Earlier this year, I reviewed Howard Hawks’ first sound movie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), a powerful tale of a group of British First World War pilots waiting in their small, temporary HQ near the frontline in France, to be sent off in batches to an almost certain death.
Since then, I’ve found myself often remembering the film, and have been curious to see the 1938 remake, directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Errol Flynn and David Niven as Captain Courtney and Lieutenant Scott, the roles played by Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in the original.
I’ve now managed to get hold of a copy of the remake, and watched it – then went back to the earlier version to see what the differences were. The thing that struck me most of all was just how similar they are – in many scenes the scripts seem almost identical, while a lot of the flying footage is clearly taken from the earlier film and sandwiched into the second version, with just Flynn’s dirty face in goggles substituted for that of Barthelmess.
However, there are some interesting differences between the two films – perhaps the most immediately noticeable one being that the dialogue seems much faster and more clipped in the Hawks movie. There is also slightly more action outside the few rooms where the pilots are based in the Goulding version – and less repetition.
In the Hawks movie, there are a succession of arrivals by “replacements” who then die and have their names rubbed out on the blackboard. There’s a succession of drunken singsongs involving a haunting song with the refrain “Hurrah for the dead already, and hurrah for the next man to die”, and a succession of scenes where Courtney argues furiously with his overstrained commanding officer, Major Brand (Neil Hamilton, a part played in the remake by a Basil Rathbone going wild with despair).
The repetition builds up an atmosphere of unbearable claustrophobia. In the 1938 film, which is just a few minutes shorter than the original, there are fewer of these constant, knife-twisting echoes of earlier scenes. However, even if the effect is less claustrophobic than in the 1930 film, it’s still quite claustrophobic enough. And the remake does still often feel like a Hawks film, not surprisingly since he had a lot of input into the script and the re-shaping of John Monk Saunders’ story for the original.
Flynn and Niven were great friends in real life, and there is a lot of chemistry between them in this movie, where they play lifelong best friends whose relationship goes back much further than their time in service together. Their friendship at first feels more jokey than between Barthelmess and Fairbanks – Niven’s character is built up as more of a happy drinker, and there is more humorous banter and by-play between the two. Often the banter somehow feels more English and understated in this version. I liked one added line where Courtney warns Scott to get back safely from a mission, and says: “Don’t leave me holding the bottle.”
Later in the film, the relationship between the two men is stretched to breaking point, when Courtney is forced to take over from Brand as commanding officer, and is the one sending the green recruits out to their deaths. Scott is soon falling out with Courtney just as he himself fell out with Brand – and, when Scott’s young brother is killed in a combat mission, he bitterly upbraids his friend.
Flynn plays Courtney during this part of the film in a slightly more understated way than Barthelmess did in the 1930 version, where he gave a magnificent performance with all his emotions on the surface. I get the impression that acting in general had become a little less theatrical over the intervening eight years, with the larger gestures left over from silent film starting to disappear. Flynn’s emotions are therefore more hidden, but he still puts the tension across very clearly.
There’s one scene which particularly struck me where former commanding officer Brand visits Courtney to pass on his latest orders, and to gloat over the fact that he is no longer the one behind that desk. Brand keeps absent-mindedly playing with a pack of cigarettes, until Courtney snaps : “Would you mind not doing that?” His voice is quiet, but his nerves are suddenly showing.
There’s also another scene earlier in the film where Flynn as Courtney is facing Brand with a calm expression, but you can see that he is wringing his hands behind his back. And there’s a line he must surely have added in to the script himself, a cynical comment about wars resulting from men being beasts, where he begins: “My father is a professor of biology and he always says …” Flynn’s father was indeed a professor of biology.
The final melodrama where Courtney gives up his life for his friend is just as powerful in this version as in the original, but, in general, I think the 1930 film is by far the greater of the two. However, both films are well worth seeing and I would love to see them released together, since it is fascinating to watch one after the other – though also quite harrowing.