The Dawn Patrol (1938)

Strangely—considering that Errol Flynn is best known for his swashbuckling roles—the film I most vividly remember of his is this one, an unusual war film. I first watched it years ago as a teenager, and ever since—in spite of having notched up The Prince and the Pauper, Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and other blockbuster Flynn hits—this remains my favourite Errol Flynn film. Touching, thought-provoking, and utterly memorable.

The Dawn Patrol falls in that very slim category, of films set in the First World War rather than the Second. The story traces the fragile lives—here today, snuffed out tomorrow—of a group of RAF pilots, the 59th, stationed in France in 1915. The 59th is based close to the lines that separate the British from the Germans, and it is the task of the 59th to go up in the air every morning (and often through the rest of the day too), carrying out recces, strafing the German positions, and hopefully coming back alive.

The commanding officer of the 59th is Major Brand (Basil Rathbone). To him falls the unpleasant duty of sending the men out on missions while remaining bound to his desk.

The two senior officers who do get to fly are Captain Courtney (Errol Flynn) and his bosom buddy Lieutenant Scott (David Niven), men with so many hours of experience in the air and so many daring tales of derring-do to recount, that death has become just another event that may come their way one of these days.

At the other end of the spectrum are the young men, fresh from training, who are sent out to the front to replace those who’ve ‘fallen in battle’. These are fresh-faced boys, barely out of school, none with more than 20 hours of flying experience, all of them eager to get into battle. For them, the war is a schoolboy’s adventure, glorious and exciting and offering them the chance to be heroes. The blood and agony and the horror of war is non-existent for them.

Worst still is the fact that there is no time to be spent in training these youngsters. Courtney argues with Brand, pleading that he be allowed just two weeks to teach the newcomers some battle manoeuvres, something that will give them at least a fighting chance—but Brand flatly refuses. Not, as Courtney thinks, because he’s unjust and heartless, but because his boss—a disjointed voice in a cosy office at the end of the phone line—won’t allow it.

Somewhere in the middle, between the embittered Brand, the devil-may-care Courtney and Scott, and the excited youngsters, are men like Hollister (Peter Willes). Hollister is young enough to weep when one of his friends is killed in combat, and young enough to rail helplessly at the cannon fodder he and his colleagues have become.

The Dawn Patrol is the story of these men. It is the story of how they serve their time at the front, aware that the next flight out may well be their last ever: that they may never go back home, never see their friends and families again. It is, in some ways, a tale of the resilience of human nature. These men, constantly on the edge of death (or perhaps because they are always facing death?) are now able to laugh at their own mortality. Evening comes, and they gather around, drinking and chatting and singing loudly “Hurrah for the next man that dies!”

There are moments when the joie de vivre seems forced. The eyes hold fear and anguish but the lips smile—until you feel that those smiles will finally crack. Sometimes, there are mad escapades, adventures that almost seem Biggles-like in their superficial daring. One day, for instance, a passing German pilot throws down a pair of boots with a note attached, to the effect that the British pilots should wear them, since the British seem more at home on the ground than in the air.

To salvage their pride, Courtney and Scott sneak out that night—in direct disobedience of Brand’s orders—and not just return the boots to the Germans, but also blow up vast swathes of German installations. All very much the heroic schoolboy type: stand up to a challenge, show the world you’re better than they think you are (much better), and do it all with a sense of humour…

…even though, in the process of one of these adventures, Scott goes missing and Courtney suddenly joins the ranks of men like Hollister, sorely missing a dear friend. Courtney, of course, is a man and not a boy; he doesn’t cry, he doesn’t rage like the emotional Hollister, but you can see the pain in his eyes.

There is Brand, frustrated and helpless because to him falls the task of sending men out to their deaths—without the compensating privilege of facing the challenge of death himself. His assignment ties Brand down to the ground, and he hates every minute of it. When the 59th flies out every morning, Brand wonders how many of them will come back. When they do come in, flying over the airfield, Brand stiffens, automatically counting off each plane on his fingertips, just by listening to the sound of the engine as it roars in… how many men have died today?

