The Last Flight could conceivably be tacked onto the end of The Dawn Patrol. Although there is only one full scene of aerial combat, it informs everything that’s to follow because this shared experience colors the lives of the men who pushed through it. Some of them have been pushed through irreparable change. They are men with PTSD before we ever had a diagnosis.
As two of them (Richard Barthelmess and David Manners) are ushered out of the hospital there is a sense of foreboding. The physician and the audience seem equally aware of it. The doctor likens them to a pair of fine Swiss watches crushed on the pavement. The question remains how do you assimilate them back into society? As he grows didactic or at least waxes poetic, he marks them as spent bullets; his prognosis comes very near to the sobering Korean drama Aimless Bullet a couple generations later.
In fact, The Last Flight could be an equally heavy and laborious affair given the context. These are men who must face something even more difficult than war. War is something they were trained for. Life afterward is uncharted territory. It’s not something that can easily be prepared for; it’s more daunting and laden with consequences.
This is another installment in the men returning from war sub-genre, and it’s no less striking every time I see it done well or at least in a new manner. Under the circumstances, the normal response is to seek to delay the future for as long as possible. These fellows take it to the extreme.
From a technical standpoint, talkies still feel new, and the dialogue is initially a bit stunted and awkward pushing the obvious wounds of its characters. This could be tepid going. Instead, The Last Flight bubbles with its own brand of lithe and breezy effervescence. This is the mood accorded by its main players because they are looking for a life far away from their wartorn experiences up in the air. Trauma is best remedied by drink and trivial conversation so they set flight for Paris.
By entertaining all the frivolous diversions they can manage and hardly acknowledging the war again, the film says so much about these characters (as does their idle talk). Their evening progress full of drinking, dancing, and more drinking.
One of the people they happen upon and make a part of their entourage is Nikki (Helen Chandler). She’s a ditzy girl and a bit like a forlorn little puppy so they absorb her into their group. She’s got money and doesn’t quite know how to take care of herself. They take it upon themselves to do just that, which includes guarding her against the advances of a conceited nincompoop (Walter Byron).
There’s not a whole lot to it, but it comes into its own spilling out of the confines of your typical fare much like the drinks they’re constantly consuming. They let their inhibitions go giving way to a giddy even laissez-faire attitude.
Among other diversions, Cary tells Nikki the tale of the world’s most famous lovers Héloïse and Abelard, and starts to fall for her, only to have his feelings hurt over a misunderstanding. Because she’s an unwitting girl who couldn’t hurt a fly. And so the gang and Nikki follow Cary to his train to Lisbon and cram into his compartment. They’ve stayed together thus far, and there’s no reason for breaking up the team.
If you’re waiting for the bottom line of the movie, know that it never comes. Not really. There’s hardly a point to it, but then again that’s the point right there. It encapsulates the very existence of these men. One of their buddies gets mixed up in the bullfighting ring, another gets into a skirmish at a carnival shooting gallery. In both accounts, there are lasting consequences.
All Quiet on The Western Front might be chosen as the emblematic film in considering the plight of WWI and how war is such a futile endeavor. It strips men of their youth, of their vitality, and of their very lives. And numerous films of different eras reiterated these themes with their own nuances. Take The Eagle and The Hawk as another fine example or even La Grande Illusion, or the aforementioned Dawn Patrol (also with Bartholmess).
However, The Last Flight might stand in what seems like a class of its own. It’s not about how men die in the morass of the battlefield or how they get crippled by the gross delusions of war. Because the whole film is built out of the interim period, the delay of going home. This reading of The Last Flight is so crucial to appreciate what it is. Most post-war films are about the return and coming to terms with life and transition.
These men never get that far. They make it to a kind of purgatory — they get out on the other side — and yet this is never a movie about acclimating back to home. It’s built out of the peregrinations and distractions of men who are completely listless. They are the so-called “lost generation” of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
For some, it’s almost a merciful end not having to touch down on American soil. Hence, this being their last flight together as comrades-in-arms. There was never a life for them outside of what they had already experienced, and they could never return home and hope to be the same people they were before. It’s just not possible.
If we’re instilled with anything, it is that The Last Flight is a film of brotherhood and a shared experience above all else. Simultaneously, its brand of freeform, invariably crude narrative is rather invigorating, since it cuts against the accepted grain of the times. It plays as a very singular time capsule speaking to the age like few other films I can think of.