sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-10-14 04:01 am
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It's a slaughterhouse—and I'm the butcher

I didn't know The Dawn Patrol (1938) was a remake the first time I saw it, six years ago on TCM for Memorial Day. The Oscar-winning 1930 original was Howard Hawks' first sound film, it stars Richard Barthelmess and famously pissed off Howard Hughes1 and someday I will see it for comparison, but it doesn't have Basil Rathbone, so I'm not talking about it tonight. The remake came around again on TCM a few days ago. [ profile] rushthatspeaks has been very patient about listening to me ever since.

The year is 1915, the setting an RFC aerodrome near the front lines in France. Errol Flynn is billed above the title as Captain Courtney, the daredevil leader of "A" Flight; David Niven seconds him as the puckish, faithful Lieutenant Scott. They fly like they're immortal and drink like there's no tomorrow; all the other pilots they shipped out with are dead and they celebrate their fallen comrades and their own future with fire-eating fatalism, yelling out "Hurrah for the Next Man That Dies." If they beat the odds, they'll be model members of Hemingway's lost generation, directionless and disillusioned—in the meantime, they welcome a captured German pilot into their midst because he may not be able to speak the language, but he understands drinking to the dead. That he shot down at least one of their own makes no difference. They recognize the enemy on the other side of the lines, especially when personified by the undefeatable von Richthofen Richter, a veteran flying ace with a mocking habit of buzzing the airfield after a dogfight and dropping trophies from the British pilots he's downed—boots, goggles, like throwing back a catch too small to keep. Their real hatred is reserved for the commanding officers of their own side, the bureaucratic machine that keeps sending them rookie flyers as cannon fodder in a vicious cycle of attrition. "You're telling me that I'm expected to go out on a job like that with two inexperienced men," Courtney challenges after one especially hopeless briefing, only to be shut down with the terse rejoinder, "Those are the orders." So says squadron commander Major Brand, who gives out each day's suicidal instructions with little expression and less eye contact, very clipped and peremptory, like a pure mouthpiece of the war.2 He's played by Basil Rathbone, which should make him the villain, especially opposite Errol Flynn. He's not the protagonist; that's legitimately the combination of Courtney and Scott, neither of whom is ever offscreen for more than a few minutes in the entire hour-and-three-quarters runtime. He is, naturally, the character I can't stop thinking about.

Even more so than any of his pilots, Brand is on the verge of cracking up. His job is to send green recruits just out of ground school against enemy forces that outclass them in both numbers and combat experience, predictably dooming most of them on their first flight, and the guilt and the responsibility and the endless deadly decision-making are splintering him apart.3 He can't take the dangerous missions himself; he's not allowed. He argues constantly with his superiors to give the new recruits a little time; his requests are constantly denied. He counts the drones of returning engines, knowing there will always be fewer than the number of planes that left; he drinks alone in his office while the rest of the 59th gets blind in the mess, partly out of ostracism, partly so they can't see how fast their commanding officer goes through a bottle; and he doesn't let anyone but his adjutant see him near breaking, so his men despise him as a mindless martinet who waves the new kids off like clockwork to the slaughter, not turning a hair when the casualty lists are read. It's clever casting. The audience has the advantage of meeting him early on in a moment of helpless fury, but come in late and you might take Brand for the cold fish he makes himself look like—that distant, icy carelessness was the hallmark of Rathbone's Marquis St. Evrémonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and he's painfully good at converting Brand's raw nerves into a government-work facsimile of the stiff upper lip. He has a beautiful, almost shy smile, as if he's afraid someone is going to take it away. We don't see it very often.

I worried very much the first time I saw the movie that the plot was going to hinge on Brand shooting himself or breaking down entirely; I was relieved to discover that the twist is subtler than that. Disobeying the major's direct orders, Courtney and Scott stage a two-man raid on von Richter's airfield in reprisal for his taunting demolition of "B" Flight; they inflict real damage on the German aerodrome, but they lose both of their planes, making it home by way of a spectacular crash landing in the trenches. A furious Brand is about to wire headquarters about a court-martial when headquarters rings first, with congratulations on a "splendid job." For a moment the scene looks like classic military comedy, the disapproving superior confounded by credit he doesn't deserve, but it swerves heart-sinkingly—for Courtney at least—when Brand's palpable, shocked relief at being released from the front lines bubbles over into a grim merriment at appointing his harshest critic his successor:

And now I've got you, Courtney. I've got you where I want you. So far the war has been a personal adventure for you, hasn't it, full of boom! and glory. As an individual flyer, you've been admirable, and you've evaded responsibility with equally supreme skill. Disobeyed orders? Blamed me? Accused me of putting kids into canvas coffins? Well, listen to this, my lad. Headquarters liked your raid this morning. They liked it so well that they've appointed me up to Wing! . . . And before I go, I'm ordered to appoint someone in my place. Here, in my place at this little desk . . . See how you like it, Mr. Squadron Commander Courtney. Right!

