1938 was a pretty good year for Errol Flynn, featuring two of the films for which he will always be remembered, the other being the Technicolor romp called The Adventures of Robin Hood. This remake of a pre-code Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., movie, however, is the better of the two films, requiring Flynn to do some real acting.
The film is set in 1915, when a British fighter pilot had a shorter life expectancy than Britney Spears’ visitation rights. Major Brand (Basil Rathbone) is emotionally tortured by the need to send inexperienced replacement pilots up against the cream of the German air force, especially the deadly Von Richter (an obvious reference to Manfred von Richthofen). Unaware of his fights with the high command, Brand his resented by his veteran pilots, Captain Courtney (Flynn) and Lt. Scott (David Niven), two unruly brothers-in-arms.
Brand is given a reprieve, however, when he is given credits for Courtney and Scott’s unauthorized attack on a German airfield and promoted to headquarters. This leaves Courtney with the burden of command, which drives a wedge between him and Scott, especially when one of the replacement pilots turns out to be Scott’s younger brother (Martin Lowry)
The theme of a commander haunted by the necessity of sending pilots out on what amounts to suicide mission is a common one, also appearing in notable films like Twelve O’Clock High. First-rate acting by the film’s three stars give the story a human dimension that has, I think, kept the film relevant despite the age of the film.
The film’s flying sequences are also quite impressive, especially given the fact that they were mostly reused from the 1930 original, with only the ground scenes being re-shot for the new version. Of course, these scenes do make 1915 France look suspiciously like the rocky hills outside Los Angeles, but they’re good enough to make it worth being charitable.
Available both on its own and as part of an Errol Flynn box set, The Dawn Patrol is a worthy addition to any collection, even if World War I and flying are not your usual genres.