Howard Hughes took three years and spent 3.8 million dollars on this aviation war film in which three pilots died; firing two directors, Hughes claimed directing credit himself. A few scenes are tinted by a two-color process.
The story contrasts the idealistic Roy Rutledge (James Hall) with his womanizing and weak brother Monty (Ben Lyon). Roy is in love with Helen (Jean Harlow), projecting his own prudent character on her even though she is more like his brother Monty. As Oxford students they are visiting Germany with their friend Karl before the war. Monty is discovered in the arms of a German general's wife and is challenged to a duel. He leaves the country, while Roy takes his place and is wounded in the duel. When the war breaks out, Oxford student Karl is called into the German army, and the brothers sign up for the air force, after a man criticizing capitalism and war is attacked by a mob as an anarchist. In a sexy gown Helen meets Monty and immediately hits it off with him, inviting him to her apartment. Karl, who did not want to go to war and kill, is assigned to guide the bombs for a German zeppelin and makes sure they fall into a lake instead of on Trafalgar Square. The British fighter pilots are eventually shot down except for one who purposely crashes into the zeppelin.
In France Monty says he cannot fly the dangerous night patrol; but when two pilots are needed to fly a captured German plane to bomb a munitions dump, he and Roy volunteer. In their last hours Helen calls Roy a prig, and the drunk Monty changes his mind about the mission as spies. However, Roy gets him to go, and they successfully bomb the target. Most of the air action is between the German and British fighters on their return. Finally the brothers' plane is shot down, and they are captured and questioned by the same German general, who offers to spare their lives if they tell of the British plans. Monty wants to talk; but Roy offers to talk and asks the general for one bullet to kill the other man he says would not talk. Roy has to shoot Monty to keep him from giving the information and then is shot by a firing squad. The last scene shows the British attack on the German lines.
Hell's Angels shows some of war's terrors, but it focuses more on the contrasting characters of the brothers. As Monty says, war just brings out the way people really are, like getting drunk; but any attempt to question or challenge the hell of human war is quickly squelched, and Monty's occasional reluctance to participate is simply interpreted as cowardice.