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The Dawn Patrol
The Dawn Patrol theatrical release poster
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Produced by Jack Warner (executive producer)
Hal B. Wallis (executive producer)
Robert Lord (associate producer)
Written by John Monk Saunders (story)
Seton I. Miller
Dan Totheroh
Starring Errol Flynn
Basil Rathbone
David Niven
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Editing by Ralph Dawson
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) December 24, 1938 (1938-12-24)
Running time 103 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Dawn Patrol is a 1938 American war film, a remake of the pre-Code 1930 film of the same name. Both were based on the short story "The Flight Commander" by John Monk Saunders,[1] an American writer said to have been haunted by his inability to get into combat as a flyer with the U.S. Air Service.[2]

The movie, directed by Edmund Goulding, stars Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and David Niven as Royal Flying Corps fighter pilots in World War I. Of the several films that Flynn and Rathbone appeared in together, it is the only one in which their characters are on the same side. Although sparring as in their other roles, their characters become friendly before the film's finale.

The Dawn Patrol's story romanticizes many aspects of the World War I aviation experience that have since become clichés: white scarves, hard-drinking fatalism by doomed pilots, chivalry in the air between combatants, the short life expectancy of new pilots, and the legend of the "Red Baron."[3] However The Dawn Patrol also has a deeper and more timeless theme in the severe emotional scarring on a military commander who must constantly order men to their deaths.[4] This theme underlies every scene in The Dawn Patrol.[5]



In 1915, at the airdrome in France of the Royal Flying Corps' 59th Squadron,[6] Major Brand (Basil Rathbone), the squadron commander, and his adjutant Phipps (Donald Crisp) anxiously await the return of the dawn patrol. Brant is near his breaking point. He has lost 16 pilots in the previous two weeks, nearly all of them young replacements with little training and no combat experience. Brand is ordered to send up tomorrow what amounts to a suicide mission. Captain Courtney (Errol Flynn), leader of A Flight, and his good friend "Scotty" Scott (David Niven) return, but two of the replacements are not so lucky, and another, Hollister, is severely depressed by having witnessed the death of his best friend. The survivors repair to the bar in their mess for drinks and fatalistic revelry. Courtney does his best to console Hollister, but the youngster breaks down in grief.

When Brand announces the next day's dawn patrol, Courtney tells Brand he does not have enough men. Brand retorts that more replacements are on their way. From the four green pilots, Courtney picks the two with the most flying hours to go on the mission. Only four return this time; Scott has been lost along with the two new men. Courtney tells a sympathetic Brand that Scott went down saving Hollister. Just then, British troops bring in the German who downed Scott, Hauptmann Von Mueller (Carl Esmond). Courtney overcomes his initial rage and has Von Mueller informed that it was he who in turn shot down the German. Courtney then offers the German a drink. The guilt-ridden Hollister tries to attack the prisoner, but is restrained. Then, a grimy Scott appears. His plane crashed, but he survived.

B Flight is mauled next. Just after its wounded leader, Captain Squires (Michael Brooke), informs the squadron that the dreaded Von Richter is now their foe, an enemy aircraft flies low over their airdrome and drops a pair of trench boots. Attached is a taunting note telling the British pilots that they will be safer on the ground. Brand warns his men that the boots are intended to incite inexperienced pilots into trying to retaliate. He forbids any takeoffs without his express orders. Courtney and Scott disregard the prohibition, taking off in the dawn mist after stealing the boots from Brand's room. They fly to Von Richter's airfield, where the black-painted fighters are being readied for the day. Bombing and strafing, Courtney and Scott damage the field, destroy most of the German planes, and shoot down two which try to take to the air. Courtney then drops the boots. Von Richter retrieves them and shakes his fist at the departing British. Courtney is shot down recrossing the lines, then rescued by Scott, whose plane is also hit by anti-aircraft fire. When leaking oil blinds Scott, Courtney talks him down to a crash landing near the French trenches.

