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The Dawn Patrol
theatrical poster
Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced by Robert North
Written by Story:
John Monk Saunders
Dan Totheroh
Seton I. Miller
Howard Hawks
Starring Richard Barthelmess
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr
Music by Rex Dunn
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by Ray Curtiss
Distributed by First National Pictures
subsidiary of Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • July 10, 1930 (1930-07-10) (New York City)
  • August 20, 1930 (1930-08-20) (U.S.)
Running time
108 minutes
Country United States
Language English / German / French
Budget $600,000[1]

The Dawn Patrol (aka Flight Commander) is a 1930 World War I film starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It was directed by Howard Hawks, a former World War I flight instructor, who even flew in the film as a German pilot.[1] The Dawn Patrol won the Academy Award for Best Story for John Monk Saunders. It was subsequently remade in 1938, with the same title, while the original was renamed Flight Commander when re-released later.


During World War I, the pilots and crew of an RFC airbase deal with the stress of combat primarily through nightly bouts of heavy drinking. The two aces of the group, Courtney (Richard Barthelmess) and Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr), have come to hate the commanding officer, Brand (Neil Hamilton), blaming him for sending new recruits directly into combat.

Unknown to them, Brand has been arguing continually with his commanders to allow him practice time with the new pilots, but command is desperate to maintain air superiority and orders them into combat as soon as they arrive. Brand is so disliked by the two he cannot even easily join the men for the nightly partying, drinking alone and clearly breaking under the strain.

The tension grows worse when an elite German squadron led by the "Baron" [Note 1], takes up position on the front line across from them. After losing several of the squadron's veteran pilots, the ranks become increasingly made up of new recruits, who have absolutely no chance against the German veterans. In the midst of this, Brand is recalled to headquarters and Courtney is promoted to commander.

It is not long before Courtney also learns of the impossibility of the job, and his relationship with Scott quickly sours. Things grow considerably worse when Scott's brother appears as one of the new replacements. He then does his own pleading with headquarters, only to be refused, and his brother is killed on his first mission. When Scott volunteers for what amounts to a suicide mission far behind enemy lines, Courtney steals his aircraft and flies off in his stead. Courtney tries to land safely but dies. They learn at the end that due to their efforts they have been made to receive special mention by command for "checking the enemy advance." Then the new commanding officer reads news of their new replacements.


L-R: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Richard Barthelmess and Gardner James


Although Ronald Colman was originally to be cast as the lead actor in The Dawn Patrol, Richard Barthelmess was offered by the studio.[1] Paramount Publix Corp. also loaned Actor Neil Hamilton and writer Seton I. Miller for the film. Principal photography began in February 1930 with exteriors shot at the Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, Newhall, and Sherwood Forrest in Southern California.[2]

In the midst of production, the studio was sued by Howard Hughes, through the Caddo Company and the Gainsborough Corporation. The suit alleged that The Dawn Patrol plagiarized his Hell's Angels (1930) production, also in production.[2] The lawsuit resulted in The Dawn Patrol being rushed through post-production in order to be in theaters before Hughes' competing film. In late 1930, Warner Bros. won the suit, although a contentious issue arose when both Howard Hawks and John Monk Saunders claimed ownership of the original idea behind the film.[Note 2] Hawks claimed he based the film on his own recollections while Saunders insisted that the screenplay was derived from the interviews of other veterans of World War I.[3]


Hawks attempted to create a realistic atmosphere, and assembled a variety of contemporary aircraft in a film squadron to shoot the flying scenes for The Dawn Patrol. He primarily used rebuilt Nieuport 28s as the aircraft for the British squadron, and Travel Air 4000s (reconfigured for films and popularly known as "Wichita Fokkers")[4][5] for German fighters. Neither was truly representative of the 1915 era that was portrayed.[6] Other aircraft in his small fleet included Standard J-1s for shots of entire squadrons, some of which were blown up in explosions, and WatermanBoeing 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.[7] Several Thomas-Morse S-4 aircraft were used in the 1930 film. The S-4 was an American built fighter aircraft that did not see combat in World War I. Plentiful in 1930, the S-4s were becoming rare by the time the 1938 film was produced, hence the re-use of aircraft sequences from the original film.


The Dawn Patrol was an "instant success", one of the studio's most profitable films that year.[1] Later critical reviews noted that the "anti-war" message was more prevalent in the original film,[8] although due to the re-titling of Flight Commander, the film is often not as well known as its 1938 remake.[9] The flying sequences, one of the hallmarks of the film, were vividly shot and were easily integrated into the later remake.[10]


Despite the controversy over the origin of the screenplay for The Dawn Patrol, in 1931, Saunders won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay.[11]

The aerial sequences from The Dawn Patrol had a remarkably long lifespan, appearing not only in The Dawn Patrol (1938) but also in British Intelligence (1940).


The film was remade in 1938 with Errol Flynn replacing Barthelmess in the lead, David Niven playing Fairbanks, Jr.'s role, and Basil Rathbone in Neil Hamilton's part.[1]

Much of the flying sequences from the 1930 film, with several of the close-ups of the fighter aircraft, were re-edited verbatim into the 1938 movie, so as to save expense without having to search for or build new World War I era aircraft, but also due to the original sequences being expertly shot by Ernest Haller, his "cameraman of choice", brought in by Barthelmess.[1] All of the film of the munitions depot explosions were also edited into the remake with no changes.


When The Dawn Patrol aired on television, the film was retitled Flight Commander, Saunder's original title for the project, to differentiate from its 1938 remake. The original title frames were discarded and the redrawn titles are on all known prints of the film.[12]

Popular culture[edit]

A novelization of the 1930 film, entitled "The Dawn Patrol", was written by Guy Fowler and published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1930. Warner Brothers also released two Looney Tunes cartoons parodying this movie. Bosko starred in "The Dumb Patrol" (1931) and 33 years later, in 1964, Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam appeared in a second cartoon spoof also called "Dumb Patrol".[1]



  1. ^ The "Baron" is implied to be the "Red Baron", Manfred von Richthofen.
  2. ^ The rivalry between Hughes and Zanuck was exemplified by Hughes buying up rights to available World War I-era aircraft to keep them out of Zanuck's hands. Hollywood legend has it that the two tycoons settled their differences over a game of golf.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Smith, Richard Harland. "Articles." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: August 11, 2012.
  2. ^ a b "Notes." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: August 11, 2012.
  3. ^ McCarthy 2000, p. 104.
  4. ^ "The Plane." FlyWithTheBarnstormer.com. Retrieved: April 1, 2009.
  5. ^ "Le Wichita Fokker" (in French). Aeromovies - films d'aviation. Retrieved: April 1, 2009. This site includes numerous photographs of the type in film livery.
  6. ^ Farmer 1988, p. 76.
  7. ^ "Aviation Films - D." Aerofiles.com. Retrieved: April 1, 2009.
  8. ^ Howard, Ed. "The Dawn Patrol (1930) ." Only the Cinema, January 13, 2009. Retrieved: August 11, 2012.
  9. ^ Erickson, Hal. "The Dawn Patrol." The New York Times. Retrieved: August 11, 2012.
  10. ^ Harwick and Schnepf 1989, p. 56.
  11. ^ "Awards." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: August 11, 2012.
  12. ^ Evans 2000, p. 53.


  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Farmer, James A. "Hollywood's World War One Aviation Films." Air Classics, Volume 24, no. 12, December 1988.
  • Harwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Mayo, Mike. VideoHound's War Movies: Classic Conflict on Film. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1999. ISBN 1-57859-089-2.
  • McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8021-3740-7.

External links[edit]

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