Tuesday, November 12, 2019

CONSENSUS #55. The Dawn Patrol (1938)

SYNOPSIS: "The Dawn Patrol" is a WWI air combat film set at a British aerodrome on the Western Front. Two best friends (Errol Flynn and David Niven) are pitted against a Flying Circus style German squadron replete with a Red Baronish commander and their own commander (Basil Rathbone) who insists on sending them off to war in WWI aircraft. What a jerk! One of the BFFs is promoted to command and now has to make the tough decisions, including a suicidal mission to bomb an ammunition dump.

BACK-STORY: The Dawn Patrol (1938) was a remake of a 1930 film and even uses a lot of the aerial footage from that film. The plot is from the short story The Flight Commander by John Monk Saunders (who also wrote the Wings story). It was the third teaming of Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn and once again they play antagonists. Rathbone was a decorated WWI veteran and wore his decorations in the movie. The film used 17 vintage aircraft (and 15 crashed during production).

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb
1.  It has an all-male cast. 
2.  The script was by Howard Hawks and shows several of the “Hawksian world” elements his films were noted for:   “real men” placed in a harrowing situation, chivalry, bravado, camaraderie, individual initiative over orders.
3.  The production used 17 vintage aircraft, mostly Nieuports.  15 of the planes were crashed during the shoot.
4.  Basil Rathbone’s character proudly wears the Military Cross awarded to Rathbone during his service in WWI.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  4.4
War Movies         =  3.8
Military History  =  #38
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION: The Dawn Patrol deserves its place on the list because not only is it an important film, but  it created several air combat conventions.  Plus, it is simply a great movie.  The Dawn Patrol manages to influence future movies and maintain its entertainment value.  If this movie was made today, it would be considered a comedy because of the clichés. However, in 1938, it was breaking new ground. Its main themes are going to be reused in numerous other war movies. One theme was the hard-drinking fatalism of the fighter pilots as seen in The Longest Day, Fly Boys, Aces High. The Blue Max, etc.  Another theme is the dead meat nature of replacements. This cliché branched off into other services like the infantry in Platoon. A third theme is the pressures of command and the stress of sending young men to their deaths. See Twelve OClock High as the best example. A similar theme is the insensitivity of higher command as seen in Paths of Glory. The movie is not heavy-handed in pushing these themes.  The movie holds up well. Much better than many old WWI movies. The acting is outstanding. Flynn and Rathbone were at the peak of their careers.  The cinematography is eye-opening. The aerial scenes are well done although you have to give a lot of credit to the earlier film. The vintage aircraft are obviously superior to modern CGI. The air combat looks more realistic than in Flyboys, for instance.

Friday, November 8, 2019

NOW SHOWING: Midway (2019)

          I saw a good Midway movie on Thursday, unfortunately it was the 1976 version.  Although not a great war movie, it is much better than the new CGI extravaganza from Roland Emmerich (“The Patriot”).  He had trouble raising the $100 million price tag, I guess because investors questioned the public’s desire to see a movie about the Battle of Midway.  What, no aliens?  He must have spent 90% of the money on the CGI, leaving only about 10% for the cast.  Remember when epic war movies like “The Longest Day” had all-star casts?  “Midway” is not in that league.  We do get Woody Harrelson and Dennis Quaid.  At least they are age appropriate – I’m looking at you “Midway” (1976).  But we also have to watch Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore.  Hey kids, come learn some history told by teen idols!

                        The movie opens with an excerpt from a speech by FDR that has little to do with the movie.  This was the first sign that my fears encouraged by the trailers might be justified.  We get the usual “true account” claim and the movie is proud of its accuracy.  More on that later.  Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson – yes, that Patrick Wilson) attends a dinner hosted by Yamamoto in 1937 Japan and they discuss a future conflict between their two countries.  Yamamoto predicts that if their oil supply is threatened, it will mean war.  Spoiler alert:  there will be war.  At this point, the movie becomes the Richard Best (Ed Skrein – yes, that Ed Skrein) biopic.  It’s 1941 now and Best is a Dauntless dive bomber pilot on a routine flight.  He shuts down several things on the plane to simulate a worst-case scenario for their landing and then we get the second clue that my fears were justified because the landing defies all reality through the wonders of CGI.  It also serves as foreshadowing for his climactic landing at the end of the film.  And proves he’s a maverick.  Cliché alert:  his commander puts up with him because he’s the best pilot, damn it! 

