doubts, but decided to press on.

Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918)

The entire thing proved to be a stroke of genius. Critics and audience immediately took the film to their hearts, and it was Chaplin’s greatest success to that date. It is still today a very funny film.

Chaplin plays a grunt in the trenches. First there is a very brief section set in boot camp (a little too short; lengthening this part would have done the film no harm). A large part of the film is set in the trenches, and Chaplin really manages to act out a diverse range of situations on what would at first seem to be a very limited stage. The props seem a bit cheap at times, but since this is a comedy, that is no real problem.

Much has already been written on the subject of why Shoulder Arms was so successful, so I feel that I have very little to add. What I can say, however, is why I like it myself. Chaplin was always good at charicatures, and this film is certainly no exception. My favourite is the almost midget-like German officer who uses every trick in the book to get at least a piece of respect. But Chaplin’s charicatures are never nasty, but warm and humane. This warmth must have been felt 95 years ago as well.

While I am no expert, i believe that the version at the Internet Archive is probably the original, not the re-release edited by Chaplin himself in the 1960s.

This film is best enjoyed for what it is: a light comedy on a very serious subject.

Charles Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918)

Shoulder Arms
Download link
Year: 1918
Running time: 44 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (593×480, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)

Dark Journey (1937)

Sweden is a small country, at least in terms of population, and very much less significant than we would perhaps sometimes like to think ourselves.

As a Swede, it interests me very much to see how foreigners’ prejudices about us are reflected when Swedes or Sweden are¬†mentioned in popular media. Not only is it amusing to see what others think about us; it is also sobering to realize that our own prejudices are probably quite as gross and exaggerated.

Sweden is quite often mentioned in foreign movies (an entire web site, Alla Talar Svenska, is devoted to the subject). In fact, if we had to give out all the Nobel prizes that have been awarded in movies, the Nobel committee would go broke in a matter of minutes. But it is rare indeed to find a foreign film where most of the action is set in Sweden. British Dark Journey (1937) is such a film.

Vivien Leigh in Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey was made at a time when Europe was preparing for the coming World War II. The dark clouds were plainly visible, yet it would not do to openly criticize a foreign power. But it was perfectly acceptable to make a historical movie, so several World War I dramas were made around this period. Thus could the Germans be made the enemy without actually pointing a finger.

Vivien Leigh, before she became famous in Hollywood, plays French girl Madeleine who owns an expensive clothes shop in Stockholm. She meets Conrad Veidt who plays a German agent on a mission for his country. In spite of their countries being at war, the two start to fall in love. Entaglements ensue, both at the personal and international levels.

Dark Journey is not a remarkable film by any means, but it is not bad either. From what I can tell, several sets and situations actually reflect what upperclass Stockholm might have looked like in the 1910s (though except for some mood-setting shots of Stockholm just at the beginning, nothing is filmed on location). The actors deliver what they are expected to, and the story is original enough to keep the interest up all the way to the end. The best thing about it may be the excellent soundtrack by Richard Addinsell. Too bad this was probably never released on record.

This film is best enjoyed with a few glasses of ice-cold punsch, a Swedish liqueur which was popular at the time when this movie is set. As far as I can remember, “Sk√•l!” is the only Swedish word spoken in the film.

Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt in Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey
Download link
Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Victor Saville
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Vivien Leigh
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×616)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)