A stirring and moving picture of the English flying forces in France in the
Great War, The Dawn Patrol is one of the best films ever made. It is
action-packed, yet delivers a powerful message about the brutality of war. The
aviation footage is superb. The directing and the acting is first-rate. Rathbone
gives one of his finest performances. The strong cast includes Errol Flynn and David
Niven. If you've thought of Errol Flynn as just a handsome swashbuckler, you'll
be pleasantly surprised to see the complexity of character his performance
brings. Niven is also excellent in this film.
The story deals with the emotions of men, strong and weak, under the mental
and physical stresses of warfare. Basil Rathbone plays the commanding officer of a World War I squadron of
the British Royal Flying Corps stationed in France near the German enemy lines.
Each dawn the flyers are sent out to battle in rickety planes, badly in need of
replacement. The British fliers are outnumbered by German fliers so at least one
British flier is shot down each day. Yet the top brass keep
ordering Major Brand (Rathbone) to send the squadron out on dangerous missions with little
chance of survival. The replacements sent by headquarters are inexperienced pilots
with only a few hours of experience in the air to their credit. They are boys who
haven't yet learned basic evasive maneuvers. They are routinely shot down their first time
out. As the commanding officer who is forced to send these lambs to the slaughter, Brand
is extremely frustrated. He would rather fly the dangerous missions himself than send
others into danger. The responsibility has frayed his nerves. He's edgy and he loses his
temper easily. "It's a rotten job, but somebody's got to do it." The
emphasis is put strongly on the uselessness of such human sacrifice.
Watch the trailer for The Dawn Patrol:
Errol Flynn and David Niven
play daredevil British pilots with a flip, live-for-the-moment (for tomorrow you may
die) attitude. They are so used to losing their comrades (and the young fliers who aren't
even with them long enough for a friendship to develop), that they act like they don't
care. They get drunk at the bar, and laugh and sing. They blame Brand for the deaths and
call him a butcher. Brand himself feels like a butcher.
Rodion Rathbone, Basil's son by his first marriage, plays one of the young,
inexperienced pilots, named "Russell." He appears near the beginning of the
film, speaks a few lines, and then flies off on his first mission. He is shot down over
A scene that was cut from the film: Rathbone greeting the new
recruits, including Lt. Russell (Rathbone's son, Rodion)
Hollywood magazine reported that Basil Rathbone had "what he claims to be the most unusual,
unnerving experience in his life when he had to play a scene in Dawn
Patrol opposite his son Rodion who was cast as a recruit. Basil became
so confused that he blew up in his lines."1
The scene with Basil and Rodion together must have been cut; they don't appear
together in the film. The article also mentioned that Rodion was employed at Warners as a
film cutter but gave up his work to try his skill at acting. In the two
films that he made, he used the name John Rodion.
After one daring raid in which Capt. Courtney (Flynn) and Capt. Scott (Niven)
successfully destroy all the planes at one German airfield, Headquarters is so delighted
that they call to inform Major Brand of his promotion to wing commander. Brand is
overjoyed, and that emotion is written all over his face. For the first time we see Brand
smile, and laugh out loud! (It is actually a rare sight to see Rathbone with a big grin on
his face. He usually looks so serious.) Before Brand leaves, he promotes Courtney to
Rathbone, Niven and Flynn
Rathbone, hearing of his promotion
Now that Courtney is commanding officer, he understands the agony that Brand felt
every time he sent the squadron on a mission. He becomes just as tense and stressed as
Brand was. His friendship with Scott is ruined when Courtney is ordered to send all the
new fliers on a mission. Scott's younger brother Donnie is among them, and he is shot down
and killed. Scott blames Courtney and won't forgive him.
Major Brand returns one day to personally deliver an order for a suicide mission. His
personality has totally changed. He's now relaxed and happy. If there's a weakness in this
film, I would pinpoint it here. Just because Brand is removed from the battlefield, he
isn't removed from the responsibility. He's now one of the top brass who is ordering
Courtney to send up inexperienced pilots in obsolete planes. He knows they are more than
likely going to die, so shouldn't his conscience be bothering him? For some reason, it
isn't. He delivers the mission order to Courtney and tells him he cannot refuse.
Courtney decides to fly the mission himself and, after successfully bombing the
target, he is shot down. One of the German pilots flies over the British squadron's
airfield and drops Courtney's helmet and goggles, to let them know Courtney was killed.
Near the end of the film Courtney's assistant Phipps makes the following statement on
the futility of war: "It means a very gallant gentleman died this afternoon. And for
what? What have all these deaths accomplished? So many fine chaps who have died in this
war and are going to die in future wars."
