The Dawn Patrol (1938)


I’ve been here and done this story before. A while back I reviewed the 1930 version of ‘Dawn Patrol’ and my one sentence review would be that the film was very much of its time. Films coming out of Hollywood at the start of the 30’s where experiments of sorts. Talkies were very much on the up and up but the story telling skills of the ground-breaking movie producers were still a way behind the technology. My slightly jaundiced view of the films of the day is that they were structured as a linear series of theatrical set pieces. ‘Action!’ and the camera rolls. A room with people doing things. A door opens. In walks the protagonist. The door closes. The story stuff happens. The protagonist opens the door and leaves. ‘Aaaand Cut!’

The 1930 version of ‘Dawn Patrol’ follows this pattern pretty neatly and I had the grand idea at the end of my review for that film to use the comparison between these two films (which share a broad story, large parts of the same script, most of the action scenes, many of the sets and some of the stage directions) as a means of highlighting how far Hollywood had come in the eight short years between their productions.


As I touched on above, the story is exactly the same for both films. A commanding Officer is feeling the pinch as he sends good men to their deaths day after day after day. He gets some push back from his sub-ordinates, it’s madness! Those Johnnys at Command didn’t have a clue! Eventually the CO leaves and the loudest naysaying sub-ordinate becomes the new Commanding Officer. And so it continues, full circle. Sun rise, sun set. And it’s not just the story that was re-used wholesale. To save money the studio also re-purposed the majority of the aerial action footage from the 1930 version.

Both of these films were written by John Monk Saunders who was a pilot himself and served as a flight instructor during the war but never quite made it to the fighting in France. In the next few years he would write several screenplays for aerial Great War Films including the classic ‘Wings’ in 1927. He followed that gem of the Great War skies with several others including my movie fodder for today and its’ younger brother from 1930.


Even though on paper there’s not too much of a difference between the two films, the 1938 version is a much more polished account. The writer, director, actors, sound techs, camera folks, title monkeys, etc had all learned a few tricks by 1938 and the sum of all these parts makes for one hell of a difference overall. To use a cricketing analogy, the 1930 version is a rank longhop played with a steadfastly straight bat through the covers for a trotted one. In comparison the 1938 version is a theatrically flourished, high elbowed swat back over the bowlers head for four. Both strikes increase the tally, but only the latter engenders stentorian appreciation from the previously moribund spectators.

The difference is a gulf. The 1938 version has a razzmatazz about it. David Niven and Errol Flynn are basically reciting the same lines as Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr did in the original film but somehow their acting chops bring the film to life. There’s not too much in terms of plot for them to hide behind so their personalities, flair and general bon homie, joie de vivre sing through. The filming was an ebullient affair by all accounts with plenty of leg pulling and Britishness on display. The American crew members casting incredulous side glances to their colleagues as yet another jolly jape was played on some unsuspecting chap. The outcome of this happy set is, I think, resplendent on the screen for all to see.


Hollywood by this stage had really pulled its’ socks up in terms of production values. Talkies were the norm and the various tweaks and tricks of the trade were all in full swing. Movie clichés that are still apparent to this day began their lives here. The devil-may-care fatalist attitudes of the gin soaked pilots, the Edwardian shows of chivalry, a wiggle of the wingtips and tally-ho as they dive, engines screaming into the gaping maw of hellfire. It’s good stuff and there’s a reason why these clichés have stuck. It’s because they make for good entertainment.

Overall the 1930 version was a decent story but one that was under told. The 1938 version is the very same decent story but this time there’s been some panache thrown at it. 1938 is the year just before Hollywood produced the likes of Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Of Mice and Men to name a few.  The eight years in between had seen the advent of the Hays Code which, for good or bad, shook the studios firmly by the shoulders and made them do things differently. The studio system came to the fore and Hollywoods’ golden era was born.


Moving on from the comparison as I pull this review to a conclusion, ‘Dawn Patrol’ 1938 is a good, entertaining film. David Niven and Errol Flynn are the stars and they both put in fine performances. The story has a kick in the guts, pulls at the heart strings and takes you along for the ride. It’s Hollywood firing on all its’ cylinders and I’d recommend it if you have a couple of hours in your back pocket.

Before I finish I have one last thing to add. After watching the 1938 version I revisited the 1930 one too. Whereas after my first viewing I felt it was lacking a bit in almost every department, this time I found it had a bitter darkness to it which I didn’t really pick up last time. The CO grimaces with every order he gives, he knows he’s a harbinger of death but he must continue to throw good man after good man to the baying German wolves. So, if you’ve not seen it, give that one a go too.

2 thoughts on “The Dawn Patrol (1938)

  1. A very nice review, Paul, and spot on with the comparison to the 1930s version. I’d only seen the 1930s film once, and probably ~15 years ago. I’d go back to watch, though I’m very partial to the Flynn-Niven-Rathbone-etc. version, which I’ve seen many times. It is one of my top 5 WWI films, and just “above the clouds” when I compare it to The Blue Max (another favorite of mine). Thank you.


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