|Dick ‘Court’ Courtney
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
|Released by Warner Brothers | Directed By Howard Hawks
The Dawn Patrol: The Circle of Death
“Wouldn’t it be funny to be back there again? Imagine getting up in the morning and having nothing to do all day but enjoy peace and quiet. And to know absolutely that you were going to get back in your bed that night. Silly, isn’t it?”
War is hell. We’ve been over that, right? World War I movies were still popular productions in the early 1930s, with those about aviators– which gave a visual thrill that trench warfare surely couldn’t– making big bucks at the box office while their themes of futility and frustration rang true for a generation removed from the conflict.
The Dawn Patrol fits tidily in with the other pictures of its time, mostly distinguished by its pedigree of Howard Hawks, directing his first talkie, and stars Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The latter two star as fighter pilots Court and Scott respectively who find that their morning patrols along the border of France in 1915 always return with the greenest recruits missing. This chafes Court, but not as much as it irritates his flight commander Major Brand, who spends most of his time at the bottom of a bottle, waiting for the roaring engines to signal the squadron’s return.
It’s an ugly existence as new recruits are either killed or driven batty. Court and Scott harden themselves through drink and denial, as only they can. Things get worse when word that a German ace named Von Richter has taken up camp on the other side of the lines directly across from them. Disobeying Brand, Scott and Courtney make a run on their camp, mercilessly destroying the airfield and laughing with a mad glee. But their escape back behind the lines creates an unexpected casualty. Courtney makes the biggest mistake he can in his position– he gets promoted.
With Brand up in high command, Court becomes the drunken flight commander, tasked with sending the same fresh faced recruits to their deaths every day. To make matters worse, one of the green fliers is Scott’s brother, and Courtney has no choice but to send the boy into a dangerous mission. But Court knows the truth about the war, about what’s about to happen to the kid, and lets him know it. He’s going to die. He adds:
“It really isn’t so bad if, when you do go, you know that you know you’ve done everything you could to help.”
That ‘die like a man’ pep talk doesn’t really work, and Scott’s brother is quick to go in a dogfight with Von Richter. Scott and Court’s friendship, the only thing keeping the two men alive, is torn apart. When Brand arrives to order a man to take a suicide mission. Scott leaps at the chance to follow his brother to the pearly gates. But Courtney can’t let him do that, and, again disobeying orders, gets Scott drunk and takes on the mission himself, perishing. Touched by his friend’s sacrifice, Scott becomes the new flight commander, ready to send another batch of recruits to their deaths.
And while much of the movie is about that cyclical structure (with much more on that below), there’s a great deal about the coldness of command. As shown in The Dawn Patrol, too often the best and most capable are promoted. Why would you put your best pilot at a desk? More to the point, why would you put him at a desk and harangue him after he gets promoted for directly disobeying orders? Thus the film illustrates the folly of military glory, where daring and genius are rewarded with an inability to repeat any of those successes.
To further the point of this futility, once Brand returns to the men in the last act to order the final suicide mission, it’s clear that much of his empathy has dripped out. The names on the blackboard have become pawns to him, and as he orders Courtney to carry out the suicide mission, the air of impertinence fills the stuffy dark room.
An expert in Howard Hawks’ directing oeuvre could probably draw you lines between The Dawn Patrol and his later aviation film Only Angels Have Wings, but I am not that person. Hawks often made movies about manly men stuck in tough situations and making the best of it with honor and courage. This is one of those films.
What stands out about it are two things. First would have to be the aerial battles, which are all well integrated with the film’s plot and don’t feel flagged for operatic grandeur that so sinks Hell’s Angels. They’re Warner Brothers dogfights, scrappy little messes that don’t linger on the wonder or freedom of air flight, but on the dread and immediacy.
The other strong point of the film is that Hawks makes great use of Barthelmess. Barthelmess is a small, unlikely star, but one I’ve grown to love over the years of writing for this site. He has a thick brow and thoughtful eyes and grits his teeth in a manner that makes him hard but intelligent. You can see the gears grinding, all the burden on Courtney throughout as Barthelmess deftly keeps him on that tightrope between frustration and empathy.