Rathbone and Flynn
Brand discusses the mission with Courtney
The Dawn Patrol is a remake of the picture originally made in 1930, with
Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the roles of Courtney and Scott.
Neil Hamilton played Major Brand. It seems strange to do a remake just 8 short years after the original. The original film was a success, but was embroiled in controversy. Howard
Hughes sued Warner Bros, alleging that it plagiarized his film Hell's Angels
(1930).2 Although Warner's won the lawsuit, the controversy may have been a
contributing factor to the studio's decision to remake the film in 1938 rather
than re-release the 1930 Dawn Patrol. A likely reason for Warner Bros to
remake Dawn Patrol was Errol Flynn. The studio had a "golden goose"--a
popular star who would be a big box-office draw. Warners no doubt thought a new
Dawn Patrol starring Errol Flynn would be a big hit--and it was! Some of
the aerial footage and the shots of the munitions depot explosions from the 1930
film were used in the 1938 film.3
The aerial footage was also used in a later film, British Intelligence
(1940).4 Here is an interesting video comparing the aerial shots used in British Intelligence and
Dawn Patrol (1938):
Not all of the aerial footage was culled from the Warners archives. Two dozen ancient Nieuports and Fokkers were reconditioned for use in
Dawn Patrol.5 In
addition to using the vintage aircraft, Warner's wanted to use a famous stunt flier named Douglas Corrigan (nicknamed
"Wrong Way" Corrigan) in
the film. But Corrigan wanted $100,000--an amount that the studio was not
willing to pay.6
Warners rushed editing the film, wanting to release it on Armistice Day (November
11, 1938), but that didn't happen.7 The film was not released until December
had a powerful impact on viewers. One young man wrote a letter to the editor of
Silver Screen magazine:
It is now many weeks since I saw "Dawn Patrol" but the impression it made
shall remain with me as long as I live. I am in my twenties--a potential
soldier, but whatever glamour war formerly held for me, was lost in the
senseless slaughter of those young lads.
Hollywood has more influence over our present and coming generations than
any president. So Hollywood, give us the sermons we need--sow the seeds of
peace in the heart of every human being. Give us more pictures that "pack a
punch"--the "Dawn Patrol" variety.
Murrell C. Wellman, Joliet, Ill.
(published in the May 1939 issue of Silver Screen)
Reviews of the film were great!
"Thrilling, exciting and heroic film ... Stunning aerial shots"
Frank S. Nugent, N.Y. Times
"Good ... Thrilling and striking demonstration of aerial warfare ...
Sincere and effective ... When Donald Crisp makes his plea against war, he's
so magnificent that he'll tear your heart out" William Boehnel, N.Y.
"Exciting and dramatic argument against war ... Credit Edmund Goulding
with a splendid, straightforward piece of direction ... Compelling in the
forcefulness of its understatement." Andrew R. Kelley, Washington Times
"Basil Rathbone is superb as the aviator who suffers inwardly the loss of
every man while he is forced to remain in command on the ground." Variety
"Basil Rathbone, as the British squadron commander whose job it is to send
these boys into the slaughter, gives a memorable performance." Modern Screen
The Film Daily (December 14, 1938) wrote:
Superb remake of classic war drama marked by fine acting and excellent
This remake of the picture originally done in 1930 with Richard
Barthelmess playing the lead part now taken by Errol Flynn, can honestly be
recorded as a superior production. In view of the present tense atmosphere
in Europe, this looks as if it will score as strong as the first production
which was a sensation of its time and made box-office history. The original
story of John Monk Saunders is used and those who did the screenplay are
again credited. The scene is on the British front during the war, at the
squadron headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps, 59th Squadron. Rathbone as
the major in command does a magnificent job registering the breaking nerves
of an officer feeling himself responsible for sending up the young and
inexperienced flyers to certain death against the superior force of the
enemy. When he is promoted to headquarters, Errol Flynn takes over, and he
in turn experiences what his former commander went through when he is
reviled by his buddy, David Niven, for sending the latter's young brother to
his death. The climax carries tremendous suspense as Flynn flies inside the
enemy lines on a suicide mission to try to blow up the ammunition dumps, a
job which Niven had volunteered for, but his superior beats him to it. In
this way he atones for the death of his friend's brother. The picture
emphasizes the futility of war, and all its misery and foolishness, and on
this angle rests its appeal for the femmes, for there is no romantic
interest anywhere in the story, and no feminine character. The work of all
the principal players is splendid. The direction is something to cheer
about. a really superior war picture in every sense.
Llewellyn Miller wrote a splendid review in
Hollywood magazine, February 1939.
A few ... a very few pictures are timeless in their appeal. A few ... a
very few pictures may be revived year after year without seeming quaint or
out-of-date or downright silly.
