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Shot on location in the Mojave Desert and the Panamint Valley near Death Valley, Hell's Heroes (1930) is probably the most stark and dramatically effective version of the oft-filmed Peter B. Kyne novella, The Three Godfathers. There was a Universal silent version in 1916, a remake directed by John Ford in 1920 called Marked Men, yet another remake by Ford in color and starring John Wayne in 1948 (Three Godfathers), and a made-for-TV version entitled The Godson in 1974.
The famous story, which is set on Christmas Eve, follows three outlaws as they rob a bank and flee into the desert during a sandstorm. While crossing the sun-scorched terrain, they discover an abandoned wagon carrying a pregnant woman. She dies shortly after giving birth and the three fugitives grudgingly agree to carry her child to safety, risking their own lives in the process.
Universal's first all-sound outdoor picture, Hell's Heroes was made at a time in William Wyler's career when he was still working his way up through the hierarchy of the studio system and not yet recognized as one of Hollywood's most talented directors. The only reason he ended up directing an A-picture like Hell's Heroes was because he had a proven track record of transforming mediocre material into first rate entertainment and because the original choice for director - screenwriter Tom Reed - had no directing experience.
The filming of Hell's Heroes turned out to be no picnic at the beach. Because of the primitive sound techniques, Wyler was forced to record the dialogue of the three outlaws on the fly by having the crew improvise a soundproof booth with a sealed window to house the camera and cameraman. The booth was mounted on rails and pushed by a dozen men in absolute silence while microphones in the sagebrush picked up dialogue. The desert temperatures would sometimes climb to a hundred ten degrees Fahrenheit and the heat in the booth would become intolerable, causing the cameraman to pass out. Wyler was also challenged in his direction by Charles Bickford, a popular New York stage actor who was brought to Hollywood by Cecil B. DeMille. Bickford refused to follow Wyler's suggestions for the filming of his final desert trek so the director worked around him, creating a long tracking shot that passed over tracks in the sand, an abandoned hat, and discarded gold before coming to rest on the orphaned baby. This powerful sequence also attracted the attention of Darryl Zanuck, a producer at Warner Bros. who ordered his directors to study this sequence.
Hell's Heroes turned out to be an enormous critical and commercial success, but Wyler had to battle for his creative vision and that meant going head to head with "Junior," Wyler's nickname for his producer and son of studio head Carl Laemmle. The two men clashed constantly over the escalating budget, the shooting schedule, and scenes that might be subjected to censorship by the Hays Office like the climax. The latter was a battle that Wyler lost. His original ending, where the surviving outlaw is captured by the angry townspeople and prepared for hanging, was dropped and replaced with a less cynical conclusion. Regardless of the change, Hell's Heroes remains a landmark Western and one of the most visually innovative films of the early sound era.
Director: William Wyler
Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.
Screenplay: Tom Reed, based on the novel The Three Godfathers by Peter B. Kyne
Cinematography: George Robinson
Editor: Harry Marker
Music: Sam Perry, Heinz Roemheld (both uncredited)
Cast: Charles Bickford (Bob Sangster), Raymond Hatton (Barbwire Tom Gibbons), Fred Kohler (Wild Bill Kearney), Fritzi Ridgeway (Mother), Jose De La Cruz (Jose)
By Jeff Stafford