The Dawn Patrol (1930 + 1938)

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

The 1938 version of The Dawn Patrol is one of those remakes which is a perfectly fine film in its own right but you do have to question is it necessary especially when it is largely a shot for shot remake with various changes made to the dialogue. The original Dawn Patrol from 1930 is a superb film to begin with and one of the better films of the early sound period. But do the technological advancements between 1930 and 1938 make the remake the better film or does the original still come on top? While I like both these films, I have to side with the original over its more famous counterpart. However when your remake has Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone, I can’t be too critical on its existence.

The Dawn Patrol from 1930 was Howard Hawks’ first feature length talkie. Although his trademark overlapping dialogue is absent (The Criminal Code made the following year would be his first film to feature this trademark) it still has the Hawksian themes male bonding and the tensions created from a small group of people being forced together under an impossible strain. In both movies the squadron use humour to combat tragedy and drink to deal with reality, which does raise the question of how they are able to fly if they drink so much? But I digress. There are also no women in sight; both films are a man’s movie through and through. There was no shortage of aviation films in the 1930’s, a world in which death was always around the corner. Simply put, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Both versions of The Dawn Patrol are close to the history they are recreating. Cast and crew from both productions had been involved in the war including Howard Hawks and Basil Rathbone. Watching a film about an armed conflict made by people who saw it first-hand really adds that extra element.

Hawk’s Dawn Patrol is an early talkie which I believe benefits from being just that. I know many dismiss early talking pictures as being static but some films from this period would not have been as effective in my eyes if they had been made a few years later; films which benefit from the rough and gritty nature of early talkies such as war movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell’s Angels and War Nurse or others like the prison drama The Big House. Due to this the original Dawn Patrol feels more intimate to me than its counterpart, not to mention the sets here really do feels like they’re being lit by the candles which appear on screen. The remake on the other hand is more shinny and less gritty, not there’s anything wrong with that as it is a beauty of a film in its own right but original gets my vote when it comes to aesthetics. Surprisingly however The Dawn Patrol is one pre-code film which appears to be absent of any pre code material making the process of remaking it in 1938 easier.

Who succeeds more in the role of the Squadron’s leader Courtney; Errol Flynn or Richard Barthelmess? Barthelmess has a more gentle and more sensitive persona yet still commanding; expressing so much through his eyes as he was a distinguished actor of the silent era after all. As strong as Flynn’s performance is, the contradictory traits in Barthelmess’ Courtney makes for a more interesting performance in my eyes.

The Dawn Patrol would be one of Basil Rathbone’s few outings as one of the good guys, well kind off; he still has to perform the dirty work. It’s interesting to see him playing a character who shows sympathy towards others and even gets revenge on Errol, one upping him when he gets promoted to wing and names Courtney in the new in command of the patrol. Rathbone also has my favourite moment of the remake (a moment which isn’t in the original) in which his assistant Phipps (Donald Crisp) speaks of how wonderful it would be if they had a dog at the squadron headquarters, only for Brand to be completely zoned out that he doesn’t hear him, only to then look over at him and ask him why he’s pretending to play with a dog – a great piece of dark comic relief.

But who comes on top as the better Major Brand; Basil Rathbone or Neil Hamilton? Rathbone’s Brand is more commanding and more in control even though we still see signs that he is at breaking point. Hamilton is less commanding and in control but this itself I feel makes for an interesting character dynamic as someone who in this position of reasonability but clearly can’t handle it. If I was to choose however I would go with Basil Rathbone. While Hamilton’s performance does have more to it, Rathbone is simply a far more charismatic and cool screen presence.

Who makes for the better role of Courtney’s closet friend Scott; David Niven or Douglas Fairbanks Jr? Fairbanks is an actor I’ve long had trouble even remembering in any role. I don’t find him an engaging screen presence and will forget about his performance in a film as soon as it’s over. David Niven on the other hand is an actor I have great esteem for while his real life friendship with Errol Flynn translates into the film, making the friendship aspect is stronger and more endearing in the remake than in the original. Fairbanks is my only big complaint with the original Dawn Patrol so it’s David Niven all the way.

The aerial footage from the original is reused in the remake and there is a noticeable difference in image quality between reused footage from original and the newly filmed material. Still is it an interesting side by side comparison how movies evolved within less than a decade. The aerial action sequences are exciting to watch helped by the impressive quality of the footage while the lack of a music score and reliance on sound effects heightens the tension. I do have to ask though but can a single plane cause so much damage to an entire factory? It’s still exciting stuff none the less.

There are no good guys or bad guys in The Dawn Patrol. The movies don’t take a side such as when the downed German soldier is brought back to the squadron headquarters. He speaks in German but from what I’ve gathered in the original version of the film he calls them friends and how the fighting has “absolutely nothing to do with personal hate” and that “it is a sport/game and our duty as soldiers is clear”.

