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"You can't send my brother up in a crate like that!"
Its life lengthened by parodies in Mad Magazine, that line of dialogue was once a familiar part of the culture. Actually, the words aren't read quite like that in the original 1930 The Dawn Patrol, an entertaining movie overshadowed by a 1938 remake with Errol Flynn and David Niven. Their parts in this original version are taken by Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with Neil Hamilton playing the role later given to Basil Rathbone. The remake may have bigger stars but the 1930 version is the better picture. The Dawn Patrol connects with other movies of its time that take a decidedly downbeat attitude toward the WW1 experience, most prominently All Quiet in the Western Front. And it's (I'm fairly certain) the first all-talkie feature directed by the great Howard Hawks. The Dawn Patrol may be the first flowering of the "professional male unit" theme, which informs many of his later pictures.
It's not certain that the famed "Lost Generation" writer John Monk Saunders wrote The Dawn Patrol. According to Hawks, Saunders simply sold his name to a story devised by the director. In 1915 a British Expeditionary aerodrome is suffering heavy losses in combat, sacrificing inexperienced fighter pilots to the larger German air force. The frustrated Major Brand (Neil Hamilton) is sickened as he sends pilots with only a handful of combat flying hours up to face the enemy. Flight leaders Dick Courtney and Douglas Scott (Richard Barthelmess & Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) try to help younger pilots like Ralph Hollister (Gardner James) deal with their friends being shot down in flames. Courtney and Scott finally rebel, defy the Major's orders and attack the German aerodrome directly. When they get back, Major Brand has a special punishment for them. He's being promoted back to command, and he appoints Courtney as the new Flight Commander. Courtney will now have to endure the hatred of the fliers. All goes well until Scott's younger brother Donnie (William Janney) arrives, eager to prove himself in combat. Donnie goes up the very next morning with the other rookies. His flight immediately tangles with experienced Germans eager to pick off easy prey.
Over eighty years later The Dawn Patrol remains a fairly moving experience despite the fact that its plot points have been looted thoroughly by later aviation films, all the way to Top Gun. When a captured German pilot is welcomed into the officer's mess, enemies drink and sing together in an older spirit of chivalry. New pilots arrive brimming with enthusiasm. If they are lucky to survive their first mission, they need strong drink to cure them of the shakes. The Germans return the boots of fallen English pilots, dropping them on the aerodrome with insulting notes attached. The only real sin is 'letting the team down,' even though everyone hates the missions and thinks their orders are unreasonable. But when we hear that a flyer was killed while coming to the aid of a comrade, his death is O.K., that is, honorable. The dead pilots are soon forgotten anyway, as the turnover is so rapid.
Richard Barthelmess is the key to the film's tone. We don't know if 1930 audiences still remembered his D.W. Griffith classics, but ten years later the sensitive actor carries an extra charge of disillusion. Dick Courtney blames his commander before he inherits the crushing responsibility of sending men out die. Courtney doesn't handle the non-flying job well, and lets the booze get out of hand. The final scenes see him atoning for some un-committed crime by taking a suicide mission his best buddy was supposed to fly.
No women appear in the movie, although it seems clear that Dick and Doug's trip into town on a motorcycle (driven by Frank McHugh, making his acting debut for Warners) is to visit prostitutes. They can drink like fish in their little officer's club, so what else could they be after? Barthelmess, Fairbanks Jr. and Neil Hamilton (he of TV's Batman fame) are fine in their roles, if sometimes a bit theatrical. They also stumble over the dialogue now and then. As this was 1930, less than a year into the sound era, allowances can be made. Howard Hawks would of course later become known for pictures with remarkably fluid and dynamic dialogue.
The spectacular flying scenes do not upstage those for William Wellman and Howard Hughes but they're pretty impressive just the same. Stunt flyers smash their planes into the ground and wheel about each other in the sky in convincing combat; some primitive traveling mattes look great, with just a little background bleed-through. This original version ended up re-titled for TV as The Flight Commander. Most every visual not using a leading player was re-purposed for the 1938 remake, which is almost a shot-for-shot copy.
This accounts for even more familiarity, especially in the air raid scenes. The airplanes are so light that two men can pick up the tail of one and push it in the grass. They're outfitted with rather tiny bombs, yet a solitary plane is able to knock out an entire railway switchyard, creating monstrous explosions that obliterate entire buildings. But it does look good! Today, we also note that France has an arid, chaparral-like landscape. You know, like Southern California.
WW1 aviation movies are hit and miss, but The Dawn Patrol is one of the true originals. The Howard Hawks formula does seem to be here, to the extent that his 1939 Only Angels Have Wings seems an extension of the same story. Everybody drinks, in almost every scene, in both movies. The idea of drinking to fallen comrades and then forgetting them is made even more explicit. Richard Barthelmess returns in what seems a characterization link-up, as a disgraced flyer even more discouraged than Dick Courtney.
Actually, the really interesting double bill for The Dawn Patrol is William Dieterle's The Last Flight, for which John Monk Saunders definitely wrote both the novel and the screenplay. It's a Pre-Code drama about ex- WW1 flyers unable to adjust to the Peace as they indulge an endless bender in Paris. Richard Barthelmess is their unofficial leader and he's more disillusioned than ever. It's perhaps the best (and least pretentious) film about what Gertrude Stein defined as the "Lost Generation".
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of the 1930 The Dawn Patrol is a good transfer of materials that have lost a generation as wellÉ the original negative most likely disintegrated decades ago. The picture is a bit soft overall but not in any way that detracts from the experience. Audio is quite good. Some of the flying scenes are in better shape here than in the 1938 remake.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Dawn Patrol rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.