Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dir. by Stuart Walker

The WWI flying ace genre has recently returned to the big screen with Flyboys, a special effects blockbuster that did not bust any blocks. It’s worth dipping into the era of the classics to see what made young men in their flying machines into Hollywood icons.

Exhibit number one is The Eagle and the Hawk. It was directed by Stuart Walker and based on a story by John Monk Saunders, the eminence grise of biplane flicks. Saunders either scripted or wrote stories that were the basis for Wings (the first ever winner of the Oscar for Best Picture), Dawn Patrol, Ace of Aces, and Legion of the Condemned. He was also married to Fay Wray, who with the help of a 40-foot ape named Kong, gave biplane pilots something worth doing on screen.

Eagle and the Hawk is the grimmest of the flying ace films. Wings was about daring Yanks giving the Kaiser a sock on the beezer and Dawn Patrol made jaunty fatalism a badge of honor. Eagle and the Hawk is neither, it shatters the conventions of the genre in just about every way conceivable.

Frederic March plays Jerry Young, a pilot in a two-seater scout. These were not nimble dog-fighters, but slow-and-steady reconnaissance planes used to track enemy movements. But they bristled with guns and could throw sheets of lead. Younghas a problem, he is a talented pilot who blasts any German that crosses his sights, but at a terrible cost. His observers keep getting killed. As Young’s chest fills up with medals, his soul begins to crack under the bloody strain of losing comrades. Finally he gets a new partner, Crocker (Cary Grant), who despises Young for having given a negative report that washed him out of pilot school.

The enemy barely registers, death is mostly from anonymous bombs and bullets. The most harrowing thing is to actually see an enemy in death. In spots The Eagle and the Hawk approaches film noir in its use of symbolism and light to show the deterioration of Young. Not until The Blue Max, would any WWI ace film come close to the darkness of Eagle and the Hawk.

It’s hard to imagine a film like this being made today. The climax is one of Cary Grant’s finest parts in its stark simplicity and wrenching imagery. Modern movie-makers would benefit from the less-is-more lesson of the 1930s.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I really like the biplane dogfight movies.

Dave Hardy said...

Dawn Patrol was always my favorite. Wings was clearly the best visual spectacular (it wasn't gonna win any prizes for its soundtrack), but Eagle & Hawk is just a dead-on good war movie.