The Dawn Patrol (1930, Howard Hawks)
As I waited patiently for this, my second purchase from the Warner Archive burn-on-demand service, to arrive in the mail, I jokingly grumbled about having to pay full price for it, sight unseen. Not that I shouldn’t trust director Howard Hawks, you understand; I know him mostly for his comedies and the films he would later make with Humphrey Bogart, but I count Bringing Up Baby as a masterpiece, His Girl Friday as close. War films only occasionally land with me, though, and The Dawn Patrol is remembered in some quarters as a creaky and dated early sound film. I shouldn’t have worried; as it turns out, the movie’s worth a good deal more than I paid for it.
This is a spectacular and sobering picture on the order of All Quiet on the Western Front, with far less poetry but a stronger and equally devastating portrait of the day-to-day casualties and tragedies of a communal life among violence that’s constantly challenging to the spirit. Set in a British airbase during World War I, it chronicles a changing of the guard. Hard-drinking crack pilots Scott and Courtney, brilliantly brought to life by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Richard Barthelmess, grouse privately and publicly about the recklessness of their commanding officer Brand (an even more brilliant — and doubly haunting — Neil Hamilton), but when Brand is reassigned after a German squadron begins routinely laying waste to the new recruits, Courtney takes over and comes to know just how impossible and heartbreaking the position is. The more time goes on, the more wrenching and tragic this life becomes — with no sympathy forthcoming from the outside.
Technically, this is the kind of movie that makes it hard to excuse other studio filmmakers for their early struggles with sound cinema: the actors are comfortable and believable, the camerawork fluid, with many indelible images throughout. The action sequences are staggering, even if the planes used are not historically accurate, and are ingeniously placed at specific points in the beginning, middle, and end of the picture so that their overwhelming sense of danger does not overtake the narrative. Hawks’ sense of place is strong, his portrayal of easy camaraderie among the men utterly realistic and entrancing.
I was most stricken, though, by two things: structure and detail. The former is quite unusual — although the story is linear, it relies on a sense of cycle and repetition that divides the film in half based on the two squadron leaders and their unbearably stressful regimes. We come to know the characters well, well enough that it hurts, because so many of them are lost throughout the film. And there’s just so much intricacy and depth here. The bitterness that both Brand and Courtney come to know as commanding officers and the unceasing conflict of their protectiveness with an overriding sense of duty (I’ve honestly never seen this portrayed so clearly in a film) are consistently as vivid in broadest terms as in, for instance, the startling detail of listening to how many planes fly back in to determine how many men were lost (exemplifying the film’s exquisite use of sound).
Hawks wasn’t remotely the pacifist implied by this strongly anti-war film but that was the mood of the time, and he gives it his all, arriving fully formed into his first talkie as a highly assured modern filmmaker with a willingly audacious unit and an elastic, determined temperament. Perhaps all you really need to know is that a comparison to the two handiest WWI pictures of the time reveals this to be a closer visceral experience to All Quiet than to Paramount’s dramatically flabby Wings. Hawks might have later created a lot of patriotic, gung-ho pictures about war and patriotism, but his warm sequence in which Scott meets the German who shot him down and they exchange a hug — that kind of tells the whole story of war in one moment, doesn’t it?