February 19, 2013

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The aviation films of Howard Hawks are comprised of tightly knight groups of men confronting death. The bleakest entry, The Dawn Patrol (1930), also happened to be the first , a tale of a British Air Force outpost that acts as a waypoint between consciousness and the void, escorting young fliers into the blood-flecked air across the German lines. A pivotol work in the scope of Hawks’ career, it was his first sound feature, and introduces themes of professional obligation and facing up to mortality that appear throughout his career, reiterated most directly in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  It has been difficult to see The Dawn Patrol in recent years until the Warner Archive released a fine looking edition on DVD last month.


Hawks’ first sound film was supposed to have been Trent’s Last Case (1929), and the director did extensive tests with the new technology, but Fox had failed to negotiate talkie rights when licensing the 1913 mystery story by E.C. Bentley. So instead it became his final silent, made in a market so hungry for sound that Fox didn’t even bother releasing it in the U.S. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, it only opened in Britain to poor notices, with Hawks regarding it as his worst film.

He wrapped filming on Trent’s Last Case in February of 1929, and was fired in May, after refusing to work on the titles Fox assigned him (Life’s a Gamble and Big Time).  Hawks and the studio sued and counter-sued over wrongful termination and failure to fulfill contracts, but all the litigation was dismissed with prejudice by the courts. He was free for the moment, and looking for a project. Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich that he got the idea for The Dawn Patrol from a story by Irvin Cobb, “about an evening with a British squadron that was being hit hard.”  Contra Hawks, Todd McCarthy found a sworn deposition from screenwriter John Monk Saunders that “he had dined with former war journalist Irvin S. Cobb…and had that night heard the story of ‘young British pilots.’” Whoever originally conceived the scenario, the script was a collaboration between the two men, both of whom were steeped in flyboy lore.


Saunders and Hawks had both entered the Army Air Corps during WW1, and became flying instructors in the states, neither of them seeing action. After hearing news of the Armistice, Saunders went “out alone onto the airfield and wept, his head resting on the wing of his plane.” Robbed of his chance to burn up in a war, Saunders lived vicariously through combat anecdote, soaking up stories from every pilot he met. He was a prolific writer in the 30s, his newspaper stories leading to the scenario for Wings and his Lost Generation novel Single Lady (1931), which he adapted for William Dieterle’s masterful Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here). His wife Fay Wray described him as a man “who wanted to live dangerously and die young”, which he accomplished by hanging himself at the age of 44.

Hawks was a mechanically minded kid who drove race cars before entering the war, and flying became the latest of his obsessions. He did not acquire Saunders’ insecurity about missing combat action, but he was not unmarked with tragedy. The five friends he signed up for the Air Corps with were all dead by the time he started shooting The Dawn Patrol, all in plane accidents. His brother Kenneth was directing Such Men Are Dangerous when he perished in a plane crash during a failed stunt, mere weeks before The Dawn Patrol was set to film.


If Hawks wanted to get a WW1 subject filmed in 1930, having Saunders on board would guarantee studio backing. First National (A Warner subsidiary) bought the rights with Richard Barthelmess slated to star. Howard Hughes was still working on the similarly-themed Hell’s Angels, and tried to disrput Hawks’ production at every turn, buying up any extra WW1-era planes and threatening to sue for copyright infringement. Nothing came of it though, and both titles had healthy success at the box office. Having already done sound tests before Trent’s Last Case, Hawks had the technical capacity for talkies, but he already had an aesthetic plan as well. He was intent on having his actors underplay, instead of projecting to the back of the theater. The conventional wisdom held that theatrical stage forms would take over, from performance to direction. But Hawks innately knew that cinema could bring you close with a whisper as easily as a shout.  Barthelmess was already well-versed in the subtle forms Hawks was looking for, since he had worked with the similar-minded D.W. Griffith.

Barthlemess plays Dick Courtney, a veteran British combat flier leading raids into German territory. His squadron bunks at a remote outpost led by Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), all exposed nerves as the death toll rises. As each mission team returns, he counts the sound of engines to determine the number of casualties. The dead disappear as quickly as the time it takes Courtney to wipe their names off the squad chalkboard. The pilots deal with this constant metronome of death through drink and camaraderie, gathering in the makeshift bar to talk of former flings and initiating group sing-alongs to their scratchy record player. These are necessary distractions, a way in which to immerse oneself in the present rather than stare at the abyss of the past. At one point a fragile Royal Air Force member, having just lost a friend, blows up at these callous displays. It’s a scene repeated by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, after the air service fliers do their own carousing following the loss of a pilot. All female characters were cut from The Dawn Patrol, giving it its atmosphere of sweaty locker-room claustrophobia. Although it is similarly constrained to one location, Only Angels is more open and convivial, as the group teaches Arthur about how they cope, bringing her into their self-sustaining circle. The Dawn Patrol instead presents the group as a continuously disrupted family, little more than a replaceable collection of flesh.


When the pilots do engage the reality of their fallen mates, it’s with the grim, mock-heroic acceptance of a song that Howard learned from his brother Ken:  “So stand by your glasses steady/This world is a world of lies/Here’s a health to the dead already/And hurrah for the next man who dies”. It’s hard not to read this as Hawks’ own attempt to react stoically to his brother’s passing, death as a liberation rather than a defeat. This is how the professional fliers stand it day after day, as new recruits arrive and then disappear. The only constants are Courtney and his pal Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). But when Major Brand gets a promotion, Courtney becomes the squad leader, tied to a desk and unable to lose himself in flight. Now he is the one counting engine motors, made stir crazy by inaction and the crushing responsibility for so many lives. His job becomes that of a bureaucratic funeral director, and he can only free himself by disobeying orders and taking on a daredevil solo mission himself. There he can lose himself in the present, never to return.

The Warner Archive presentation has remarkably clear audio for a production of this period, and though the print they transferred is a bit worn and fuzzy, it’s likely the best this film has looked in ages. At this early stage, it’s the home video release of the year.