Warner Bros. // 1930 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 19th, 2013
High flying thrills, 1930s style.
It's France in 1915 and Major Brand (Neil Hamilton, Batman: The Movie) must, once again, use untried flyers to man what are basically suicide missions over enemy territory. Though it tears him up inside and he argues against it, he follows his orders. This makes his ace pilots Dick Courtney (Richard Barthelmess, Only Angels Have Wings) and Douglas Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ghost Story) incredibly angry and they resent their leader for his actions. Turning to drink to drown their sorrows, they try to ignore the death all around them. Once Brand is promoted, however, Courtney is given his job, and his problems. Things only get worse when he is then forced to send Scott's untrained brother (William Janney, Hopalong Cassidy Returns) out into the fray.
For fans of high flying action and edge of your seat thrills, 1930's Dawn Patrol may not be the proto pure adrenalin you are looking for. In fact, some may find it a static, dated mess. Sure, the airplane sequences are excellent and the "war without preparation" message meaningful, but you can't deny that this movie was made over 80 years ago. It's not necessarily the acting, though these stars are a far, far cry from the Method men of the contemporary era. It's also not the material, since we are dealing with World War I and we expect things to appear "era appropriate." It isn't even the direction or the old fashioned filmmaking involved. Howard Hawks was, and always will be, a terrific moviemaker and he infuses his aerial moments with a true sense of danger and urgency. Yet it's hard to get invested in a story that seems so senseless, that's been done dozens of times since.
Indeed, the premise is Dawn Patrol's biggest problem. We don't understand how winning a war requires the sacrifice of so many "green" troops. We get it from the grunts in the trenches, but not those trying to wrangle a new technology like the airplane. It's this weird, defeatist, suicidal strategy that's perturbing and perplexing. Of course, this is coming from a historical hindsight that is nearly a century in the making. So maybe it's not the movie. Perhaps it's our perspective. We've been through the Hell of war for several decades now, and the naiveté on display can occasionally be maddening. On the other hand, there is a lot to enjoy here. Hawks gets us invested in the outcome of these raids, even going so far as to manipulate our feelings a bit. The ending also has the necessary "tragic" components. Also, with WWI relatively recent, there is a feeling of authenticity that other flight fight films can't quite match. The Oscar winning script was credited to John Monk Saunders, an actual instructor and writer of Wings.
With its release as part of the Warner Archive, fans of the film (and its 1938 remake starring Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn) can finally do a decent side by side comparison. Oddly enough, the original holds up, even if the 1.33:1 full screen image is a bit on the dark side. The contrasts are a tad soft, and the overall appearance old, but this is better than expected. Sonically, a shrill Mono soundtrack is all we get. It's part and parcel of the film and its era and it does have its obvious instances of overmodulation and hiss. Finally, there are no added features here, since this is basically a professionally burned DV-R by a company doing catalog title loves a service. No one expects a wealth of extra features, but a trailer would be nice.
For all its slight sturm und drang, for the combination of hyper performances and realistic battles, The Dawn Patrol is decent. It's not some lost classic, but it's also not a should-have-remained-lost loser. Somewhere in the middle is where this movie stands-and where your entertainment value will probably land as well.
Not guilty-but a little guilty. Dated, but decent.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1930
MPAA Rating: Not Rated