Brand's outrage at their disobedience dissipates when headquarters congratulates him for the success of the attack. Brand is transferred "up to Wing" and takes satisfaction in naming Courtney to take command of the 59th. Soon, Courtney acquires all the qualities he hated in Brand. When Scott's younger brother Donnie is posted as a replacement, Scott begs Courtney to give him a few days so that he can teach his brother the ropes. Courtney tells him there can be no exceptions. Unbeknownst to Scott, Courtney calls headquarters to plead for a few days of training for his replacements, but is turned down. Von Richter shoots down Donnie in flames the next morning, for which Scott blames Courtney.

Brand personally gives Courtney orders for a very important mission. A single plane must fly low and bomb a huge munitions dump 60 kilometers behind the lines. Brand bans Courtney from flying the mission, so Scott disdainfully volunteers. They reconcile and Courtney gets his friend too drunk to fly, then blows up the dump himself. Von Richter intercepts Courtney afterwards. Although Courtney outduels and shoots down two of the enemy, including Von Richter, he is killed by a third. Command of the squadron devolves on Scott. He lines up the decimated squadron for orders just as five replacements arrive. He stoically tells A Flight to be ready for the dawn patrol.


From left to right: David Niven, Errol Flynn, Donald Crisp, Basil Rathbone


The screenplay from the first Dawn Patrol was reprised by original screenwriter Seton Miller, even though its dialogue had been limited because it had been one of the first sound pictures. Miller, in conjunction with director Edmund Goulding, primarily rewrote dialogue to fit Flynn, Rathbone, and Niven, although following the original closely and crediting original co-writer Dan Totheroh. With the another World War threatening, the remake's pacifistic script was well-received by audiences and critics, and it succeeded at the box office.[10]

The proposal for the remake came from producer Hal Wallis to Jack Warner in a memo dated April 30, 1938, to financially exploit public awareness of impending war brought on by the German annexation of Austria the month before.[11] Goulding was available to direct after being taken off the filming of Jezebel in favor of William Wyler.[12] Warner had hired Goulding in 1937 on a per-film basis after Louis B. Mayer had fired him from MGM Studios in a sex scandal,[13] and offered him the Dawn Patrol assignment to keep him interested while he completed preparations for filming Dark Victory, which he also wanted Goulding to direct.[14] Although Goulding detested remakes, he had successfully filmed a remake of one of his own films as his first Warner Brothers project and agreed.[15]

The film featured an entirely male cast,[16] and all 12 credited roles of characters in the 59th Squadron were filled by actors with British backgrounds.[17] One of the many fellow-Englishman actors cast by Goulding was his house-mate, Michael Brooke (the 7th Earl of Warwick), while Rathbone and Flynn were selected because of their recent appearance together in The Adventures of Robin Hood.[18] Goulding's biographer wrote:

Everyone remembered a set filled with fraternal good cheer...The filming of Dawn Patrol was an unusual experience for everyone connected with it, and dissipated for all time the legend that Britishers are lacking in a sense of humor...The picture was made to the accompaniment of more ribbing than Hollywood has ever witnessed. The setting for all this horseplay was the beautiful English manners of the cutterups. The expressions of polite and pained shock on the faces of Niven, Flynn, Rathbone,, when (women) visitors were embarrassed was the best part of the nonsense.[16]

Filming began on August 6, 1938, and ended six weeks later on September 15. Airfield exteriors were shot at the Warner Brothers Ranch near Calabasas, California.[1][19]



Howard Hawks assembled a variety of planes in a film squadron to shoot the flying scenes for the original version of The Dawn Patrol. Hawks used rebuilt Nieuport 28s as the primary airplane for the British squadron, and Travel Air 4000s (reconfigured for films and popularly known as "Wichita Fokkers")[20][21] for German fighters, but other aircraft in his small fleet included Standard J-1s for shots of entire squadrons, some of which were blown up in explosions, and Waterman-Boeing C biplanes for German aircraft destroyed in crashes. The scene in which Scott takes off with Courtney clinging to the wing switches to a shot of a Travel Air 4U Speedwing fitted with a round cowl over its Comet engine to resemble the Nieuports. Stunt pilots included Leo Nomis, Rupert Symes Macalister, Frank Tomick, and Roy Wilson.[22]

