This is another contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema blog – and, sorry, it’s a bit of an epic but I’m somewhat obsessed with this movie at the moment
One of the greatest First World War films I’ve seen is All Quiet on the Western Front , which I reviewed here a while ago, and which shows the conflict in agonising and sometimes gory detail. Howard Hawks’ early film The Dawn Patrol is quite different, tighter in its focus and leaving more to the imagination – but it’s equally intense and harrowing, and deserves to be much better-known than it is. I’d say it is also equally anti-war in its emotional message.
Most of its action takes place in the small, claustrophobic setting of the few rooms near the frontline where a group of British pilots are based. This restricted set gives the feeling of a stage play, although in fact it’s due to the limited scope of early talkies. In any case, the narrow focus becomes a strength of the film, giving a sense of just what the pilots’ lives have been reduced to – how all there is now is flights and the space between them. Ed Howard has written about the advantages of the limited sets and pared-down feeling of the film in his review.
Although the movie is based on a story by pilot John Monk Saunders, Hawks, who was also an air force veteran, says in Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies that he himself wrote the film’s story. Clearly he shaped the screenplay to fit his own key themes and preoccupations, with the focus very much on male bonding and sacrifice – and on the tensions of a small group of people forced together under an impossible strain, something also at the heart of two other early Hawks films about flying, Ceiling Zero and Today We Live.
For much of the film, the pilots, led by embittered veteran Dick Courtney (Richard Barthelmess) and his best friend Doug Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) mill around waiting for their next flight. They share endless drinks at the makeshift bar (there seems to be no shortage of alcohol to numb their pain), and join in maudlin songs, always about death. Names of the flight members are written in chalk on a blackboard, then rubbed out as they die and are replaced.
The flight commander, Major Brand (Neil Hamilton) is a few feet away from them, drinking from his own ever-present whisky bottle at his desk . On the door to his office, someone has scrawled the phrase ‘The Throne’ – but , despite barking out orders, it soon becomes clear that he has no power at all. The rulers are the faceless superiors who contact him by phone, demanding that he sends his fliers on one suicidal mission after another, and promising him another batch of fresh-faced replacements for today’s dead . He argues briefly, then despairingly agrees to obey the latest ludicrous order.
Each time Brand has had a phone conversation with his superiors, he then relays the order to Courtney, who makes the same bitter protest he has just made – pointing out everything he knows already. The argument usually ends the same way, with Courtney icily snapping: “Right!”, whirling around, and going off to lead more young recruits to their deaths. It’s mentioned early on in the film that Courtney and Brand get on badly because they “fell out over a woman” . But this explanation seems unnecessary, since they obviously get on badly because of their desperate situation and because these are the roles they have to play in the context of the war. In any case, this is an all-male world – there isn’t a glimpse of a woman in the whole film, and I don’t think there is even a mention of a wife or sweetheart. It’s hard to believe in any world outside the battle zone.
Hawks told Schickel that he wrote all the dialogue for The Dawn Patrol – and came in for criticism from the studio for its terse style. “I used to get notes saying that I had a chance to make a good scene and I blew it. Because the dialogue was very understated, very natural – it wasn’t stage dialogue. And I think I had forty letters from the front office saying I missed things.”
The fact that he did keep the dialogue so sparse, although it still sounds melodramatic at moments, is one of the things which makes this early talkie still feel surprisingly modern. As a Brit, I find the clipped dialogue a reasonably convincing approximation of upper-class English speech, and I also thought the accents are mostly very good – in particular, Douglas Fairbanks Jr sounds so English that I could hardly believe he wasn’t! (He did spend a lot of time over here, especially during the Second World War.) Hamilton doesn’t bother to do an English accent, but I’d say it really doesn’t matter – when watching him have yet another row, I was wondering if he was going to crack under the pressure , not giving him marks out of ten for pronunciation.
The stand-out performance is definitely Barthelmess as Courtney, expressing so much through his haunted eyes, although he leaves most of what he is feeling unsaid. He never cries, as many of the other men do, just presses his hand against his face and, later on in the film when it is all too much for him, buries his face deep in his hands in silent agony. Interestingly, Hawks is quoted in a brief digression in Richard Schickel’s book James Cagney as saying that he tried to get Barthelmess to cry but it didn’t work out. “I’ve seen plenty of men cry. When I get somebody who was good enough – I tried it with Dick Barthelmess in Dawn Patrol and he sounded like a cow mooing. So I said, ‘This isn’t gonna work very well. You’re not a good cryer’.”
I must say, though, that I think that hand pressed against his (usually dirty) face, as though he is holding everything in, says as much as any tears could.
Through the first half of the film, Courtney is leader of the seven-man A flight, coping with the strain of his job – but still relishing the fact that he gets out of the building each day and can soar above it all. He and Scott share a few conversations which show the pleasure they get out of flying, despite everything, and also show the deep friendship between them. In the middle of the film there’s an action sequence where the two of them set off on an illicit flight and take revenge on Germans for a supposed insult – it’s a silly, juvenile episode, but the one point in the film where there’s some feeling of release from the suffocating claustrophobia.
However, any relief is all too short-lived. When Brand is promoted, Courtney gets his job – and is soon acting in exactly the same way as his predecessor. He finds himself drinking at the desk, arguing over the phone, and, most painfully, falling out with Scott – who is now the one barking “right!” at him.
Ed Howard wrote in his review about how the repetition of similar incidents with different characters shows the “cyclical nature of war, de-emphasising the individual in order to show the constant stream of bodies, young men being thrust into positions opened up by their now-dead predecessors.” I agree with this, yet I think that, at the same time as showing the relentless continuation of the process with changing personnel, the film does still give the feeling of what a loss each individual death is. At the start of the film there is a new recruit whose best friend died on his first mission – he is repeatedly seen in tears, seeming to be wrapped up in his own world, as the others drink or sing around him. Nobody else in the film even knew his friend, but he did.
Later, Scott and Courtney fall out seriously, breaking off their frindship, when Scott’s young brother, Donny (William Janney), turns up as one of the latest batch of recruits. Scott wants to save him, to get him held back from the conflict – but Courtney points out that there can be no exceptions. The most terrible thing here is that they are both right. Scott is right that his brother is too young and inexperienced, and will die in his first battle, as he does. Courtney is right that others are equally unprepared and there can be no favouritism.
The breach between the two is the place where the film slightly tilts over into melodrama – leading to a scene where Courtney gives his life for his friend, in an echo of the famous scene in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities where Sydney Carton drugs Charles Darnay and takes his place at the guillotine. Similarly, Courtney gets Scott drunk and takes his place on a brave but suicidal mission – ensuring that his friend will remember him with love, at any rate until he gets killed himself.
While the individual dramas in this film are playing out, the sheer scale of the loss of life being portrayed gives a strong anti-war message – as does the fact that the German pilots, whenever they are glimpsed, seem very similar to their English counterparts. There’s a remarkable scene where a German flying ace is captured and shares a drink with the English pilots – then, when Scott, the man he thought he had killed, turns up alive, he throws his arms round him. This scene really reminded me of a line from a famous Wilfred Owen poem, Strange Meeting: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”