Some of These Guys Were Veterans of World War I
Remaking The Dawn Patrol
Flight was barely a decade old at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, but as early as 1912 the British were already trying to figure out how to mount a machine gun on an airplane...and how to fire one without shooting off the propeller. You could face one off the back if you had someone else up there with you. Or you could stand up and shoot facing forward if the gun was mounted above the propeller arc -- shoot with one hand and fly with the other. This is what many pilots did before an enterprising German (that Fokker) improved upon a captured French aviator's design for synchronizing the gun with the propeller blade.
Thus began a six-month period of German superiority in aerial warfare (July 1915 to early 1916). The Allies responded with breathtaking innovation in aviation technology and production, but not necessarily with training or military tactics. It is at this point in the war where both versions of The Dawn Patrol take place, centering on the lives of British pilots at an aerodrome in France along the Western Front. And when I mean both versions, I mean scene-for-scene and practically shot-for-shot. The differences between them are purely in tone and pace: the original is grave and slow; the remake is gravely jaunty and moves. The planes remain shockingly rickety and flammable (sticks, canvas, and wire).
Written by John Monk Saunders (who also wrote the William Wellman classic, Wings), the original Dawn Patrol (1930) features Richard Barthelmess as Captain Dick Courtney, jaded veteran squadron leader of the 59th air brigade or something. He and close pal, Doug "Scotty" Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are the most senior and best airmen (because they are still alive) and great pals. In real life, an aviator during the Great War beat depressing odds if they managed more than 60 hours of flight time without getting killed. Most new pilots were in their late teens or early twenties and these guys are waaaaaay over the hill at about 27 or 28.
The initial conflict is between Courtney and the squad commander, Major Brand, a very young and handsome Neil Hamilton, who is perfectly fine, but once you realize that he played Commissioner Gordon on TV's Batman some 35 years later, it's really hard not to mentally overdub his one-sided field phone conversations with "What? The Riddler in Gotham City?!" Courtney is disgusted with Major Brand for sending raw recruits out on dangerous missions without training. This was a very real problem during the war: new pilots trained maybe 10 hours before being sent into combat and -- if they weren't killed during training (half the aviation deaths from the Great War were a result of training accidents), they lasted maybe 6-10 weeks in actual combat.
What Courtney doesn't know is that Brand has been fighting with HQ for more time to put replacements through combat practice alongside more experienced pilots. One evening, after a particularly galling taunt from the Red Baron figure, "von Richter," Courtney and Scotty disobey Major Brand's orders and fly over the German air base and bomb the crap out of it. Initially, Brand threatens to court martial Courtney, but just then the phone rings* and Brand learns he has been promoted, thanks to the actions of his rogue airmen and can finally get further away from ordering pointless missions, but first he must appoint his successor. Guess who he picks?
In 1938, the deviations from the original script (and there aren't many) point to the inevitability of war, perhaps because another one is looming on the horizon. The updated script allows more tension between the squad commander and HQ, allowing Major Brand (the tight-jawed, un-compromised-by-later-tv-appearance, Basil Rathbone) to seethe with anger and barely hold it together while carrying out futile orders; he seems more torn with guilt and horror than Commissioner Gordon.** Rathbone also gets to exhibit more natural feeling for Courtney and Scott, and that feeling seems to be mutual.
As new squadron commander, it is now up to Capt. Courtney to send new boys and old friends off to die in combat. His pal, Scotty, commiserates, until one day, one of the new green recruits is his own 18-year-old brother, Donnie (doesn't matter who plays him in either picture), and Courtney is forced to send the kid on a mission. Donnie, of course, gets killed immediately, causing the next conflict of the film: that between Courtney and Scott. This is the crucial difference between the two versions of the movie. In The Dawn Patrol (1938), Capt. Courtney is played by eminently more hail-fellow-well-met, Errol Flynn, and David Niven is the affable Scott. The camaraderie between these two men is more jovial and affecting than the graver, possibly more true-to-life kind of battle friendship shown between Barthelmess and Fairbanks, Jr.
In the 1930 film, Scott is much harsher in his rebuke of Courtney after Donnie gets shot down, calling him a drunken butcher and we get no inkling as to whether Barthlemess's Courtney tried to plead for more recruit training as Flynn does in the later picture.
And when Courtney counsels the younger Scott (in 1930) on the eve of his first and last fight, he tells Donnie to prepare for losing well, because sure, a dogfight with a vastly more experienced enemy pilot is like a football match against a better team, but in this case, when you lose you lose, well, everything. Go out like a good sport. Scott is livid that Courtney counselled his brother on how to die. In the later film, this discussion is less candid, with Errol Flynn telling Donnie to follow his big brother, learn what he can, and well, good luck.
The friends stop talking for weeks, Ultimately, Courtney gets a message from on high that a heavily guarded munitions plant needs to be destroyed, but a full squadron would be too risky: only a single pilot could possibly get through undetected. Courtney naturally wants to do the job himself, but as commander, is forbidden and must call for a volunteer. A grieving and angry Scott steps forward, but on the eve of his departure, Courtney contrives to get the notorious lightweight drunk and takes his place on the mission.
Courtney successfully destroys the targets, but is killed in the process.
Howard Hawks started shooting the 1930 film around the time Howard Hughes was finally wrapping up his years-long, expensive, WWI aviation epic, Hell's Angels, on which Edmund Goulding, director of the 1938 version, also worked. Hawks not only beat Hughes to the box office, he'd hired a bunch of Hughes's stunt pilots for the dogfight scenes, which caused them a long stretch of enmity and litigation. The resulting footage was so good, Warner Bros. used it practically in its entirety in both versions of The Dawn Patrol, including the closeups of the enemy pilots: the same guy the shot down Barthelmess shoots down Flynn eight years later. Cute trick.
It's hard to understand why such a literal remake was made comparatively soon after the release of the original movie. No one was officially at war in 1938, tensions notwithstanding, and when the second Dawn Patrol came out, the first one was still in circulation, retitled Flight Commander so as not to confuse audiences -- even though the script, the story arc, and the fight scenes were identical.
The second film is more affecting, meaning I cried at all the right times, whereas the first is more atmospheric and properly bleak. If you're going to see one of them, I recommend the 1938 iteration for the chemistry between the actors (who are beautiful to behold) and the faster pacing. They're both really good, bleak pictures that are properly critical of detached, blundering leadership. But honestly (and no disrespect to Richard Barthelmess, whom I love), Errol Flynn looks amazing with engine oil all over his square jaw.
* Great Scott! The Penguin escaped from Gotham jail?
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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