1938 director Goulding used much of this footage in the remake to save production costs.[1] For new closeups of airplanes with his own actors, he acquired three Nieuport 28 replicas from Garland Lincoln, a Van Nuys, California, stunt pilot who also recreated World War I aircraft for Hollywood films. Built by Claude Flagg, these "LF-1"s were constructed from Nieuport plans and had many characteristics of the actual aircraft, including upper wing fabric that ripped in dives. In Goulding's production these aircraft also appear in a few scenes of Nieuports taking off, landing, and taxiing. Additional Nieuport 28s were simulated by Thomas-Morse S-4C Scouts, and two were used in the flying scene in which Courtney and Scott attack the German airdrome. 59th Squadron's airplanes were marked in standard RFC camouflage and national insignia, had the marking "NIEU 24" painted on their tail fins,[23] and displayed a cartoon Hornet painted on each side of the fuselage just behind the cockpit.[22]

For scenes at the German airdrome in which aircraft were moved or had engines turning, Goulding used Wichita Fokkers painted black with German markings. His "Pfalzes" had their wings painted in a large and striking black and white checkerboard pattern. Goulding also acquired two genuine Pfalz D.XII fighters for static closeup shots of parked fighters, with at least one re-painted white in a later scene to "expand" their numbers. Actual Nieuport 28s and Pfalz D.XIIs were used much later in the war than the 1915 setting of The Dawn Patrol, and the model 28 Nieuport was not used by the RFC at all, but their familiarity of appearance to American audiences gave a verisimilitude to both films.[22]


The original script developed for Howard Hawks, which Edmund Goulding followed closely, stressed thematic elements that came to be associated with the "Hawksian world" of "pressure cooker" situations: a professional group of men who live by a code and face death with bravado and camaraderie; the responsibility of leadership in perilous situations; a preference for individual initiative over orders; suicidal missions; and the gandeur of aerial flight.[5][24]

Visual motifs

The Dawn Patrol uses four scene elements as visual motifs to describe a cyclical nature to war and a nightmarish quality in being in command. Each scene places the viewer in the commander's place, waiting with dread for the inevitable consequences. Nearly all action scenes in The Dawn Patrol cut away before the conclusion is played out to heighten the sense of dread. Each scene's recurrence has differences that accentuate those consequences:[5]

  • Counting the sounds of the motors of the returning planes to determine how many have died. In the final usage, when Scott waits to hear Courtney's motor in the dark, his initial joy that Courtney has returned is crushed by the dropping of his goggles and helmet.
  • Receiving orders for the next mission by telephone, with the general's voice barely audible but impatient in tone. The apparent insanity of the orders is emphasized by the callous implacability of the distant, detached headquarters.
  • Arrival of replacements in time to enable the next mission but never with time to train them to protect themselves. The poignancy of their eager youthfulness is symbolized by their arrival in an open touring car in a seemingly endless parade.
  • Assembling the pilots to issue the orders, with new men ushered into line just after their arrival. Brand, Courtney, and Scott, all of whom would rather be flying the mission than ordering it, assume an identical stoicism as they undergo the ordeal.[5]


The 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol is notable for its lack of background music.[5][25] The 1938 remake not only corrected this with a score by Max Steiner, but uses several songs to set moods.[26] Although not published until 1916 and therefore an anachronism, the melancholy "Poor Butterfly" is played on a gramophone in scenes in which the pilots drink to drown their sorrows. Tellingly, "Poor Butterfly" begins in the background just as Scotty greets the arrival of his younger brother. The pilots themselves frequently sing "Hurrah for the Next Man That Dies"—and teach it to their German guest—as a grimly sardonic defiance of death. The song was a popular World War I drinking song, and an adaptation of the poem The Revel, written by Bartholomew Dowling about British soldiers struck down by the Plague in India. Finally, each arrival of new replacements is announced by their cheerful singing of "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag", demonstrating their callow eagerness.[1][26]