And there is, against this, the bluff, sympathetic Phipps (Donald Crisp), Brand’s assistant, who cheerfully reads out his daughter’s letters from home. About new puppies, about primroses flowering—about new life, so very different from the death he and Brand and the men of the 59th face.

More happens: the unexpected capture of a suave German officer, for example, which results in very different reactions from the British…

The arrival of a new batch of replacements, among them Scott’s own ‘baby brother’ Donnie (Morton Lowry)…

…and a sudden change in the fortunes of Brand and Courtney.

This is, ultimately, a beautifully nuanced film about war and the futility of it. Yes, there are mad adventures; but there is also death: the death those enthusiastic schoolboys ignore in their reckless craze for glory. There is frustration and resentment: the natural resentment of the more literally-minded for the ‘enemy’, but also the resentment of the more mature for the predicaments they find themselves in. There are twists of fate that change men’s perspectives. There are moments of humour. There are tiny rays of light, camaraderie and laughter that take away the spectre of death, even if only for a few minutes.

And there is, for a war film, a very strong element of pacifism. As Courtney tells Donnie in a moment of reflection, on war: “A great big noisy and rather stupid game that makes no sense at all. None of us know what it’s all about or why… then one day I suppose it’ll all end as suddenly as it began. We’ll go home. Till some other bunch of criminal idiots sitting around a large table shoves us into another war…”

A superb and unforgettable film. If you get a chance to watch it, don’t miss it.

What I liked about this film:

Everything. The screenplay, the acting, and, especially, the very fine characterisation. Each of the main players—Courtney, Scott, Brand and Phipps—have distinct characters, with well crafted layers that are revealed as the story progresses.

What I didn’t like:

Some of the special effects, which didn’t look too realistic. But, considering The Dawn Patrol was made way back in 1938, I’m more than willing to forgive that.

Little bit of trivia:

The Dawn Patrol was a remake of a 1930 film of the same name. Both films were based on a short story by John Monk Saunders, who, despite serving in the Air force, was never able to actually go into battle, a fact that plagued him for much of his life (and which, of course, is the main theme behind the character of Brand in the film). Saunders won an Oscar for Best Story for The Dawn Patrol (1930).
Several flying sequences from the 1930 film were re-used in the 1938 film to avoid shooting them again.

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15 thoughts on “The Dawn Patrol (1938)

  1. Well reviewed as always, Dusted. Glad you agree that The Dawn Patrol really is a superb movie. All his movie career Flynn was dismissed by critics as just walking through his roles and, in later life, he did. But not with this one. In his autobiography Flynn admits that, after being exonerated at the end of his trumped up rape case, he grew more than cynical and pretty much stopped caring about his craft.

    Made in 1937 and released in 1938 when people still remembered The Great War with dread but had faith in the Briand-Kellogg Peace Pact signed by so many nations, the film was warmly received because it was most definitely antiwar.

    In his early years Flynn and Niven, his great, good friend, cared a great deal about acting. They also cared a great deal about drinking and wenching too. Niven married a woman he loved and who loved him and grew up. Flynn never married a woman he truly cared about and remained a juvenile.

  2. Sean, thank you for the appreciation – and also for that insight into Flynn’s life and career. It is sad that despite having worked in films like The Dawn Patrol – not just a superb and sensitive film, but also fine evidence of Flynn’s prowess as an actor – he should have ended up sleepwalking through so many of his later roles.

    It’s ironic that just a year after The Dawn Patrol was released, the world was back in another war…

  3. Sounds like such a brilliant film. Such an old film yet so well executed. I never knew about this film starring Flynn because i was more acquainted with his other films. Thank you so much for letting me know about this. Now will hunt it out for sure :)

  4. I think this was shown on Doordarshan back in the good old days when they used to show old B/W films late at night… may have been in the 80’s or so. I remember seeing it then, and despite the fact that it’s actually a fairly serious film (and as a teenager, I didn’t exactly like films of that type!), this one made a huge impression on me. It’s brilliant. Very definitely to be looked out for!