The big problem with The Dawn Patrol is that it’s kind of stagey and pretty samey to most of the other aviation epics of its time. There isn’t much in terms of pre-Code content besides being another film with some cool flying scenes and a chance for Barthelmess to glower. Speechifying, especially, becomes a problem from the get-go, as the advent of the talkies seems to have meant that everyone has to talk constantly. This is pretty wearying, especially in the first act. The movie gets better as it goes, but, while it certainly offers a beginner’s course on ‘The Films of Howard Hawks’, it never really turns into anything more interesting than that. The cycle of death continues… but so what?
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Trivia & Links
- The Dawn Patrol was remade in 1938 with Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone. The remake was quite popular, and this version was retitled Flight Commander to help people keep them sorted. Many of the flying scenes from this film were reused in the remake.
- This movie was subject to a lawsuit from Howard Hughes who claimed that the idea was stolen from his screenplay for Hell’s Angels. This resulted in Warners rushing the movie out to avoid the competition, and they eventually won their lawsuit. The screenplay won Best Screenwriting at the 1931 Academy Awards.
- Frank McHugh, who would have a long and profitable career in the movies, makes his first speaking onscreen appearance here as a drunk motorcycle messenger.
- The New York Times, in their original review, expected the worst but was pleasantly surprised. They still find several moments suitably silly:
Finally, toward the end, Richard Barthelmess takes it upon himself to bomb a city. The explosion would have practically won the war. First National has spent its powder and shot lavishly—and “The Dawn Patrol” holds the interest.
- Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, loves this one. He points out its many imitators, from the remake to Top Gun, and then links to a later, better known Hawks’ film:
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.
- Paul Mavis, also writing over at DVD Talk, talks about the film’s nihilistic view. I was going to touch on the same things up above but, hey, he puts it better than I could have:
Fans of Howard Hawks will immediately recognize his worldview here, where men are their work (soldiering), with grim humor and resignation vying for cynical purpose as one does his duty regardless of cost. As to the movie’s anti-war message, The Dawn Patrol suffers the same fate as almost every other war movie that stages battle scenes for maximum excitement: war is hell…but it sure seems fun. You can’t elevate on-screen soldiers into heroes with splashy bits of derring-do (particularly with this First World War gallantry among the air aces), and then tell your audience how awful war is―because the fantasy element is still too strong (Hawks’ battle scenes are so well staged, much of the footage was lifted for the remake, as well as for other war movies’ stock footage). Still, to The Dawn Patrol‘s credit, Hawks and company never let up on telegraphing to the audience that the “dawn patrols” are never going to stop, and everyone, eventually, is going to die.
- Only the Cinema takes the film’s cyclical structure a point further, pointing out repeated patterns and motifs before zeroing in on how it plays into Hawks’ pet fixations.
The film’s central theme is the cyclical nature of war, de-emphasizing the individual in order to show the constant stream of bodies, young men being thrust into positions opened up by their now-dead predecessors. The film’s structure ingeniously displays the repetitive nature of combat, with certain key scenes reappearing at intervals like recurring motifs in a piece of music, slightly altered each time to accentuate the changes that have occurred in between repetitions. One such scene is the one where the squad’s commander sits in his office listening to the sound of the planes returning from their latest mission: he counts the number of motors he hears and can therefore tell how many of his men have returned, and how many died in battle. Hawks places the audience in the position of the commander, listening to the motors swooping in on the soundtrack, trying to count the number of planes.
As in many of Hawks’ films, coming to terms with the masculine world means masking one’s emotions beneath a surface toughness and laughing off danger with a song and a grin. It also means maintaining a healthy respect for one’s enemy, as shown in the extraordinary scene — virtually unimaginable in later, more propagandistic war films — in which the fliers capture a shot-down German pilot and wind up grudgingly inviting him to drink and sing with them. The same impulse is there in the enemy pilots who exchange salutes even as they gun each other out of the sky. The film suggests that all these men, on either side, are unified in their nobility and bravery, that war is not so much a necessary conflict between diametrically opposed sides, but a game, a proving ground for brave young men to test their mettle against those who, by pure chance, have been placed on the other team.
- Here’s the preview clip of the film via Warner Archive:
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon and Warner Archive.
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