In addition, the flyers' carousing nature is emphasized in one scene with music. After Scott's return, he and Courtney drive off in a motorcycle sidecar boisterously singing "Plum and Apple" with their enlisted driver. This was an enlisted men's/other ranks' ditty about the class distinctions of rations at the front.[27]


  1. ^ a b c d "Notes for The Dawn Patrol (1938)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 1 April 2009.  
  2. ^ Finnie, Moira (2004). "John Monk Saunders: Something in the Air". Skeins of Thought. Retrieved 2 April 2009.   A sourced blog entry republished with permission from Turner Classic Movies.
  3. ^ Twatio, Bill (2004). "Gallantry, glory & waste: war movies of the 1930s". Esprit de Corps 12 (June). Retrieved 1 April 2009.  
  4. ^ Kennedy, Matthew (2004). Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Bad Boy Genius, University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 0299197700, p. 175.
  5. ^ a b c d e Howard, Ed (2009). "The Dawn Patrol". Only the Cinema. Retrieved 2 April 2009.  
  6. ^ The RFC had a 59 Squadron, but it did not arrive at the front until 1917 and was a reconnaissance unit. As with many aspects of the film, no explanation is provided for the detail but is suggestive of actual circumstances. 60 Squadron was a fighter unit flying Nieuport fighters, and the Victoria Cross attack by its noted pilot Billy Bishop on a German aerodrome is similar to that depicted in The Dawn Patrol.
  7. ^ Leo Nomis was a movie stunt pilot who was killed in February 1932 in a plane crash while filming a scene in The Sky Bride. He was "aeronautical supervisor" in the 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol, and since that footage was recycled for the 1938 film, included in the credits for this cast.
  8. ^ "The Dawn Patrol - 1938". Basil Rathbone: Master of Stage and Screen. Retrieved 2 April 2009.   "John Rodion" was Basil Rathbone's son, Rodion Rathbone, whose small, uncredited speaking role is spokesman for the first group of doomed replacements he sends out to die.
  9. ^ "John Rodion". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2 April 2009.  
  10. ^ "Seton I. Miller". Retrieved 1 April 2009.  
  11. ^ Kennedy (2004), p. 174.
  12. ^ Kennedy (2004), p. 173.
  13. ^ Kennedy (2004), p. 163.
  14. ^ Kennedy (2004), pp. 174-175.
  15. ^ Kennedy (2004), p. 164. The film was That Certain Woman.
  16. ^ a b Kennedy (2004), p. 177.
  17. ^ IMDB: The Dawn Patrol (1938), Complete credited cast.
  18. ^ Kennedy (2004), p. 175.
  19. ^ Kennedy (2004), p. 175, states filming began July 18 and ended two months later, indicating that exterior shooting may have begun August 6.
  20. ^ "The Plane". Retrieved 1 April 2009.  
  21. ^ "Le Wichita Fokker" (French language). Aeromovies - films d'aviation. Retrieved 1 April 2009.   This site includes numerous photographs of the type in film livery.
  22. ^ a b c "Aviation Films - D". Retrieved 1 April 2009.  
  23. ^ There is no explanation for the marking, but it possibly indicates that the aircraft were to be identified as Nieuport 24s, which the RFC used.
  24. ^ McCarthhy, Todd (2000). Howard Hawks: The Gray Fox of Hollywood. Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-3740-7, p. 116,
  25. ^ "The Dawn Patrol a.k.a. Flight Commander". The Oscar Site. Retrieved 1 April 2009.  
  26. ^ a b "The Dawn Patrol (1938) - Soundtrack". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 31 March 2009.  
  27. ^ York, Dorothea (1931, 2007). Mud and Stars: An Anthology of World War Songs and Poetry, Stewart Press, ISBN 1406738956, p. 234.

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