Plot: Tom (Richard Barthelmess) has been tasked to lead a small group of soldiers on an important, but dangerous mission, as if the rain soaked, bullet hell of the World War I trenches weren’t already lethal enough. The squad is made up of ten soldiers, but one of them remains in cover while the others charge a German stronghold, gunned down in front of him. Roger is terrified and lets the fear control him, even when just he and Tom remain alive. He refuses to leave cover and Tom charges ahead alone, somehow able to capture an enemy officer in the process. But just as he returns, Tom is shot and it is up to Roger to complete the mission. Despite his actual cowardice, he is hailed as a hero upon his return, as no one knows the truth of the mission. But when it turns out that Tom is still alive, things take a darker turn for both men in the wake of the war, as they are taken to some harrowing emotional places.
Entertainment Value: This is a dark one, an intense and well crafted drama that deals with some potent, still relevant social issues. Heroes for Sale runs just over 70 minutes, but has a deep narrative, great character development, and puts every one of those minutes to effective use. A lot happens in the movie, but it never feels overwhelming or rushed, the threads are explored with proper depth at a good pace and with a focus on essential elements. The dynamic of a hero reduced to a desperate addict and a coward given a hero’s glory is quite interesting and well handled here, but Tom’s side of the coin holds more riveting aspects. The toll of addiction is explored in an unflinching, but not over the top fashion. If the movie had gone all Reefer Madness, it would have lost the impact, but it keeps things dark and grounded. I appreciate that addiction is examined in such an open way here and given proper time, despite being just one part of Tom’s overall narrative. I think this is an engaging set of intertwined stories from start to finish, with minimal downtime or filler involved.
The role of Tom could have easily drifted into over the top melodrama, but Richard Barthelmess keeps it serious and reined in. This allows the tense, often dark nature of the material to hit at full speed and while I don’t mind a fun melodramatic turn, the more serious effort works better in this case. I especially think his scenes in regard to the morphine addiction are impressive, as he is able to convey the compulsion and desperation, but in a believable fashion. Gordon Westcott is also quite good here, while Robert Barrat dials up his performance as Max, perhaps the most memorable of the film’s supporting roles. Other familiar faces in Heroes for Sale include Loretta Young, James Murray, Aline MacMahon, and Burton Churchill, as well as a few others in smaller roles. In the end, I found Heroes for Sale to be a remarkable movie, one that fans of pre-code cinema won’t want to miss.