Movies that cover World War I have long been overshadowed by those that are made about World War II. Why? Perhaps it’s that people find trench warfare lackluster or that the technology was too archaic when compared to the later war. Or maybe it’s just that The Great War is lodged too far back in history. Whatever the case, it’s nice to see that World War I is getting a little more cinematic attention of late, with such as the excellent 2017 film “Journey’s End” as well as 2019’s “1917.”
But what about classic movies that covered that era in warfare? After all, many of the tropes that you see in today’s war movies are based on classic films. One such movie, 1938’s “The Dawn Patrol,” directed by Edmund Goulding, is certainly one of those classics. It contains clichés that later films would borrow heavily from, such as undying loyalty to one’s fellows, unabashed patriotism, bouts of drunken camaraderie, and sustaining both intense trauma and war-weariness.
The film is set is 1915 at the 59 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, a British air base in France. Major Brand (Basil Rathbone) is the air base commander and is wracked with guilt about having to send so many young, inexperienced pilots off to their deaths against the Germans. His second in command, Phipps (Donald Crisp), attempts to console him as they wait for the day’s dawn patrol to return.
Five of the seven pilots soon return, including a couple of relatively seasoned pilots, Captain Courtney (Errol Flynn), who leads A-Flight, and his bosom buddy “Scotty” Scott (David Niven), as well as a greenhorn pilot, Hollister (Peter Willes). As the pilots settle in to have a few drinks, Hollister breaks down in sorrow over one of the downed pilots and becomes inconsolable despite Courtney’s best efforts to cheer him up.
Brand orders some replacements for the lost men and tells Courtney that they’ll arrive the next morning. Four young pilots show up, and Courtney chooses the two of them who have the most flight experience (which still isn’t much).
When Courtney leads A-Flight out for the next day’s dawn patrol, only four pilots return. This time, one of the pilots who doesn’t make it back is Scott. This time it’s Courtney’s turn to wallow in sorrow, with Brand attempting to lift his spirits by offering him a drink “to him,” with the other men joining in. Courtney reveals that he shot down the German pilot (who had in turn shot down Scott) behind friendly lines, but doesn’t know what became of him.
In a tense scene, the German pilot in question, Hauptmann Von Mueller (Carl Esmond), is brought in by fellow military personnel, having been found. The German extends his respect to Courtney for defeating him in the air. Surprisingly, Courtney offers him a drink, and a sense of relief envelops the bar area as everyone commences to drink heavily together. But still upset over his friend’s demise, Hollister attacks Von Mueller and the others must restrain him.
Later, Scott stumbles in carrying five bottles of Champagne, having successfully survived crash-landing his plane with seemingly nothing but a bump on his head. He also drunkenly reveals that he had a few drinks with the French locals on his way back to the air base (which explains the Champagne). When Von Mueller realizes that it was Scott whom he shot down, he shambles over to Scott and embraces him and everyone drinks even more.
Things eventually return to a more serious tone when a notorious German pilot named Von Richter drops a pair of boots on 59 Squadron’s airfield. A note attached to the boots tells the British that they don’t belong in the air. Brand forbids the men to retaliate, explaining to them that the note is meant as a trap. Courtney and Scott disregard the orders, taking off the next morning in order to exact their revenge. But will they survive?
Flynn is dashing as the pilots’ leader, and Niven provides much of the film’s humor. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent, as are the remarkable aerial combat scenes.
“The Dawn Patrol” is a film that doesn’t romanticize World War I, but instead shows its multifaceted aspects: suffering and anguish, selflessness and sacrifice, as well as some of the absurdities of war in general.