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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Lov'd I Not Honour More
by Donald Levit

Some prefer Edmund Goulding’s 1938 remake, because Errol Flynn, David Niven, Basil Rathbone and Barry Fitzgerald replaced Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Neil Hamilton and Clyde Cook. The 1930 The Dawn Patrol, Howard Hawks’s first sound film, is admittedly heavy on the declamatory acting of late silents-early talkies. However, Elmer Dyer’s aerial combat footage is so good it was simply inserted into the second version and is finely contrasted with the claustrophobic interior scenes (a French inn converted to British Royal Flying Corps aerodrome) of psychological stress.

Co-adapted and –scripted by auteur Hawks, the source was “The Flight Commander,” the title used for mercilessly cut versions shown on television. Former Army Air Corps second lieutenant John Monk Saunders incorporated personal war experience into his original tale--dropping a dead pilot’s boots, the one-record Victrola, booze, frazzled nerves, and camaraderie. Such details dovetailed with the interests of ex-car and –aeroplane racer and designer, also WW I Army Air Corps pilot (and, uncredited, a German ace in this film) Hawks, who through a spectrum of genres treated loyalty, male bonding, individual responsibility, and stiff-upper-lip acceptance of risk.

This rare, full hundred-eight-minute print screens at the Museum of Modern Art, and it cannot be coincidence that, same three weekdays and starting times the following week, Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front is scheduled. In 1925 King Vidor’s The Big Parade was among the first major movies to touch on the horrors of modern combat, and five years’ additional distance and time from that particular war allowed for sympathetic presentation of the Kaiser’s troops as scared cannon fodder and his fliers as being equally skilled and gentlemanly as the Allies’.

Heroic, yes, but British pilots, too, could be guilty of unnecessary massacre, such as an against-orders retaliation for a harmless insult to their prowess. On the whole, both sides are chivalric knights, romantically dressed and trailing scarves (medieval ladies’ favors) from leather helmets, face-to-face in open-cockpit biplanes that sound like lawnmowers but are maneuverable enough to cause no collateral damage from treetop height.

Hawks repeats his center three times, the same action and reaction with different participants, announced by Lieutenant Phipps (Edmund Breon) and made sad and ironic by names chalked to replace erased ones on a tavern blackboard. Their enmity begun over a woman in Paris, “Flight A” Squadron Captain Dick Courtney (Barthelmess) chafes at the loss of his men, while his superior, Major Brand (Hamilton), complains to headquarters by too much telephone talk about faulty equipment, green replacement fliers, and the suicidal orders which he dutifully relays to Brand, who objects but equally does his duty.

The chain of command changes twice, someone is booted upstairs or sacrificed or sacrifices himself. The new superior is office-bound with a whisky bottle, condemned to send men out and then listen to count the motor-noise of those who return; similarly, each newly promoted wing leader must protect his pilots while ultimately following orders.

Both Dawn Patrols stir national spirit with “the happy few, we band of brothers . . . that leave their valiant bones in France, dying like men.” Released three months after appeasement at Munich, the remake found an uneasy public; in contrast, the 1930 original could afford nobility in both camps in an age fondly clinging to a mirage of decency amidst the indecency of warfare and hope that the Great War was To End All Wars.

Hawks’s compact economy and avoidance of stylistic razzle-dazzle allowed for concentration on storytelling, to great effect. The dialogue strikes today’s ear as stilted, but that is to some degree from that era’s clumsy recording and inherited acting techniques. From the first, it was perceptive French film fans who lauded the director. His own countrymen were a decade slower to acknowledge the transplanted Californian’s talent. 

(Released by First National Pictures. Not rated by MPAA.)

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