We Didn’t Start the Fire
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
The amount of subject matter and themes present in Heroes For Sale could create a verse in We Didn’t Start the Fire; morphine addiction, the great depression, unemployment, disgruntled vets, capitalism, communism, police brutality, automation, mob mentality, false imprisonment, stolen valour, rock n’ roll and cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! All packed within 71 minutes (well minus those last two I just mentioned). I find the sheer volume of topics the movie covers to be its weakness, many of the issues are only covered on a base level and doesn’t massively go into depth with them rather than focusing on a single topic. – Think of the movie as “Issues Facing American Society During the Great Depression 101”.
Heroes For Sale is an emotionally engaging film regardless of its constant shift in theme. Richard Barthelmess seems to have been made for heavy hitting dramas with that face and voice of his. In the role of Thomas Holmes he plays a character whom gets screwed over again and again; not being rewarded or ultimately losing his rewards either by bad luck or at the hands of a broken system. According to the details of a state narcotic farm card, Holmes is 25 in 1921 of which Barthelmess is defiantly not (yet despite being clearly too old for the role the ageing makeup in use is very effective).
At the beginning of the film, Holmes captures a German soldier in battle only to be shot and be captured by the German’s while his cowardly friend is mistakenly glorified and given a Medal of Honour for Thomas’ brave deed. Only a few minutes Heroes For Sale is comprised of a WWI battle, but any self-respecting war movie would jealous to have a sequence looking this good and real showcase of William Wellman’s skills as a director.
The film’s comic relief comes in the form of Max Brinker (Robert Barrat), a crazy caricature of a communist. They say communism fails to breed innovation due to the lack of an incentive yet Max is an inventor always hammering away in his room. Once he invents a machine which makes washing and drying clothes easier he happily becomes rich of it; reaping the rewards of your own invention rather than the state owning it. After this he dresses and acts like what would be a caricature of a capitalist seen in Communist propaganda, wearing a tux and top hat while despising the poor (*clicking tongues).
The fear of automation is present during the later portion of Heroes for Sale, the one aspect of the film which hits right at home as I write this review in 2018 in which major companies are automating their services. At the same time, however, does the fact that Heroes for Sale shows this fear existed in the 1930’s not prove that it is an unfounded one, that the market will adapt and life will go on? Holmes pitches the automated washing device invented by his friend Max to the head of a cleaning company under the pretence that it must not be used to throw anyone out of work or cut salaries but rather to increase production, makes jobs easier and make employees working hours shorter. Of course, the evil businessmen go back on their word and automate the entire process and throwing their employees out of work in which the newly found Luddites start rioting in the street. Tom himself is even taken over by guilt over the invention he promoted which resulted in job losses and uses his royalties to help the poor. Well not until he’s run out of town under accusations of being a communist (guy can’t catch a break).
It’s hard to really determine a political message emitting from Heroes for Sale that lands on either side of the political spectrum, even if it does conclude on an optimistic note with a final speech from Holmes about America and FDR’s inaugural address (whether the New Deal was counterproductive or not but that a whole other can of worms). It provides an interesting contrast to the more ominous final words given by Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Both films end with a titular Tom vanishing into the dark of night promising to do good in some form or another.
“It may be the end of us, but it’s not the end of America.”