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“The Dawn Patrol”

by on April 7, 2009
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dawn-patrolI had never seen an Erroll Flynn movie before.

I know, I know. It seems astonishing even to me that a film fanatic of my degree had never encountered a picture by perhaps the biggest cinema star of the first half of the 20th century. Known mostly for action films, he also did plenty of romance and drama. During the 1930s and ’40s, he was basically Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks rolled into one.

And to boot, I’m an amateur buff on World War I aviation. So it makes sense perhaps that my first Flynn flick was not “Captain Blood” or “The Adventures of Robin Hood” but “The Dawn Patrol,” the 1938 movie where he and David Niven play hard-drinking British pilots who carouse and sing by night, and watch their squadron decimated by day.

On a side note, this film was a remake of another movie just eight years earlier, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the David Niven role. Back then, Hollywood honchos thought nothing of re-using scripts with different stars.

Anyway, “Dawn Patrol” is a solid flick, but two things especially struck me about it.

First, for a dogfighting movie, there’s relatively little action in the sky. The big battle is your first real taste of airborne action, and it arrives about halfway through the movie. Then there’s another bit of action near the end as Fairbanks sacrifices himself by going on the suicide mission assigned to Niven. But other than that, most of the movie takes place in the squadron bar, as the pilots get stupefied while waiting for fresh green recruits to replace the comrades they’ve lost each day. I can just imagine some kid in 1938 getting juiced up by the posters calling this the best air combat movie ever, and then feeling ripped off because there’s only two scenes of actual fighting.

(By the way, I believe they’re flying Sopwith Camels in the movie, which are highly romanticized planes of the era but were actually rather underpowered machines, though quite maneuverable. The S.E.5 was a much superior craft.)

The other thing the movie impressed on me was its bleak view of war. One expects movies of that era to be full of derring-do and heroic yet unthinking characters. But a great deal of the movie has to do with the officers cursing their generals, and despising the futility of war even as they carry out their duties with carefree bon vivant attitudes. In several of the war movies of the 1930s-50s that I’ve encountered lately, so many of them contain a much more nuanced and pessimistic approach to war than I had expected.

The plot has a nice simple set-up: Flynn plays Captain Courtney, the top pilot, and Niven is Scottie, the lush who barely sobers up for his morning combat missions. They despise their squadron commander, played by Basil Rathbone, for accepting the overly dangerous assignments given to them by their superiors without complaint (so they think) and not giving any of the green recruits a chance to learn a few basic maneuvers before sending them up into the skies for slaughter. There’s a haunting aspect to the recurring scenes of young pilots pulling up to the base in a car, singing with all their might, not realizing they’re replacing men who just arrived full of song and brashness a few days earlier, and were blown out of the sky.

Anyway, Scott and Courtney, sickened by the taunts of the local German ace, take off on a drunken unauthorized revenge flight in which they destroy the enemy base. Thinking their commander ordered the daring mission, the generals promote Rathbone, and Courtney becomes the squadron commander, sitting and fretting as he waits back at base, counting the diminishing number of planes that return from each mission. He and Scott become estranged when Scott’s younger brother shows up as the greenest of recruits, and soon perishes.

Flynn is suitably dashing in the film, though there’s a certain impenetrability to his countenance that I found puzzling. Nowadays we would consider this under-acting, but I think in Flynn’s day audiences preferred their heroes a little more reserved.

Looks like I’ll have to seek out some more Errol Flynn movies to compare.

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