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J. Farrell MacDonald
Although William Wellman is the Hollywood director most associated with air films, not counting of course the self indulgent Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks with The Dawn Patrol and with Air Circus and Only Angels Have Wings can certainly hold is own against the formidable Mr. Wellman on his own turf.
This may have been Howard Hawks's first sound feature and he debuted magnificently with a story about a group of fliers from the United Kingdom's Royal Flying Corps of World War I. John Monk Saunders wrote the original story for the screen that netted The Dawn Patrol an Academy Award for that category.
The story centers on three men. Group commander Neil Hamilton who has to send his men up against some of Germany's best fliers and two of his senior pilots, Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Hamilton is a troubled man indeed, having to send barely trained kid pilots and he hears about it from Barthelmess and Fairbanks.
One fine day, oddly enough to do a daring assault that Barthelmess and Fairbanks pull off, Hamilton gets a promotion up to the staff headquarters. In a curious bit of poetic vengeance he names Barthelmess his replacement.
Of course when Barthelmess now is seeing the war from Hamilton's point of view, he starts to behave differently. What he does and the choices he makes are the basis for the rest of this story about some of the United Kingdom's most gallant generation lost in the first terrible total war of the last century.
As Fairbanks and Barthelmess criticize Hamilton in what he does, I do wonder about when they were the fresh recruits. They became the veterans more than likely by sheer chance that they did survive. Yet that never plays a part in their thinking.
The aerial combat sequences are excellently staged, Howard Hughes and William Wellman could hardly have done better. They were so good that they got used again in the 1938 remake of this film.
The Dawn Patrol also marked the film debut of Frank McHugh who graced Warner Brothers films for the next 20 years. I've said in many comments and on their respective pages that it could almost not be a Warner Brothers film without either Frank McHugh or Alan Hale or both in a given feature, they appeared so often. The brothers Warner, got their work out of those two.
The 1938 remake with Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone is the one most are familiar with. Still this one is the real deal.
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