The Hellions (1962)

Pirated copies are around if you search.  Otherwise this is almost impossible to see. 

The Hellions is just like a western, only  set in the South African Transvaal.  The title characters are Luke Billings and his four sons, desperados all, who invade a dusty little town to settle an old score with the newly-appointed marshal, Sam Hargiss.  Unable to mobilize the cowardly townspeople for help, and unwilling to face the Hellions alone, Hargiss hides at home with his pregnant wife, while the Billings gang misbehaves with impunity all over town.  Finally old Luke Billings makes a pass at the wife of timid shopkeeper Ernest Dobbs.  Though wussy in the extreme and a poor marksman, Dobbs is so outraged by this transgression that he marches down the main street with a rifle, to confront the Billings gang single-handed.  This inspires the marshal and the townspeople to unite behind him.  The film ends with the Hellions dead and virtue triumphant.

The Billings boys force poor old Dr. Weiser to drink whiskey from the bottle!

One amateur reviewer (Alan Mount) has said The Hellions is a lot like High Noon only better.  I think that’s going too far, but I agree that The Hellions is more fun than High Noon.   It doesn’t take itself so seriously and it’s full of delightful B-movie absurdities.  (Like the fact that the frightened townspeople actually refer to the Billings gang as “the Hellions.”   Or the fact that Billings and his sons do not look or sound like members of the same family.)  

Though much of the humor in The Hellions seems unintentional, the film was originally conceived as a parody of the genre western (sort of like the later film Cat Ballou).  This vision became blurred when director Ken Annakin was stricken with polio while making the film.  Forced to finish the project from a hospital bed, Annakin relied on assistants, who gave The Hellions its present, oh-so-straightforward quality.   (For the details, see Annakin's autobiography, So You Wanna Be a Director?.)

The spirit of fun survives to some extent in James Booth's wonderfully entertaining performance as the eldest Billings boy, Jubal.  A goofy but scary and out-of-control character, like a more sinister version of Ernest T. Bass, Jubal delights in firing his gun at whiskey bottles and human beings.  He talks in a soft, sugary voice full of menace, laughs maniacally, and walks like a pimp. Weeks away from a shave or haircut, Booth looks  young, fit, and handsome.  His rumpled, tough-guy rags are torn open to the waist, revealing a strip of hairless chest and flat stomach.     

As usual, some of his best moments are silent—e.g. the absurd “grooming” scene on the street before he accosts the woman in blue, and the fight scene at the end (where he wields a pitchfork and an axe).

Fans of Zulu will notice that certain details of that great film are anticipated in The Hellions.  Jubal’s neck scarf and some of his mannerisms carry over to the character Booth plays in Zulu.  Also the South African actor Gert Van Den Bergh, who plays Dr. Weiser in The Hellions, will reappear in Zulu as Adendorff.  

And dig the theme song! 

“Live by the gun/then sure as the sunrise/die by the gun you must/just as the Hellions/one by one/died in the Transvaal dust.”  Sung by Marty Wilde, who also plays John Billings.

Text copyright Diana Blackwell, 2002.



Publicity materials from from The Hellions pressbook

Keith Howes comments on The Hellions

So You Wanna Be A Director? by Ken Annekin, 2001, Tomahawk Press

Review by Eugene Archer in The New York Times, 3/15/62, 28:2