  5. Hi,
    I stumbled on to your blog when I was randomly searching for the film ‘Hariyali Aur Raasta’. Been sneaking peeks into your posts in the middle of work ever since! Would just like to tell you that I really enjoy reading. I have not watched many of these films. But I love old Hindi film music, and I have just started collecting DVDs of old Hindi film classics. Will now also bear your recommendations in mind! :)
    Thanks for the joy!
    Divya.

  6. I don’t usually like war films, but I can see why this would have made such an impression on you. War always does seem like a cruel game initiated by stupid people at the cost of other innocents. :(

  7. The fact that it was made before World War II might explain it’s pacifist view. I’m sure censor made certain that nothing upset the war applecart in the war years!

    I have been guilty of dismissing Errol Flynn as a somewhat lightweight actor, too. Most of his films tend to fall in the swashbuckler and Western categories that, though entertaining, are not exactly noted for their depth or subtlety. Perhaps this film will change my perspective. :)

    I do love David Niven, though, and it will be nice to see Basil Rathbone in a a non-Holmes role! My library has this “on order”, so I should be able to lay my hands on it, soon.

    By the way, I vaguely remember reading somewhere that Flynn was so prone to making passes that once, in his cups, he even made one at his flatmate Niven! :D

  8. Banno: I like the old-fashioned Alistair MacLean style of war film – the type exemplified by flicks like Where Eagles Dare. Pure adventure, not much realism at all. On the other hand, I find films like The Dawn Patrol or the excellent Battleground equally memorable, in a very different way. It’s good to occasionally see that war is not just a schoolboy’s idea of heroism, all guns blazing and Nazis falling dead. It’s also seeing your friends killed, for no reason other than perhaps a political one…

    bollyviewer: I wonder what Niven’s reaction was to that pass! :D
    I have surprisingly never seen Rathbone as Holmes, even though I have seen stills from his Holmes films. In fact, the only films I remember seeing Rathbone in are Flynn films, and in the Tyrone Power starrer The Mark of Zorro.

  9. Sounds a bit like The Longest Day.

    What always strikes me about movies about war that were filmed either between the two world wars or directly after the second, is that they were quite certain that these were horrible events that humanity should never repeat.

    There is always the sense of ordinary people’s loss and children growing up with only a grave to call father and entire generations of women who never married because all their sweethearts lay buried in another country.

    Thanks to modern technology and new methods of warfare, however, it’s quite the opposite these days. You see movies today being made about recent wars and what gets you is how isolated the modern soldier is from the rest of society and how foreign his experiences and that of his family are to the rest of the country he served in spite of all the rah-rah-rah-ing that goes on.

    I’m going to find me a copy of this movie. Thanks!

  10. Well said. Modern films do sort of ‘dehumanise’ war, don’t they? Or at least bring the human angle of war down to the extent only of the soldier and his/her immediate friends/family…

  11. From your wonderfully detailed description, this movie reminds me a little bit of Robert Altman’s MASH, and the TV series of the same name. As you may know, that had male buddies serving at the front during wartimes, the difference is they were doctors.
    I have not seen any Errol Flynn movie, sounds like this one may just be the ticket.
    I have not seen many 30’s or 40’s Hollywood/British movies, so yet another reason to fill in the gap.
    And David Niven is always a good reason.

  12. I remember watching the TV series M*A*S*H. I’d say the flavour of that was very different from The Dawn Patrol, or at least as far as I recall – I think that was more funny than anything else. The Dawn Patrol has moments of humour, but the poignancy is more dominant. Frankly, even though Errol Flynn did some very entertaining swashbucklers – The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Prince and the Pauper, Captain Blood, The Seahawk etc – I like this best. A very good introduction to Flynn’s films. And, as you say, Niven is always a good reason to watch a film!

  13. You know, one reason I like the old war films (the ones made in the 40’s or 50’s, for instance) compared to the newer ones – like Saving Private Ryan – is that the older ones had less blood and gore, usually. Maybe those are more sanitised and not so real, but I prefer them. The Dawn Patrol is certainly one of the best I’ve seen in the war-humanity-drama genre.

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