Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dawn Patrol (1938)

The Dawn Patrol (Edmund Goulding, 1938) Eight years after the silent Howard Hawks hit starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the same studio released this remake, taking advantage of sound technology to enhance the story, not only in the roar of engines in combat (they even used the same planes from the Hawks version), but also the fellowship of song (a Hawks staple, by the way--I'm very curious to see how the first film got away without it, with no music and no use of the emblematic "Hurrah for the Next Man Who Dies.") This time, it's Errol Flynn as the pilot with the longest shelf-life, reporting to superior Basil Rathbone (who sits and waits, listening for the sound of each plane returning) aided and abetted by Donald Crisp, who does the paper-work, writing the letters home to bereaved families.

Headquarters is a slap-dash dormitory/strategy room with a 24 hour bar (tendered by Barry Fitzgerald)/rumpus room, done in late German atrophy and a blackboard containing the names of the squadron on duty and the chalk-dust that is left of the honored dead.  It's a rotating complement of young men dealing with the pressure cooker (with heavy seasoning) of combat and the existentialism of transitory bonhomie. Very quickly, rookies become veterans and the dreams of youth evaporate in the shots of whiskey and the oil grime that cakes their faces after every sortee.

They're all brothers in the air, dueling and jousting in the machines they pilot, and when they fall, there's enough honor to salute the plummeting.  These pilots are so joined that when a captured German pilot is brought to the barracks, he's welcomed to the party, even though he's just shot down one of their comrades (David Niven) and if someone holds a grudge, well, that's just bad manners, what?

A little odd for a war film,* but an example of Hawksian work ethics—do your job, be a professional, even in war-time.  It's just a grudge-match between nations, anyway, and once everyone's on equal footing—in this case, terra firma—you don't hold a grudge against professionals.  One has to prove oneself worthy, of course, but the general rule is to keep the war in the skies, keep your chin up and your upper lip stiff.

It's not a Hawks film, understand, just an interpretation of Hawks material.    And Edmund Goulding is quite adept at making the material soar, both in the skies and on the ground.  It's a British cast, so the bantering is quite formal with well-defined rules of engagement.  Goulding doesn't match Hawks' trademark at-the-shoulders camera compositions, choosing, instead, a more versatile shooting scheme, which are, at times, artful.  But, it is one odd war movie, removed from the geopolitics, insular and private.  You get the impression that these guys might be doing this, anyway, if it wasn't for the damned turnaround.  But, it is remarkably free of jingoism, glorification and other self-serving sentiments.  War is a hell of job, even in the first light of mourning.

* Odd, yes, but not without precedent, especially given the odd episode of the Christmas truce during WWI (a variation of which Steven Spielberg used for an episode in his War Horse film).  And, in these economic times, there are parallels: I have friends who work in a call center, who oft-times don't see the escorting off the premises of co-workers, while the "new recruits" keep revolving into the ranks to replace them.  I've suggested more than once the idea of a tontine for the "last man standing" from the many cliques that form in such situations.

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