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.