Taken in the context of his entire career, Dawn Patrol becomes a prototype for a plethora of later Howard Hawks pictures involving aviation and male bonding, including the likes of Ceiling Zero, Test Pilot, and certainly, Only Angels Have Wings. As a WWI pilot, Hawks has more than a passing interest in flying. He seems totally invested in its depiction. But despite its inadequacies, Dawn Patrol has more to offer than a mere technical exhibition.
This one opens with a telling note about WWI and the nations “entrusting salvation to youth.” It’s a sobering thought, but the phrase makes more and more sense as the film progresses.
We meet Major Brand (Neil Hamilton) as he’s forced to pass hours at his desk. He goes out on the limb for his men with superiors having the gall to suggest over the phone that they’re not doing enough. It’s a thankless job that only gets worse when he listens to the planes touching down. He knows by the sound of the engines how many boys have come back unscathed (and how many have perished).
It’s a fine representation of how Hawks is able to indicate exposition through what is off-screen. Soon, the head of the flyers, Captain Courtney (Richard Barthelemess), checks in to give his report. He and Brand have a contentious relationship and every one of their conversations devolves into a yelling match.
The men standing outside, by the bar, give some suggestion it might be over a girl they both knew in France. All we have is the here and now, and that seems heated enough. We don’t envy either of their posts: The one giving the orders and the one obediently carrying them out.
Barthelemess never had much range, but this blandness does serve the picture well. He doesn’t need life. He needs to evoke the emptiness, the tiredness, the deadly monotony of his station. With every new mission, bright-eyed inexperienced kids arrive like lambs being readied for slaughter. It’s utter insanity, and we are there to witness it.
The chalkboard in their headquarters becomes one of the most sobering markers of the film. Because as the names come off and get replaced by a fresh batch, there’s something inevitable and terrifying about it. This suggests the impermanence of life with each name so easily wiped away from that board as each life is snuffed out.
His best friend, the affable Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), is one of the few pilots with enough skills, tenacity, and good fortune to survive their regimen of harrowing missions. He’s someone you can count on through thick and thin.
Similar to John Ford’s movies, songs become such an integral part of their community, banding together and joining their voices in an act of unity during their off-hours. It also settles their nerves.
However, Dawn Patrol simultaneously considers the absurdity of war where you can share a drink, a laugh, and a hug with the man who shot you down out of the sky and was trying to kill you. How can it be? It only works if you can compartmentalize the experience and keep your feelings contained.
But this is only a temporary salve. Soon there’s a new villain on the rise — he’s a German ace named Von Richter — and more kids are called in to counter the havoc he’s wreaking on the allies. Although the chain of command changes with Courtney being promoted, the flaws and unyielding shackles of leadership become even more apparent. Soon friends are pitted against one another, fighting over the life of a hapless younger brother: one of the latest recruits. He knows not what he’s signed up for. They know only too well.
It causes a rift between the two men. In fact, it’s uncanny how much it’s like the row between Court and his Major before them. He’s become the distraught leader made callous and mercurial with daily stress and drink. But this is his best friend on the other side of the desk and the life of Scott’s kid brother is in the balance. Surely this should be different. What a horrible institution war is and what a terrible position to be in.
You survive long enough, and they stash you behind a desk so you get the unsavory job of sending men off to their deaths. What makes it worse is the sheer eagerness that all these fresh-faced lads take to their assignments. They brim with enthusiasm ready to do their part on behalf of the war effort and their country.
What a horrible cycle it is, and it seems ceaseless. The only way Court sees a way out of it means taking matters into his own hands — breaking the chain — and making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his best friend.
Because there is a suicide mission to be done. A volunteer is needed. Scott jumps at the opportunity, wanting to get out of that vile place and knowing full-well Court will be happy to see him go. Of course, this isn’t the case. There’s still a beating heart in there somewhere, and he takes on the bombing assignment himself.
In one of the last scenes, in the dark of night, they wait nervously ready to light fires on the runaway for Court’s return. Surely, he will come back! He always has before…They never see him. There’s only the faint motor of the plane and what a brilliant piece of exposition because the full import of the significance only hits us moments later.
If this scene is one of the most affecting, the last one is equally telling. No, the war is not over. That would be too clean, too easy. Instead, the chain of command has continued. The faces ready to take to the skies have changed just as new names get wiped off the chalkboard. What an abhorrent thing this is. What’s more terrifying is how numb we become to it.