Maybe its the aviation aspect that studios assume viewers will be more interested in flying, but thankfully World War I pilots have been in several worthwhile movies. Most recently Flyboys struggled in theaters telling the story of American pilots flying with the French early in the war. George Peppard starred in The Blue Max, the story of a German infantry soldier turned national hero. One of the best though is 1938's The Dawn Patrol, an anti-war film that is both thrilling to watch and able to strike a nerve emotionally. That's a good combination if there ever was one.
It's 1915 in France and as a leader of one of the flights in the British 59th Squadron and one of the few pilots with experience, Capt. Courtney (Errol Flynn) consistently finds himself leading rookie, inexperienced pilots on missions where they rarely return. The war demands new pilots though and as quick as they're taught how to fly they are thrown into the fire. Courtney is constantly at odds with squadron commander Major Brand (Basil Rathbone) who realizes the idiocy of the orders he's receiving but can do nothing about it. Courtney's actions one day in destroying a rail depot actually gets Brand promoted, leaving the command post open to which Courtney is promoted. With close friend and fellow pilot, Lt. Scott (David Niven), taking over one of the flights, Courtney steps into the command position, immediately seeing that there will be no winners in this war.
I've long been aware of this movie, but just never got around to seeing it. I had a picture of gallant, heroic Errol Flynn single-handedly winning World War I from his fighter plane, dispatching hundreds of Germans at will. Flynn does play the gallant, heroic pilot, but in terms of the rest of the movie I couldn't have been more wrong. Just a year before WWII started in a time when I think of blatant, painful propaganda movies, this is an anti-war movie screaming for someone to listen to the complete idiocy of war and armed combat. Director Edmund Goulding has a film here that doesn't pull any punches. An assembly line of pilots is sent to their deaths because the war requires it, not because it makes any sense. Someone has to fight, and these inexperienced pilots fit the bill.
The best utilization of this is when Niven's Lt. Scott sees his younger brother, Donnie (Morton Lowry), among the newest batch of replacements. Up to this point both Scott and Courtney have balked at what they're doing, but the new pilots are nameless, faceless and interchangeable individuals. Now they have a boy in front of them fresh out of flight school who with his barely 10 hours of time in a plane is expected to tangle with German aces. Niven's Scott begs, implores Courtney to ground his younger brother, giving him a few days to teach him how to survive. Courtney wants to do so, desperately wants to, but as commanding officer where can he draw the line? He can't because he would have to do this for every new pilot. It tears him up inside, sending these young men to almost certain death, but he's left no other option.
Robin Hood is Flynn's more well-known and even iconic role from 1938, but his part as Captain Courtney in The Dawn Patrol is without question the better part for him. I've always liked Flynn as an actor, but I've been critical at times because he does seem to play similar characters. It is roles like this that show he may play similar characters, but he was more than a movie star, he was an actor. Courtney is forced to go through a transformation because his duty calls for it, not because he wants to. Sending men to their death takes its toll on him, but he continues on. Flynn was just 29 years old at the time, and Niven just 28 as they filmed, both showing they were on their way to bigger and better. They have a friendship on-screen that reflects their friendship off-screen so their characters are unquestionably genuine.
With some impressive aerial footage of World War I era planes, it's impossible not to get sucked into the action. We're watching these flimsy planes that look like a stiff wind would rip them apart as they maneuver and tear through the skies. In an age of planes that travel hundreds of miles in minutes, watching a movie like this can seem like ancient history. The best part of the movie though are the quieter moments, Scott and Courtney reminiscing before a mission that has little chance of success. It's the pilots wearily accepting their orders, hiding the disappointment and running out to their planes. It is Lt. Scott addressing his flight of the squadron, the movie beginning as it ends. There will be no victors, just survivors. These were gentleman fighting a brutish war, much of the time treating their German counterparts with respect. A great scene has Courtney drinking with a downed German pilot (Carl Esmond) just a few hours after shooting him down. There is a surreal nature to the proceedings that just couldn't be made up.
Rightfully so this is remembered as an Errol Flynn movie, and both Flynn and Niven are perfectly cast. Rathbone though is particularly memorable as Major Branch, the commander who wishes he could be up in the sky with his pilots instead of behind a desk. Donald Crisp is good in a supporting part as Phipps, the squadron adjutant while Barry Fitzgerald plays Bott, the squadron mechanic. This is a criminally underrated war movie, one that surprises in the effectiveness of its message. Well worth checking out.
The Dawn Patrol <---trailer (1938): *** 1/2 /****