1930s, 4/4, Howard Hawks, Review, War

The Dawn Patrol (1930)

The Dawn Patrol (1930) - IMDb

#5 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.

I was not ready for this movie to come out great. The Air Circus is completely lost and Trent’s Last Case is impossible to find, so I don’t get the look at the fractured path Hawks took to getting sound to work cinematically like we can with Hitchcock’s early sound pictures. Instead we get a film as confident with sound as Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, but it’s a far different picture overall. The Dawn Patrol is a sober war drama about young men having to grow up way too fast or die in impossible air missions over enemy territory. It’s a slice of life story about how men under incredible pressure broke and also managed to find their humanity in it all. Hawks had shown real talent in the silent era, but it’s obvious that he’s more at home in talkies.

The story centers on Dick Courtney, an ace pilot in “A Flight” who has seen young man after young man die seemingly senselessly at orders from “The Throne”, the small command center of their RAF airwing staffed by Major Brand. Courtney and his best friend Scott have to deal with the pilots who return home broken after watching their best comrades crash and burn in flames from German bullets. This is a hard life, and you can either fall into complete despair or anger like Brand as he rails against his command officer behind closed doors and Courtney who rails against Brand in front of everyone.

The movie begins with Courtney leading five of seven planes back safely before Brand receives orders to send another seven planes out for another dangerous mission. He has to supplement A Flight with new recruits brought up that night with no more than twenty hours of combat experience. Courtney is outraged by this, but trapped by military command structures both Brand and Courtney do as they are ordered, and the next day only two of the seven come back.

This is close to a breaking point for both men. Brand is wracked with guilt over the orders that he had to give out, and Courtney is incandescent with rage at what happened to the young kids with no experience. Everything gets sidelined in one of the film’s most important scenes. They shot down a German pilot on their side of the lines, the German pilot comes into the officer’s mess in the small house they’re using as a headquarters, and everyone instantly bonds across languages. They share a common comradery in their work and the same danger that they face. They go from trying to murder each other with machines of war to sharing drinks in a mess hall. This doesn’t sit well with everyone, but mostly the British pilots are happy to drink with their German counterpart. And that’s the center of this story: the dangers of aerial combat are so unique and dangerous that you can’t really escape it once you’re there. You either die with it or you live on, sharing the experiences with others like a brotherhood. Nobility is in living this life, not without fear, but with concern for those sharing your fate.

When Brand gets promoted leaving Courtney in charge, everything seems to change. Suddenly Courtney is giving out the hard orders for inexperienced men to go out in substandard planes to help fight the war effort, including his best friend Scott’s younger brother who dies on his first mission out. When Brand returns with a special order for a bombing mission sixty kilometers behind enemy lines for a single pilot, Courtney asks for volunteers and must pick Scott, angrily taking the mission out of some kind of vengeance for Courtney’s “decision” to send his younger brother to die. Courtney hates handing such a mission off, but he’s tied to a desk. Still, that doesn’t stop him from getting Scott drunk and taking on the mission himself.

Now, for a quick technical comment. Early sound films were really limited in how many sound tracks they could lay on top of one another in a single shot. I think that at this point in 1930 they had gotten to two, though they often relied on just one. This limited heavily the amount of music they could use, usually to just credit sequences. When Courtney goes to Scott’s plane to fly and he has his final interaction with the chief mechanic, all we have is sound effects and dialogue without music. In later years, a scene like this would be swelling with music, perhaps even mawkish music, in order to underline Courtney’s sacrifice just in case the audience was missing it. I think lacking the music actually gives the moment a quieter kind of emotional power. All the moment has is one man climbing into a plane he knows he’ll never get out of again and a mechanic who understands what’s going on, accepting it quietly with a salute.

This movie grew on me and grew on me continually as it progressed. By the end, I was completely engaged with everything going on, and when the German pilot (von Richter, a different pilot from the one captured) flies over the RAF outpost and drops a small ode to his British counterpart, it feels completely genuine and fulfilling.

This is a wonderful film, and it’s Hawks’ best (surviving) film so far in his short career. There’s greatness to come as well, I can feel it.

Rating: 4/4

8 thoughts on “The Dawn Patrol (1930)”

  1. This was the earliest Howard Hawks movie I saw.
    Compared to so many of its contemporaries, this is the most ‘real’. Not just the planes and pilots, there was a lot of practical flying here, but with the dialog and depictions of men in combat. It doesn’t go as far as Catch-22 and it doesn’t do the ‘big picture’ as well as Command Decision (in a later war), it keeps the focus down at the Wing and Flight level. I would pair it with ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ which came out the same year.

    Great performances from Douglas Fairbanks too, who was one of the first greats of Hollywood.

    There’s some production drama with Howard Hughes and his Hell’s Angels, which this movie raced with for first to release. It doesn’t affect the finished product, in my opinion though. For acting, directing and dialog, I give the edge to Dawn Patrol, easily. This is a war movie, Hell’s Angels is a Hollywood War Movie (with Jean Harlow for…reasons).

    One of the reasons I love the Howard Hawks Westerns and Dramas is that they are ABOUT something. Duty, loyalty, friendship, despair….there is a lot to mine here. Great film.


    1. Between this and Wings, I have a growing affinity for films about WWI flyers. There’s something really Romantic about it all, and the serious treatment of the men and their mission here gives this an extra punch.


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