Would The Dawn Patrol be classified as an anti war film? I’m very dubious of the term anti war film and I feel throwing the term around willy nilly as is often the case comes off to me as a form of virtue signalling. As Francois Truffaut stated; war movies inherently glorify combat when they portray the adventure and thrill in combat. In other words, there is no such thing as an anti war film. Watching the action scenes in The Dawn Patrol I do feel the same kind of feeling I get when I watch an action/adventure film but then I have to remind myself of the horrors of war. Is The Dawn Patrol condemning war altogether or just the tactics used during this war such as the use of young inexperienced pilots? Or is it merely showing at the end of the day war just a necessary evil?

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War Nurse (1930)

Hell’s Angels

I watch a lot of obscure movies, films which 99.9% of people will never watch. It’s like discovering a world that only I know about. Occasionally I will come across a hidden gem which I absolutely love usually because it meets my personal preferences. But then there are movies like War Nurse in which I’m in disbelief that a movie of such quality on many levels could fall tough the cracks of obscurity.

War Nurse follows a group of women who volunteer for nursing duties in France at the outbreak of the First World War. The film is a perfect companion piece to All Quiet on the Western Front, released the same year. Similar to how the young army recruits in All Quiet… have a distorted, glamorised view of what war will be like, so do the nurses at the beginning of War Nurse  (some of them are barely into adulthood) expecting to be “holding hands all night with good looking sick officers” and to spend “Moonlight nights up on no man’s land, with a general in each arm”. Little do they expect the extremely strenuous work, horrendous conditions, the lack of supplies and the near insanity caused by the constant firing of shells.

One scene in which the nurses retreat to bed for night only to be woken up shortly afterwards by the arrival of injured troops during the middle of the night, I can feel just how tired and physically exhausted these people must be. War Nurse is full of powerful moments both big and subtle such as when a soldier played Robert Montgomery asks a nurse played by Anita Page out on a date, literally seconds after she told him one of his close comrades just died; death is that common of an occurrence

The copy of War Nurse I watched was not of the greatest of quality so I couldn’t always distinguish the cast members apart. Yet I was still fully engaged and can say the production values are superb. I don’t have any information on the film making locations for War Nurse but the exteriors feature lush countryside backdrops to large scale recreations of baron no man’s land with shells constantly exploding.

Get this baby onto the Warner Achieve Collection!

The Big House (1930)

You Know What They Do To Guys Up At The Big House!

I suspect The Big House helped birth many of the conventions, staples and slang terms which have come to define prison films. Many of the classic elements are here but they manage to feel fresh instead of coming of as worn out clichés.

The big impact this film had for me was that it made me a fan of two of its main stars, Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. The Big House made Beery a star, establishing his loveable lug persona and making him one of the biggest stars of the early 30’s and one of the most unconventional stars in Hollywood history. Beery has a contradictory screen persona as seen here as his role of Butch; a thuggish brute one minute but as gentle as a puppy the next. However I feel Robert Montgomery is the one who steals the show, even If he doesn’t have as much screen time as Beery and Chester Morris. Montgomery strikes me as the most interesting character in the film, as a privileged pretty boy convicted of manslaughter while drunk driving; he appears to be barely ready for adulthood, yet alone ready for serving 10 years in prison. Throughout the entire film you can tell he’s completely out of his element with his trembling manner and naive wide eyed stare. Unlike the rest of the prisoners he is not a criminal in the common sense, displaying how it’s a scary possibility for any regular person to end up in prison regards of their background or social standing.

Being an early talkie, The Big House features many long static camera shots, muffled sound and no background music. However I feel these technical limitations are one of the film’s greatest assets as they heighten the claustrophobia of the cells and other confined areas of the prison. If The Big House was made or remade later in the sound era with more advanced cinematography and clearer sound and a music score, it would not be as effective. The sound design itself is impressive, with the sound effects of whistles, prisoners marching or turning their plates in perfect unison in the mess hall showcase the routine nature of prison life and its mundanity.

The film’s screenwriter, Frances Marion interviewed actual prisoners and prison personal when writing The Big House, making the film an as authentic as possible look at the American prison system in 1930. Director George W. Hill apparently threatened to fire anyone caught acting and forbade the use of makeup in the film. The sets don’t look like Hollywood sets and this is not a romanticized look at prison such as movies like Ladies They Talk About. At the beginning of the film the prison’s warden (Lewis Stone), delivers a monologue about the general public wanting criminals locked behind bars but don’t care about their treatment or rehabilitation once in prison. Here the prisoners have nothing to do all day in the overcrowded prison but grow animosity towards the guards and plot on how they are going to make their escape. Shortly after watching The Big House, I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the UK in 2014 and a caller phoned in and mirrored the exact points Lewis Stone made in The Big House; 80 years later and nothing has changed.