Tuesday, January 13, 2009
The Dawn Patrol (1930)
[This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon hosted right here at Only The Cinema. It will run from January 12 to January 23, 2009.]
Howard Hawks' first sound film after a string of silents, The Dawn Patrol is as technically rough, ragged, and uneven as one expects an early talkie to be. And yet the film is undeniably potent and enthralling, as well as displaying many of the characteristics that we have come to think of as Hawksian: it seems that the director's aesthetic and signature concerns were forged relatively early. The aviation film is of course perfectly suited to Hawks, and he would return to this subject many times over the course of his career, including for one of his most successful slightly later works, Only Angels Have Wings. The flying milieu provides Hawks, readymade, with all the elements he needs to craft his aesthetic: the tough, manly men facing death with bravado; the constant threat of mortality hanging over everything; the responsibility of leadership; the aerial adventures and daring of the fliers. As in his later aviation films, Hawks primarily uses this genre to explore the behavior of men who are continually confronted with their own mortality and the mortality of their friends and loved ones.
The film centers around a squadron of World War I bomber pilots located not far from the German lines, and therefore repeatedly called upon to undertake incredibly dangerous missions at or even across the enemy lines. The constants of this squadron are Dick Courtney (Richard Barthelmess) and Doug Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), two ace pilots who have earned veteran status simply by surviving for the longest amount of time, as their squad mates cyclically die and get replaced by new recruits. The two are inseparable friends, united in their defiance of death, though as the head of the seven-man A-flight, Courtney has the heavier load, feeling personal responsibility for each man he loses in battle. This responsibility weighs even heavier on their superior officer, Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), who receives his endless supply of near-suicidal orders with a heavy heart, knowing that his protests will do no good, and he'll have to keep ordering his men into danger. He does this with regret, but with a stoic dedication to duty that earns him the ire of Courtney, who needs to transfer his own rage somewhere.
The film's central theme is the cyclical nature of war, de-emphasizing the individual in order to show the constant stream of bodies, young men being thrust into positions opened up by their now-dead predecessors. The film's structure ingeniously displays the repetitive nature of combat, with certain key scenes reappearing at intervals like recurring motifs in a piece of music, slightly altered each time to accentuate the changes that have occurred in between repetitions. One such scene is the one where the squad's commander sits in his office listening to the sound of the planes returning from their latest mission: he counts the number of motors he hears and can therefore tell how many of his men have returned, and how many died in battle. Hawks places the audience in the position of the commander, listening to the motors swooping in on the soundtrack, trying to count the number of planes. There are many scenes in which Hawks does show the aerial combat, but he almost always cuts away from the battle before its conclusion, so that he can return to the base for that tense, uncertain moment, the commander wondering how many men he has sent to their deaths this time. Many a war film has focused the audience's sympathy squarely on the lower ranks, depicting the higher-ups as craven, careless desk jockeys with no knowledge of the risks their subordinates are taking. Not so for Hawks, who not only understands the commander's horrible burden but makes him the audience's surrogate, waiting with a pit in his stomach to hear what has happened next.
Hawks also continually returns to the scene in which the commander — first Brand, then later Courtney, assuming command when Brand is promoted — delivers his orders to a reluctant subordinate, who accepts each dangerous assignment with a hate-filled glare. This is a film in which nearly every line is delivered with gritted teeth, as though each man was being forced to swallow a horrible poison and then grin afterward. The actors, still adjusting to sound, are not always up to the task, but Barthelmess at least is fantastic at playing dark and glowering. He has a fiery intensity to his stare that seems to radiate throughout his hard-set face.
In other ways, however, the acting is often melodramatic, and the delivery of the dialogue stiff and surprisingly formal, qualities that mesh awkwardly with rugged displays of Hawksian masculinity. It is obvious that the actors are transitioning uncomfortably into the demands of the sound film, and that the primitive sound equipment does them no favors. There is virtually no soundtrack music in the film — other than periodic blasts from the base phonograph — and the dialogue scenes consequently play out in an eerie, unnatural silence that emphasizes each stilted line and uneasy stab at camaraderie. Barthelmess mostly fares okay, other than a few over-the-top speeches, but the fresh-faced Fairbanks can't shake a kind of gee-whiz naiveté, and William Janney, playing Scott's younger brother Donny, is even more overwound.
If the film occasionally falters in its rough early dialogue scenes, Hawks more than compensates with the gritty brilliance of his aerial combat staging. The film was remade in 1938 as an Errol Flynn vehicle, but director Edmund Goulding retained much of Hawks' aerial footage; it's easy to see why. The flying scenes, accomplished with a great deal of grainy rear projection and scale modeling and just a minimum of real flying, are far from realistic, but they have a raw, straightforward intensity that is often as involving as the best that much more realistic effects can produce almost eighty years later. Hawks, always a master at translating the efficiency of his productions into a powerful directness onscreen, captures the essence of flying in the broadest strokes possible: a few striking shots of dot-like planes streaking across a cloud bank, along with tight in-the-cockpit closeups against rear projection backdrops. When Courtney and Scott go off on their own for a midnight bombing raid against a German encampment, Hawks turns it into an exhilarating tour de force, capturing the adrenaline rush of the fliers as they swoop and dive in their strafing assaults on the enemy.
The film is remarkable, in scenes like this, for capturing the emotional atmosphere of war rather than its concrete details. The whole war, for these men, seems to take place in this hazy rear projection universe with a relatively constant backdrop of sky and clouds, and only occasional glimpses of enemy combatants on the ground below. There is little sense of physical location, little sense of the broader picture of the war's progress; the fliers are given only tidbits of information, just enough fragmentary knowledge to identify their targets and carry through their immediate mission. Hawks passes only this information on to the audience in turn, keeping the film locked into the tunnel vision of the fliers, who in the cockpit can see only as much of the sky as they can crane their necks to take in. One is reminded of the fog-drenched atmosphere of Only Angels Have Wings, which achieves with the greater visual sophistication of a decade later roughly the same effect that Hawks already sketched out here with the limited means of the time.
Hawks also of course has a feel for the brighter emotions of these fliers, their joy in a particularly bravura maneuver, their playful camaraderie (at times hampered by the stiff acting, though the idea comes across anyway), their soulful music, singing songs intended to ward off the sadness of losing a friend. As in many of Hawks' films, coming to terms with the masculine world means masking one's emotions beneath a surface toughness and laughing off danger with a song and a grin. It also means maintaining a healthy respect for one's enemy, as shown in the extraordinary scene — virtually unimaginable in later, more propagandistic war films — in which the fliers capture a shot-down German pilot and wind up grudgingly inviting him to drink and sing with them. The same impulse is there in the enemy pilots who exchange salutes even as they gun each other out of the sky. The film suggests that all these men, on either side, are unified in their nobility and bravery, that war is not so much a necessary conflict between diametrically opposed sides, but a game, a proving ground for brave young men to test their mettle against those who, by pure chance, have been placed on the other team.