The Dawn Patrol by Edmund Goulding, 1938
The movie is a remake of The Dawn Patrol from 1930 (with Douglas Fairbanks), but most of the aerial scenes from the original one were used in it. This is another movie without the computer generated scenes and without FX tricks. The camera seems to be relatively slow, according to the current standards, so some scenes may look not realistic. But we should not forget that the movie was made 73 years ago and we cannot compare it to the modern ones. I was surprised that the copy had a very good quality, didn’t look as it is more than 70 years old.
The plot is not complicate. It is 1915 at the remote RFC airfield in France. We can see the hard daily routine of the fighter pilots as the main frame of the movie. And the time is really hard – 1915 was the time of Fokker Scourge, so Germans are the power of the sky. We can see the squadron commander, Major Brand (Rathbone) who is in the quandary – the high command is sending order by order, forcing him to send all the possible pilots to the sky. But most of them are just the greenhorns after the pilot school and their virgin sortie is mostly their very last one… Two of the most experienced pilots in the squadron – Captain Courtney (Flynn) and Lieutenant Scott (Niven) are arguing with him all the time, as they are trying to give the young pilots the chance to learn how to fly the combat missions. Brand agrees with them, but he cannot show them his real feelings – he has to act as the squadron commander and obeying the orders. ‘This is a slaughterhouse. And I’m the butcher’, he said once in anger.
The high casualty ratio brought the pilots to the kind of doomed fatalism we know very well from the memoirs wrote by pilots of both world wars. When coming back there is nothing best to do than drink too much and play the crazy. This is much better than thinking and remembering the friends who died. One of the best scenes showing the reality of those days is when Courtney, a Flight A leader, is erasing from the blackboard the names of two pilots who died in combat. Then he wrote the names of two rookies in this place just to erase them the next morning…
The turning point of the movie is when Courtney is promoted to be a squadron commander, replacing Brand in his duties. Now he realizes that this is not as easy as he thought before. Especially that there is Scott’s baby brother among the latest replacement…
This is all regarding the plot – I would not like to spoil the pleasure of watching this movie by telling the story to the end.
And now a few lines about the technical part and the reality of the Great War in the movie.
First of all – it’s 1915 and we have RFC with Nieuports 24 (first flight in 1917) and German with Fokkers D.VII. This is far away from the reality, but I can understand that the producers wanted to show us the hard times of Fokker Scourge era. On the other side – they are REAL. Yes, a real Nieuports 24, with the rotary engine that is rotating! And this is a strong point of the move.
A weak point is that those Nieuports have three machine guns (two mounted over the engine and one over the upper wing) – real British Nieuports had only one machine gun, over the wing with Foster mounting. The bombs are another one – Nieuport could carry only the small bombs (25kg?) but we can see that a single plane with six of them could do the same damage as B-17…
I hope that the producers wanted to show in this way, that the airplane was a lethal weapon. Especially for the public that had no idea about the WW1 reality.
Some of the aerial scenes (and the crazy motorcycle ride) were taken in the studio, with the background scenes behind the acting actors taken previously as a separate image. Well, this is the reality of the 30s – there were no computers with ‘blue box’ available there. The marking of the planes and the characters are all fictitious (e.g. German fighter von Richter – as the equivalent of von Richthofen), it has no influence to the story itself, as the movie was made to show the mood of those dark days.
In the end I would like to recommend this movie and rate it as really a very good one. The plot is realistic, the actors are really excellent in their roles, and we can see some good aerial scenes. When I was looking for some information about this movie, I’ve found an opinion: ‘I’ve seen Pearl Harbour, but this movie is more exciting’. A good point!
‘Gentlemen, keep the war going please. We're going to roll in a few gutters.’ – Courtney.