And he salutes the dumbfounded flyers as sharply and sardonically as ever Courtney did him and disappears out the door, possibly happier than I've ever seen Basil Rathbone in my life.4 The remainder of the film follows Courtney's discovery that what looked like callousness from the other side of the desk only looks like necessity from this one: he has his orders and he can't shirk them and it's just as bad for him as it was for Brand. He was the darling of the 59th when he was their insubordinate hotshot. Now he's the "dirty butcher" who can't spare a day for his best friend's kid brother to get his feet under him before being shot out of the sky. He drinks more than ever, and alone. Flynn is very good all through, don't get me wrong. It's nice to see him in a part that demands more from him than swashbuckling; he's as convincing in the exhausted later scenes as he is in the earlier, recklessly daring ones, and he has several quiet moments with Niven that can't have been improvised but feel as relaxed and affectionate as if they were. Nonetheless, I know I perked up when Brand reappeared late in the third act, bearing some sensitive and extraordinarily bad news for Courtney and his old flight. It's an understated reunion. There are emotional tangles that never clear. He could have sent a courier with these orders that are "too important to telephone about," but he's come himself for reasons that could be kindness or curiosity or schadenfreude or all of the above; he's brought a diffident, unexpectedly thoughtful present of Courtney's favorite brand of cigarette ("those gyppy cork-tips that you used to scream about—I found a tin of them in the mess") and hands it over after a moment of nervous fidgeting, which he apologizes for. He is sympathetic toward Courtney, who in turn understands intimately what his former superior was living with all those months, but they do not have a conversation about it, because Brand appears to be a naturally reticent person as well as a combat-stressed one and it wouldn't help Courtney if he tried. He greets the rest of the squadron as cheerfully as if he's been on vacation, whatever they thought of him when he left. And he watches without a trace of gloating as Courtney has to accept a volunteer for an effective suicide mission, only a slight, sad look of recognition: he can't shield Courtney from this responsibility any more than he could keep novice pilots out of German skies.

I know artists' lives are not their work; it remains impossible for me not to wonder how one informs the other, especially when biography and subject material overlap conspicuously. Major Brand is seen to wear the ribbon of the Military Cross. Rathbone had won the same decoration in 1918 for actions as crazily reckless as anything in The Dawn Patrol, leading daylight raids through no man's land disguised, like Birnam Wood, with branches and leaves. His younger brother had been killed in action the month before. He doesn't sound, two decades later when he talks about his postwar experience, as though he dodged quite as much PTSD as he makes it sound to Photoplay. Of the three principals of The Dawn Patrol, he was the only one with combat experience. I don't want to pretend that I can see more of Rathbone in Brand than he made visible, but I don't want to imagine that acting just happens in a vacuum, either. Anyway, something clicked between the actor and the part: he's third-billed, but he's the one I just wrote 2100 words about. This admiration brought to you by my better-adjusted backers at Patreon.

1. Hughes had been developing the similarly themed Hell's Angels since 1927; he sued Warner Bros. for plagiarism with the result that The Dawn Patrol beat Hell's Angels into theaters by four months and Hughes lost the lawsuit. I haven't seen Hell's Angels myself, but since it was partly directed by James Whale and stars Ben Lyon and Jean Harlow, I expect it's only a matter of time.

2. Major Brand is as far up the chain of command as we ever see. The "brass hats" above him are blaring, blurry voices on the other end of a telephone line, like Colonel Blimp by Charles Schultz. You can make out their dialogue if you concentrate, but it's oddly just as effective if you don't: they aren't speaking the same language anyway.

3. The dark-browed, gangly leader of the first set of new recruits is Lieutenant Russell, played by an uncredited John Rodion—otherwise known as Rodion Rathbone, born 1915, just before his father was called up to the Western Front. He doesn't last one mission, his proud eighteen hours in the air nothing against veteran enemies. "Poor little Cleaver went first—I don't believe he fired a shot. Russell must have gone about the same time. I didn't see." I don't know who in the audience would have caught it at the time, or if the general public was even intended to, but it's a biting in-joke, like subliminal Wilfred Owen: But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one. [edit] According to a 1938 issue of Hollywood, Basil and Rodion were supposed to share a scene, but the experience was so "unnerving" that "Basil blew up in his lines."

4. Obviously the best thing for Brand would be getting sent home where no one needs him to make any decision more serious than how much sugar he wants in his tea—he reminds me of Wimsey in Whose Body? (1923) and Busman's Honeymoon (1937) and I'm not surprised—but getting kicked upstairs at least seems to remove him from his intolerable bind of too much responsibility and too little power and put him somewhere he might have a chance of arguing for less sweepingly wasteful tactics and being listened to. Since it keeps him alive and in presumably better mental health, anyway, I'll take it.

[identity profile] 2015-10-14 09:20 am (UTC)(link)
He has a beautiful, almost shy smile, as if he's afraid someone is going to take it away. We don't see it very often.

Most excellent. (Clearly, riding on roller coasters invigorates your brain.)

Thank you.


[identity profile] 2015-10-14 11:13 am (UTC)(link)
I want to see this.

