The Dawn Patrol
(1938), 103 min. b&w

The Dawn Patrol is one of the best films ever made. It is action-packed, yet delivers a powerful anti-war message. I cannot understand why "The Dawn Patrol" has not received the attention and awards it clearly deserves. The aviation footage is superb. The directing and the acting is first-rate. I strongly recommend this film.Rathbone as Major Brand

Basil Rathbone plays the commanding officer of a World War I squadron of British fliers stationed in France near the German line. They are outnumbered by German fliers so the British squadron has been losing at least one flier 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 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."Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn

The strong cast includes Errol Flynn and David Niven, who play daredevil WWI 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.

Rodion RathboneRodion 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 enemy lines.

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 squadron commander.

Major Brand reprimands Scott and Courtney
Rathbone, Niven and Flynn

Major Brand learns of his promotion
Rathbone

"You're in charge now, Courtney!"

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.

Brand and Courtney discuss strategies for the missionMajor 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.

SPOILER ALERT: DON'T READ ANY MORE IF YOU WANT TO WATCH THE FILM AND BE SURPRISED.Brand watches Courtney take off.

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."

Cast

Credits

Basil Rathbone.................Major Brand
Errol Flynn..............................Courtney
David Niven..................................Scott
Donald Crisp..............................Phipps
Melville Cooper......................Watkins
Barry Fitzgerald.............................Bott
Carl Esmond.....................Von Mueller
Peter Willes.............................Hollister
Morton Lowry...............Johnnie Scott
Michael Brooke........................Squires
Rodion Rathbone*...................Russell

   *sometimes appears in film credits as "John Rodion"
Production Co. ...............Warner Bros.
Producer............................Robert Lord
Director...................Edmund Goulding
Screenplay.....................Seton I. Miller
   and Dan Totheroh (based on the story "The Flight Commander" by John Monk Saunders)
Cinematographer............Tony Gaudio 
Editor.............................Ralph Dawson
Music.................................Max Steiner
Art Director....................John Hughes
Special Effects................Edwin DuPar

Images on this page and pages 2 and 3 are from the film "The Dawn Patrol," copyright Warner Bros. Films.

Click here for more pictures from "The Dawn Patrol."

 

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2007