The Dawn Patrol can be placed in several contexts: it is the director's first war movie as well as his first talkie ; besides, it is part of the wave of American aviation films, military or not, that followed Lindbergh's 1927 Atlantic crossing and included Wellman's Wings as well as Hughes & Whale's Hell's Angels. However, contrary to the two aforementioned and to its own original poster baseline, The Dawn Patrol is not an epic. Nor does it fit the usual overtones adopted at the time (and still pretty much today) for most war movies, be it adventure, sacrifice or pacifism.
What may strike the viewer here is the cyclical structure, which Hawks also used later on in The Road to Glory. War is seldom told as a repeating story, although the pattern can be seen in Apocalypse Now or The Thin Red Line. Just as there is a 'comedy of repetition', The Dawn Patrol is a somehow a 'tragedy of repetition'. Month after month, a new flight commander, a new squadron leader, and new recruits keep doing the same things, playing the same dynamics with no end in sight - that is, no foreseeable end within their life expectancy.
In that respect, the film is indisputably a testimony about the spirit of those who fought World War I. Though one may see it as a tribute to the heroics of tenacity, it just as well demonstrates the absurd mechanics of destruction on an unprecedented scale. The theme is usually likely to be associated with the trenches' war, but Hawks gives it a unified - or should we say joint - dimension. Whereas Wellmann and Whale insisted on the distinction beetween doughboys and flyboys, Hawks tells us that war is the same in whatever position you're in.
Action! And a Hawks cameo as 'Von Richter'.
Of course, this doesn't prevent the film to supplement the 'air force flick cliché collection' with new figures. Notably: the pilot-having-a-nervous-breakdown, the flight commander/squad leader fights, the motherly mechanic and the aviators-singing-songs-in-the-mess scene will be seen many many times in later aviation movies. Yet, the last two have a peculiar place in Hawks' work. The 'motherly mechanic', for instance, is a sketch for the recurring figure of the 'old man' in the director's movies.
Here's to the Dead already...
The song is older than WWI and outlasted it. "Here's a toast to the dead already / Hurrah for the next man who dies ! In Hawks' movies groups of men, or predominantly male, often resort to singing to express the idea that their fate is shared. It is all the more moving here, as this is almost the only music in the whole film, and the macabre words contrast fully with the warmth of togetherness. This is pure Hawksian emotion. The idea that during a war, humanity lies in the understanding that the fate is more collective than individual is also conveyed in the scene where the fallen German pilot is invited to drink with the (hardly) British aviators. It's not about 'chivalry', only a way to survive as a human being.
The Dawn Patrol at imdb.
DVD edition (Warner) & others.