Howard Hawks or Howard Hughes? I get confused. Both have Great War Film pedigree, had an interest in aviation and they’ve both knocked out Great War Films that have lacked a bit of cinematic lustre. My film today is an example of this lack of lustre. The early sound era is a period in the history of film that I personally struggle with. The scritchy sound quality and stage play feel of the films leaves me cold and disinterested. It’s something that improved as the decade went on but still it took a while and there are a load of films out there that fall into this slightly rubbish category.
So, just to get it straight in my own head, Hughes was the nut job with the beard and the finger nails. Hawks was the guy who directed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes….I think. Today’s film is from the Hawks oeuvre. He’s knocked out other Great War Films that I’ve reviewed already. I said ‘The Road to Glory’ (1936) was harmless but dull and ‘Sergeant York’ (1941) was revisionist, inflammatory and terrible. So maybe his earlier effort will hold up better under my scrutiny.
There was a bit of infighting between Hawks and Hughes in this era with both of them producing aerial themed Great War Films at the same time. There was a court battle where Hughes accused Hawks of plagiarism, but that eventually fizzled into nothing and they apparently became friends to some degree. The outcome was that Hughes ‘Hells Angels’ (1930), starring Jean Harlow, was delayed whilst he focussed his attentions on litigation and ‘The Dawn Patrol’ was rushed to a finish and ended up being considered the better film. To further confuse matter ‘The Dawn Patrol’ was remade in 1938 with David Niven and Errol Flynn. The remake is pretty much a verbatim scene for scene copy of the original and most if not all of the action sequences (excluding close-ups) from the original are re-used. With the release of the re-make the original version from 1930 was renamed ‘The Flight Commander’ and this is the version I’m reviewing today. Make sense?
The story here is a familiar one. The Squadron Commander, a benign good sort is slowly losing his nerve as order after order is received to send his teams out on suicide mission after suicide mission. He sends them off at dawn with a wave and repairs to his office for a drink. He answers the phone with a grimace and a slug of booze, takes more orders with a spitting contempt and takes another glug, he counts the fighters back in as they fly overhead before landing. His shoulders drop as he counts only four back of the seven that he waved goodbye to, he drinks again. And repeat the next day and the next. Eventually one of his naysayers is given his job when we wibbles off with a pencil up each nostril and his pants on his head. The naysayer suddenly has to make the very same decisions he was previously saying nay too.
This is very much a film of its era. The fuzzy sound, the stationary camera work, the ‘Am Dram’ feel of the scenes and dialogue. My usual complaint with films from the early thirties is that each scene starts with a room with people in it doing stuff, a door opens, in walks a character, they talk to the people in the room, they go back to the door, open it, leave. End of scene. Cut to the next one. A room full of people, a door opens…etc. This is very much what happens here, but there are also action sequences which are well done. There is the usual bit of rear projection for close-ups but for take offs, landing and some stunts we are in the air. Whilst it’s nowhere as good as later films such as ‘The Blue Max’ or ‘Aces High’ or even the slightly earlier ‘Wings’ the quality of the aerial scenes should be applauded for the stunt work alone.
On the whole though the film is a bit of a damp squib. There are long tracts of nothing happening at all, pilots reminisce about their childhoods whilst staring out of windows into the middle distance, there are LOTS of scenes of planes taking off and landing without incident. There’s also the usual bullshit stereotypes on display that really annoy me. The one German we get to meet has a scar running down his cheek and does a bit of goose-stepping, I’m surprised they didn’t give him a monocle! Also whenever anyone gets shot they stand bolt upright, eyes wide or sit bolt upright, eyes wide before slowly falling to one side and expiring.
Look, I’m not the biggest fan of this film but I know its heart is in the right place. I think what I don’t like is that it’s from the early 30’s and most if not all of the films I’ve seen from the era suffer massively with the new ‘Talkie’ format. As such I’ll cut it a little slack. The 1938 David Niven and Errol Flynn version stands up a lot better even though it’s pretty much the exact same script, same backdrops and same action sequences simply because the film-making craft had evolved so much during the 30’s. As such these two versions of the same film are a natural experiment of sorts showing how things improved during the decade. The ingredients are the same but the recipe makes all the difference.
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