August 18, 2014
The Dawn Patrol (1930)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Richard Barthelmess, Neil Hamilton, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

What it's about. This aviation war drama served as the role model for many better known Hollywood movies to follow, such as Twelve O'Clock High (1949). A team of British pilots, most of them fresh from the military academy, are pressed into service against veteran German pilots, including the notorious Red Baron.

On the typical mission, nearly half the pilots are killed, though their bombing and strafing greatly aid the Allied cause. Courtney (Richard Barthelmess) is the leader of the pilots, and has frequent bitter arguments with superior officer Brand (Neil Hamilton), who conveys the orders from headquarters.

Other fliers include Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Hollister (Gardner James), and Scott's younger brother Gordon (William Janney). Eventually, Brand is promoted and replaced by Courtney, who inherits his former leader's guilt over sending inexperienced young pilots to their deaths.

Director Howard Hawks had served in the U.S. Air Force during World War I, experience undoubtedly useful for the film. Supposedly, Hawks doubled as an extra, flying a German plane during battle scenes.

In 1938, Dawn Patrol was remade, starring latest Warner Bros. star Errol Flynn. Flight footage from the original was edited in, since vintage airplanes had become scarce. The 1930 movie was renamed Flight Commander, and all existing reels had their title cards replaced.

How others will see it. The Dawn Patrol had the misfortune to be released during the same year as two superior World War dramas, All Quiet on the Western Front and the especially similar Hell's Angels. Nonetheless, it was well received, and won an Oscar for Best Original Story.

Today at, the film has a scant 1K user votes. The user ratings are extremely high (8.1 out of 10) but inconsistent. Men under 45 grade it "only" 7.2. Men over 45 award it an 8.2, and women over 30 grade it a remarkable 8.8, even though there is not a single female face in Dawn Patrol. Presumably, women admire the heroism and angst of the cast, especially handsome Barthelmess, one of Hollywood's highest paid actors and producers circa 1928.

How I felt about it. Hamilton, Barthelmess, and Fairbanks are all guilty of shameless overacting at times. Since the blame is widespread among the leads, the blame must go to director Hawks, who perhaps had yet to realize that the sound era required less blatant expression of emotion.

Admittedly, the prospect and realization of death should lead to strong emotions, even if you are English. This explains why audiences accept the movie without significant reservation. From the comfort of one's easy chair, it is easy to say, "Suck it up, old man, and stop behaving like a man about to stand in front of a firing squad." But, in a sense, the pilots are in nearly as precarious a position.

We wonder how Courtney and Scott survive throughout the months if they are flying a few times a week on missions that decimate the small outfit. Especially when they are such hard drinkers and stint on sleep. Perhaps the reason that the Germans were better pilots because they were teetotalers who went to bed early. Of course, such behavior would be uncinematic in comparison with the British pilots' drunken sing-a-longs.