Dawn Patrol is one of the very few films which will survive this
year and next and as many years to come as there are people who remember
wars. I wish it might be shown every year to every graduating class of every
high school. I wish it might be included in every course of American History
in every school in the land. I hope that it is revived every year, so long
as bullets are being cast and battleships are being made, because, like
every great war film that the motion picture industry has produced, it says
"Where is the glory, where is the great adventure, where is there anything
but criminal waste in such insanity?"
With the exception of one or two lines, there is no such preachment in
words in the film. There does not need to be. The action, itself, speaks
louder than any spoken opinions; the action and some of the most brilliant
playing you can hope to see.
The film opens in headquarters behind the lines of the Fifty-ninth
Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. It is the year 1916. Major Brand (Basil
Rathbone) is waiting to count the roaring motors of Flight A as it returns
from the dawn patrol. On orders from headquarters, he had sent out seven men
in seven rickety canvas-covered crates. He cannot hope that more than half
will return ... it is impossible. Half of Flight A is made up of recruits
just out from training school. Many have less than ten hours in the air, and
they are fighting against such crack fliers as the German ace, von Richter.
Brand is close to the breaking point. He cannot refuse to obey orders. He
cannot take over the dangerous flights himself. He must sit in safety behind
his desk and send young boys out to certain death in rickety canvas-covered
Basil Rathbone sets the whole mood of the film with his performance in
these first scenes. Because of the way words snap from his strained mouth,
he convinces you that Brand dares to speak no more than necessary words for
fear he will burst into an hysterical protest. His gestures are the same ...
so restrained that they are an expression of intolerable tension. The two
best fliers of the squadron, Captain Courtney (Errol Flynn) and Lieutenant
Scott (David Niven), are taking the war very differently. All they have to
do is try to obey impossible orders, and about those orders they have a
protective fatalism. Once back on the ground again, they can forget, or at
least ignore the duties of the next day, in drink or roistering descents on
If you have been thinking of Errol Flynn as a young man whose equipment
as an actor seemed to consist entirely of good looks and a nice smile,
change that opinion right now. He may not have done much acting in the past,
but with this performance he demonstrates a great talent, beyond argument.
It will be a long time before you forget the way he delivers the speech
telling of his best friend's death whole one hand fumbles without purpose at
the leaves of a magazine. You won't forget for a long time the painful
control in his voice when he says gently "Sleep tight," in a last toast to
his comrade. You won't forget the detached, almost disinterested calm with
which he circles his bomb-laden plane above the munitions depot.
David Niven as the joyous rather lightwitted Scotty who is childishly
susceptible to alcohol and fun and laughter; Donald Crisp as the steady,
sane aide who carries on, no matter what comes; Melville Cooper as the
talkative emotional orderly; all of the carefully chosen cast deserve the
highest credit for parts in a photoplay which could not be more convincing.
"Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn give brilliant
performances in Dawn Patrol."
Courtney tells Donnie that his father was a professor at Queens,
and he used to say, "Man is a savage animal who periodically, to relieve his
nervous tension, tries to destroy himself."
The following review appeared in the February 1939 issue of Photoplay:
The Brothers Warner have been very successful making unusual pictures and
while it is true Dawn Patrol has been made before (in 1930), still it is
also true that to a whole new generation of moviegoers, surfeited with love
triangles, this stirring aviation war drama of men without women will prove
a completely satisfying and thoughtful experience. Stressing the "War is
Hell" angle, it builds up an amazing and gallant picture of heroism, horror
and deep friendship among the men in the Royal Flying Corps in France in
1915. The combat scenes in the air are continuously thrilling, stunningly
photographed and the whole is carried to a logical if tragic conclusion.
You will weep watching a flight commander, Basil Rathbone, spiritually
disintegrate under the task of sending men to their death in "old crates
patched up with spit and a few wires" against the might of expert German
squadrons. Errol Flynn, his captain, accuses Rathbone of being an
executioner, until he himself is made commander and in turn has to send the
young brother of his best friend (David Niven) to certain death. Later when
Niven volunteers for a lone mission, Errol goes in his place.
It is not a pretty tale, but the solid direction of Edmund Goulding
prevented any maudlin sentimentality. David Niven emerges as a potential
star of great magnitude; Flynn himself is capable, without any fireworks;
Basil Rathbone, though inclined to keep that menace glint, is satisfying;
Donald Crisp and Carl Esmond are outstanding.
Unbelievably, The Dawn Patrol (1938) wasn't nominated for any Academy
Awards. However, John Monk Saunders won an Academy Award for best original story
in connection with the 1930 Dawn Patrol. Saunders commented to reporters,
"This is indeed a crazy business, where I am bring sued for plagiarism on one
hand and given the statuette for originality on the other."9