There are two elements in the opening of The Eagle and The Hawk that might catch some viewers off guard. First, is the matter of a plane landing upside down. Second, being the fact the pilot is an uncharacteristically abrasive Cary Grant. He’s still playing support to our true lead Fredric March.
It’s alright to admit the shoe never quite fits and, thankfully, Grant was not forever relegated to such unseemingly roles again (well, there is Suspicion or Notorious). Regardless, in this WWI picture, a group of American aviators ship out from London to give their British allies a lift in France.
New forms of technology like aeroplanes still feel a bit rudimentary, yet to be time-tested, and therefore they carry with them a bit more danger. They must take recon photos flying close to the ground and often engage the enemy in aerial combat. The footage of the dogfights is lively if equally rudimentary.
It’s Grant’s Lt. Crocker who has aspirations to be a pilot, not an observer — the less glamorous posts going to those who take pictures and gun. Cary’s got a chip on his shoulder, and it’s turned him sour. Jack Oakie is the complete opposite — chipper, well-liked by all, and conveniently supplying comic relief.
However, it is the final star, the leading man, Fredric March who stands head and shoulders above the rest, at least on this occasion. He goes through a startling transformation over time. He soon learns the hard lesson. For every two kills of a jubilant Jerry Young (March), there’s the searing reality of a comrade dead.
We are instantly reminded war never allows a man to rest on his laurels before inundating them with the sheer callousness of such a conflict. It shows no favoritism. Officers or enlisted men alike. Doughboys or flyboys. It makes no difference. Everyone is susceptible.
In a matter of minutes, the weight of war is made obvious. It happens between a letter written to a dead man’s spouse and a blackboard with names constantly being erased and added. Beyond being indiscriminate, war also waits for no man.
As time progresses, the dogfight sequences maintain quite the impressive pace for their day and age. The sequences use the resources at their disposable and varied shots to develop something fairly immersive beyond mere back-projection fillers.
Finally getting his first go, Grant shoots down an unarmed parachuter with great relish, his first day on the job, only to kill the mood after hours. They say he’s a “dirty deuce,” but perhaps he’s the only realist around. He treats it like war. They treat it like an exhibition in some contrived form of chivalry.
There are rules to war and gentleman’s agreements to be abided by on one side and then the “killed or be killed” mentality of Grant. And yet even as March remains one of the righteous ones, he starts medicating with alcohol to get over what he’s been privy to.
Soon he can’t get over the insanity or reconcile with the consequences set before them. They are bestowed medals by the French military with the rain pouring down — it’s a wet affair — and he’s still soused.
A new batch of fresh-faced youngsters come to replace those who have already expired. He’s enlisted to speak to the new recruits, sharing a message for the sake of moral, though it’s evident he barely believes what he’s spewing. Because some of them will die before even getting to the front. What’s the purpose of it all? So the folks back home might cling to some misguided patriotic fervor?
The night terrors begin — Jerry’s mind now filled with burning, blood, and snipers at night. A change of scenery is suggested and so he’s given leave. But in the households, the conversations are boorish and needlessly taken with the romanticism of war and glory.
Here are people drunk on the same wine. Men laugh about the enemy going down in flames. Curious young boys ask questions about what it’s like to meet the enemy with hopes to be up there one day. No one seems to understand, and how can they. They haven’t been there.
Watching from a distance, there is at last one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong, of course, to Carole Lombard. She slides her way into Jerry’s cab as he tries to leave the idle chatter behind. Instead, they find a quiet park, out of the way, to share some champagne and engage in genuine conversation.
She has only a momentary part — it really is a glorified cameo if we should call it that — and this is a movie that’s already so succinct. Still, it’s a memorable spot, and she offers a sympathetic countenance in a world all but lacking such consideration. It makes her all the more attractive.
Still, Jerry must go back to the lines and maintain the burden of being a shining example for others. After all, he is the fitting emblem of what a military hero should be. Fearless in the face of the enemy. All but indestructible with a stirling flying record.
However, we become jaded with the same persistent cynicism of Jerry pulling him from the airs above back into the parties and routines down below at the base. He can’t even manage to muster any kind of good-natured sentiment in such a jocund company.
All he sees are the chunks of flesh and bone on his chest in the form of medals. And all he can think about are the boys who have died either by his hands or at the hands of others. He’s gotten his medals, gained hero status and adulation from his peers, for killing kids. What’s worse, few seem to acknowledge him, going on their merry way. Surely he’s merely drunk. He’ll get over it in the morning. Except he doesn’t.
The film’s ending is a brutal shock to the system, but it settles into an honorable arc. If anyone was worried, Cary Grant is redeemed in the final moments preparing to soar off toward bigger and better successes.
What I’m most impressed with is how The Eagle and The Hawk does such a phenomenal job distilling some of the most pressing themes of war in its harshest and most bitter realities in such a meager allotment of time. It’s like All Quiet on the Western Front lite, and I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. It adeptly hones in on the essential elements of the prior film as another stark, unfaltering statement exploring human conflict on this seismic scale.
It comes not through heedless idealism but a sobering, unblinking examination of what war really is. Any pretense is stripped away in a matter of minutes while March gives one of the most piercing performances, arguably, of his entire career. If you haven’t already, go seek it out. My hope is that you’ll be glad you did.