Stuart’s Log: THE DAWN PATROL (1930)

November 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

It’s one of the great pleasures of contemporary cinephilia to explore the early works of a great director and find many of the stylistic tics and thematic concerns of his more highly regarded films already in embryonic form. In many respects this is the reverse process of the 50s cinephiles, who watched a director’s films indiscriminately and then extracted the masterpieces after the fact. Where they recognized that a film like Vertigo (1958) or The Searchers (1956) was important by weighing it against a whole host of predecessors, we start at those now-canonized classics, taking their importance for granted, and then go on to dig for the buried treasures that prefigure them.

Howard Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol (1930) is one such treasure, a movie about WWI aviators that in many ways seems to carry Hawks’ entire stylistic genome inside it. Pilots in a British flying squadron are sent off into daily combat missions like sheep to the slaughter, those who survive are left to cope through nightly drinking binges, and ace fighter pilot Courtney (Richard Barthelmes) lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), the troubled flight commander who receives, contests, and reluctantly carries out unreasonable orders from his military superiors. When Courtney is ordered to assume Bran’s job, he finds himself in the same impossible moral position: no matter how much he fights them, his orders are inviolable, and there is nothing he can do but send the rookie brother of his best friend Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) on a suicide mission against the veteran German squadron.

The above summary points toward later Hawks in its focus on the lives of professional combatants—how these men contend with death on the job and what it means when their duties conflict with their friendship. But these things would mean little if not for Hawks’ straight-shooting direction, his clean compartmentalization of space, and his always on-point continuity editing, all of which follow in direct pursuit of the actions and emotions of his characters. For example: on the night following a disastrous mission that has left three pilots dead (as far as they know), Hawks inserts steadily more intense close-ups of the shaken-up Hollister (Gardner James)—who had lost his best friend on previous day’s mission—into the stream of drunken frivolity, until the succession of static images is broken by a forward tracking shot that closes in on Hollister’s face just as he exclaims that he can’t take it anymore, silencing the entire room.

What Hollister can’t bear is the mordant irony that only through drink and debauchery can these men mourn their fallen comrades—this seeming callousness towards death that is anything but. Already we are drenched in the matter-of-fact melancholy of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1944).

When Scott, one of those presumed dead, turns up alive, he and the captive German soldier who shot down his plane embrace like the best of friends. In Notre Musique (2003), Jean-Luc Godard observes of a shot/reverse-shot exchange between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940) that Hawks sees the two actors as equals—the division between man and woman a total non-factor. Hawks is drawn toward equilibrium in his films—no more apparent than in the balanced division of labor among his ragtag law enforcement squad in the climax of Rio Bravo (1959)—and this equivalence between British and German soldier is a marvelous early example, somehow less an expression of mawkish anti-war didacticism than an embodiment of the Hawksian worldview.

All of this is but one scene, and the rest of the film offers even more riches: lyrical motifs (the death of each soldier marked by the erasure of his name from a chalkboard), riveting action sequences (shot by the superb aerial cinematographer Elmer Dyer), and some inklings of the verbal piquancy that would go on to become a Hawks trademark in his screwballs and action films alike. In one scene, Lieutenant Phipps (Edmund Breon) writes a letter to the mother of one of the recently killed pilots. After puzzling over the spelling of the word ‘courageously,’ he begins to pester Bran, who spits back, “It’ll break her heart no matter how it’s spelled.”

That’s Howard Hawks all right. – Stuart


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