Those actors, that director, world war I biplanes- it could hardly be cooler.

[identity profile] 2015-10-14 12:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Rodion Rathbone! That's a hell of a name.;)

[identity profile] 2015-10-14 07:46 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, he sort of reminds me of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., in a weird way. Maybe it's just the second-generation Hollywood effect.
gwynnega: (Sherlock Holmes jordannamorgan)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-10-14 08:03 pm (UTC)(link)
Tower of London is a lot of fun.

[identity profile] 2015-10-15 12:46 am (UTC)(link)
Also fun: Roger Corman's Tower of London (1962). Vincent Price's Richard III is oddly naive and endearing (each time he kills someone, their ghost appears five minutes later, and he's always so surprised); and even hunched over, taller than everyone else in the film.

The producers apparently wouldn't pay for a proper Battle of Bosworth Field (they didn't think it mattered), so Corman mixed stock footage from the earlier Tower of London, close-ups of Price fencing with the camera, and a camera tracking across a map until it reaches the word BOSWORTH. It's all surprisingly effective.

[identity profile] 2015-10-15 03:38 pm (UTC)(link)
He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later became a navigator with TWA.

[identity profile] 2015-10-15 04:41 pm (UTC)(link)
He could have known my father, actually (also a navigator who signed up with the RCAF at Windsor, Ontario), but I think Dad would have mentioned meeting B. Rathbone's son. The one celebrity I remember him mentioning is Terence Rattigan. "On the trip I played many games of chess with a commissioned gunner (most were sergeants) in our squadron, Terence Rattigan. He was an English playwright who wrote “French Without Tears” before the war, and “Flare Path” after it had started. I had seen and greatly enjoyed the latter, in London. I knew him only as Terry until I learned, half way through our voyage, that he was the well-known playwright. Before then I was able to win about a third of our chess games. After learning of his celebrity I never beat him again."
Edited 2015-10-15 16:43 (UTC)
gwynnega: (Sherlock Holmes jordannamorgan)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-10-14 06:19 pm (UTC)(link)
I must see this film. I love Basil Rathbone. I imprinted on his Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid, but my favorite performance of his is probably in Son of Frankenstein.
gwynnega: (Sherlock Holmes jordannamorgan)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-10-14 08:02 pm (UTC)(link)
Young Frankenstein borrows liberally from Son of Frankenstein, in which Rathbone's Wolf von Frankenstein goes home to his late father's castle and is seduced by mad science. Wolf grows increasingly harried as he tries to hide his doings from the town (especially Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh, who lost an arm to the Monster as a child) and attempts to cope with Karloff's Monster and Bela Lugosi's (utterly hilarious) Ygor, who's been using the Monster to bump off his enemies.

It's hard for me to talk about Rathbone's Holmes, because all I keep wanting to say is, "He's Sherlock Holmes!" Some of his Holmes films are a little dicey, in particular the ones updated to the WWII era (and of course Nigel Bruce's sweetly bumbling Watson is nothing like the Conan Doyle character), but Rathbone's Holmes is always pitch perfect.
gwynnega: (Sherlock Holmes jordannamorgan)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-10-14 08:26 pm (UTC)(link)
I can see that this movie may be difficult to watch after Young Frankenstein, but I'm going to give it a try.

It's less difficult than one might think, because there's a lot of intentional humor in Son of Frankenstein! And it's really a joy to see Rathbone, Lugosi, Atwill, and Karloff working together. Such a great cast (aside from an extremely annoying child actor!).

My default image of Rathbone before The Dawn Patrol was swashbuckling

Rathbone is a great swashbuckler!

I know the first two are Victorian adaptations; do you recommend them first?

Most definitely.

[identity profile] 2015-10-15 12:52 am (UTC)(link)
The Universal Holmes films vary in quality, but it's worth trying to see them all because in addition to Rathbone and Bruce, they used a stock group of character actors, and it's fun spotting them in different roles. There's a youngish, fair-haired man who would have made a decent Albert Campion had anyone been adapting the novels at the time -- he shows up as a villainess' lackadaisical boy-toy, and also as one of a trio of shell-shocked officers.

[identity profile] 2015-10-15 02:12 pm (UTC)(link)
I looked this up last night -- Vernon Downing. Seems to have spent his career playing "British Guy in the Background #3."

[identity profile] 2015-10-16 11:56 am (UTC)(link)
Wow, Sovay. Even before you said you were focused on Brand, I could feel my sympathies already aligning with him as the person caught in the middle, the person denied glory, the person trying to save lives and yet do what he must. And then that's what the movie turns out to be about! Marvelous. I will definitely find a way to see this.

The fact that it's not the man caught in the middle, the fact that it's shadowy commanders further up, or perhaps just War itself, cut free of the humans waging it, that's responsible, reminds me of this, from Grapes of Wrath:

We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It
happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.

And then the correspondences with Basil Rathbone's own life--amazing.

[identity profile] 2015-10-18 10:43 am (UTC)(link)
I'll listen to the interview! And the film *is* available on Netflix DVD, and now at the top of our queue.