Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Dawn Patrol ( 1938 )

They roared through the dawn...with death on their wings!

Yes indeedee, rip-roaring action abounds in The Dawn Patrol. Where Errol Flynn walks, how can adventure help but follow? 

It's 1915. In central France the 39th Aerial Squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps is losing men like flies to enemy fire. Major Brand's ( Basil Rathbone ) nerves are shattered as he receives orders each day to send mere boys to the skies to face their death.

Amateur aviators fresh out of school, all eager to soar into the heavens to shoot down a Gerry, come to the squadron regularly. Naive, and blindly brave, they boast of what they'd do if they receive their flying orders. But the "old hands" Captain Courtney and Lt. Scott ( Errol Flynn, David Niven ) know better. It's no easy game. With a well-trained enemy on your tail at every moment it's a face-off to the death. 

They eye Major Brand with hatred burning in their hearts, knowing any one of these boys might be sent next, and without sufficient aerial combat experience what chance had they of surviving? They blame him for sending them to the slaughterhouse of the skies. 

"You know what this place is? It's a slaughterhouse, and I'm the butcher!" 
                                                                                                                Major Brand 

Brand realizes this too, and hates himself even though he is simply doing his duty. However, when Brand gets promoted to wing commander, and Courtney gets selected as his replacement, Courtney finds what it feels like to be in the Major's boots : very dirty. And those who were once his friends, are now giving him the evil eye as well. 

The Dawn Patrol was released in 1938 to critical acclaim for it's strong focus on the men who fought the hawk-like battles in the air. John Monk Saunder's Oscar-winning original story was first put to film in 1930 by director Howard Hawks, featuring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the lead roles. Hawks captured some outstanding aerial footage of dogfight scenes and many of these shots were reused in the 1938 remake, interspersed with scenes of Flynn in the pilot seat. 

The aerial scenes were not entirely old footage - Warner Brothers Studios reconditioned nearly two dozen vintage Nieuport and Fokker bi-planes which were used for additional dogfight footage as well as close-up scenes at the headquarters. The famous stunt flier Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan was asked to fly some of these Nieuports but Corrigan wanted $100,000 to appear in the film. That was one stunt where he did indeed go the wrong way - the studio was not willing to pay such an amount and nixed him from the production. 

Basil Rathbone is excellent as Major Brand, and Errol Flynn is as powerful and charismatic as ever as Captain Courtney. Flynn thoroughly enjoyed working with friends and the comradery between him and David Niven seen on film was true to life - Niven was one of his best chums. Keep a sharp eye out for Rodion Rathbone, Basil's son, who was making his film debut as "Russell" one of the inexperienced fliers. 

The Dawn Patrol remains one of Flynn's most memorable pictures and it's message of the senseless brutality of war packs a punch over a half century later. Commanding officers of the armed forces today go through the same agony when they must carry out orders from "higher up" knowing the steep price it costs on human lives...lives they personally know. 

Film critic Llewellyn Miller made an accurate prediction in his 1938 review of The Dawn Patrol

"A few...a very few pictures are timeless in their appeal. A very few pictures may be revived year after year without seeming quaint or out-dated or downright silly. The Dawn Patrol is one of the very few films which will survive this year and next and as many years to come as there are people who remember wars. I wish it might be included in every course in American history in every school in the land. I hope that it is revived every year, so long as bullets are being cast and battleships are being made, because, like every great war film that the motion picture industry has produced, it says 'Where is the glory, where is the great adventure, where is there anything but criminal waste in such insanity?'" 

This post is our contribution to Classic Movie Blog Association's Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Blogathon running from Oct. 19 - Oct. 24th. Be sure to head on over to CMBA's blog to find links to all the great articles on your favorite modes of transportation.


  1. I just watched this last week! Wish I would have known that was Basil's son!

    1. If you google Rodion Rathbone you can find a picture of him. He reminds me of Richard Ney ( Mrs. Miniver ) with his dark eyebrows. I didn't realize that Basil had two children including a daughter.

  2. I do slightly prefer the Hawks 1930 film because it feels so claustrophobic, plus I love Richard Barthelmess' performance in it, but this remake is great too, and what a cast. That's interesting background about the flying and Corrigan wanting $100,000. Great article.

  3. One of those stories where the original and remake stand side by side in quality and ability to move their audience. The strong suit being the script and performances.

  4. I've seen bits of this film, but never the whole thing. When I do see it start to finish, I'm going to watch for Rathbone's son. What a great cast!

  5. I have never seen this one, but that photo of Flynn & Niven sent some shivers up my -ah - spine! And Basil Rathbone, too? Sounds rip-roaring for sure!

  6. Great review! Love how you ended with that incredibly moving quote from Miller.