Thursday 23 October 2008

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

I may be watching this for Carole Lombard, as part of the set of films screened by TCM in honour of the hundredth anniversary of her birth, but she's hardly in the picture at all. She turns up about halfway through, and her character doesn't even have a name: she's merely 'The Beautiful Lady' who provides some welcome escape for the lead character and some female presence for us, if only for a very short time. The leads are Fredric March and Cary Grant, but the primary focus is on aviation.

Back in the late twenties and thirties there were a slew of movies made about World War I pilots and what's most surprising is how solid they are, as single films and as a set. The best were written by John Monk Saunders, from the granddaddy of them all, Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, through The Dawn Patrol and The Last Flight and on to others. I've been reading about another one, The Legion of the Condemned, the follow up to Wings, in a fascinating book called Lost Films and watching this one makes me want to see that one even more. As the book title would suggest though, I'm not likely to ever get that chance as no copies of the film are known to exist.

The Eagle and the Hawk certainly ranks up among them and while Saunders didn't write the screenplay, it was based on his short story, Death in the Morning and it has his touch all over it. In fact it reminds very much of The Dawn Patrol, to which it bears many similarities, which was also based on a Saunders story. The other chief asset here is March, who gives a blistering performance which becomes more so as the film runs on. He dominates here, partly because of that performance and partly because Cary Grant is uncharacteristically overblown in support.

March is Jerry Young, an American flyer who volunteers for service in the 323rd Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, coming into the game for the sport of it. He gets his opportunity over the countryside of occupied France, flying observers over enemy territory at low altitudes to take photographs of enemy positions, a dangerous job that gets him into plenty of dogfights. Of course it doesn't quite turn out how he expects. Shooting down Germans is a ride at first, providing him with the joy of the fight and the thrill of the kill, but they're quickly followed by the cold hard realisation that his own men are being killed too. Returning from his first flight he raves about his two kills until he finds that his own gunner is dead too.

Cary Grant is Henry Crocker, the best tailgunner in the business who becomes Young's gunner after five others are killed in action. Unfortunately they have a mutual dislike for each other dating back to England where Crocker was initially left behind because of his lack of flying ability. In fact to begin with Crocker only sticks with Young to see how long he could go on until his nerves go to pieces, and of course they do because that's what war does to people. Anyone who's seen a Saunders film knows that his stories aren't just about daring heroes but the reality of war.

The Eagle and the Hawk is a powerful film indeed, but I'm guessing it's going to be rated higher by those who haven't seen The Dawn Patrol because many of the most powerful components here are reruns from that film. Much of it has to do with how we mark the passage of time: not through any standard means, like clocks on the wall or fluttering calendars, but by through change in the environment. We see it through the wiping of names off the roster blackboard, the notably decreasing age of the new arrivals and the suffering on the face of Fredric March, which is vivid but cleverly increased as the film progresses.

March, who had won an Oscar the year before for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, deserves major credit here. Initially I couldn't help but compare his performance to what Richard Barthelmess would have done with it, but it didn't take too long to forget comparisons and relish March's work. Barthelmess often played airmen in the thirties, in The Dawn Patrol, Central Airport and Only Angels Have Wings, along with the achingly powerful The Last Flight, and he'd have been great here too, but that doesn't detract from March's work. He should have been Oscar nominated for this role too and not just for the haunting mess hall speech.

While The Dawn Patrol covered much of the same ground as this film and did it first, it suffered from a lack of consistency. Some actors failed to keep up with others in both the original and the remake. Here there's less opportunity for that given the short running time, but there aren't really any bad performances. Grant is annoying when he speaks because he tends to bellow theatrically, but there's plenty of subtlety on his face and the final silent scenes are excellently done. This one also has some new touching scenes too, such as the half written letter left behind by Young's first gunner; the forgetting of names in only a short time; or the scene in which a group of new recruits are taken out by an enemy bomb because they're green enough not to take cover.

Watching this one just made me want to watch the others again, which more than suggests a successful film. I ended up rating this one higher than both versions of The Dawn Patrol, though I'm feeling it's a slightly lesser film. I guess I'll have to rewatch them closer together to make a fair judgement on that score. It certainly isn't a match for Only Angels Have Wings or The Last Flight, but it's still a highly recommended gem from an era where this was apparently a genre all to itself. Now I need to get round to watching Wings, which is sitting on my DVR awaiting the time and opportunity.

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