                          If you have seen the trailer, you know Emmerich had the guts to bring us CGI Pearl Harbor again.    Once again we get Zeros flying between battleships while strafing what – the water?  And through the wonders of CGI, the Zeros can go below treetop level to strafe streets.  As with all the early scenes, the purpose is character motivation.  In this case, Best loses his best friend on the Arizona.   If we’re not Top Gunning with Best, we are going cerebral with intelligence savant Layton.  Joseph Rochefort makes a cameo appearance, but Layton gets the lion’s share of the credit for determining Japanese intentions.  In a ludicrous exchange, when his analysis is challenged, he proceeds to tell Nimitz the exact time and place the Japanese fleet will be discovered.  And he’s right!  The movie does intercut to Yamamoto and disses the Moore/Jonas fans by using subtitles.  The movie does the bare minimum in depicting the Japanese planning.

                        The movie makes barely a mention of Coral Sea, but decides to spend time on the USS Enterprise’s raid on the Marshalls.  Why?  Because Best needs to drop a bomb that causes collateral damage to a bunch of taxiing Japanese bombers, followed by a chase through mountains by two Zeros.  He’s in a Dauntless and they are Zeros, so you know where this is headed (if you are a history buff).  If not, get ready for the next big ride at Universal Studios!   Next is the obligatory Doolittle Raid starring Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckert) and only Jimmy Doolittle.  Enough foreplay, on to the main event.  The movie hops through the greatest hits:  discovering what AF stood for, Yorktown being repaired, Spruance taking over for Halsey, the USS Nautilus not sinking a ship, etc.  The battle begins at around the 1:30 mark meaning Emmerich only has time to film the story of how the USS Enterprise and Dick Best won the war.  He does manage to throw in an homage to John Ford’s filming his Midway documentary.  Note to Emmerich:  it is not wise to remind the audience of a great director.  The next twenty minutes is full of flak and flames.  (Note:  no Japanese were harmed in the filming of this movie.)  Safe your tissues, Yorktown fans. Once again, just as in 1976, the carrier somehow survives cinematically.

                         I have not read any reviews yet, but I know the movie is being crucified.  Justly so.  I don’t want to gloat about seeing this coming.  I wanted to like it and I’ve already mentioned I like the similarly crucified 1976 version.  But this movie is to 1976 what “Pearl Harbor” is to “Tora! Tora! Tora!  In other words, a CGI bloated war movie insult.  “Midway” (1976) and “Tora!” may have had wooden acting and quaint combat footage, but at least they were good history lessons.  Not that this movie is laughably inaccurate.  The seemingly most ludicrous historical atrocity (Bruno Gaido jumping into a parked plane’s back seat to shoot up a crashing Betty bomber), actually occurred!   It is more balanced between the command (Nimitz, Halsey) and the pilots than 1976 and all the airmen (Best, McCluskey, Gaido, Dickinson) are real people and are fairly accurate.  Emmerich's effort to bring these great warriors to the public's attention is by far the greatest strength of the movie.  It's just a shame that he has someone like Best (the only human being to bomb two carriers in one day) look like Luke Skywalker.  The others are treated more realistically.   Layton gets his due (at the expense of Rochefort).  But Fletcher is not even mentioned and Spruance is barely in the movie and comes off in a negative way as an overly cautious fill-in for Halsey.  As a Spruance fan, I was very irritated with his treatment.  So, as a history lesson, it won’t steer you the wrong way, but the coverage of the battle is half-assed as it concentrates on making Best into a superhero.  The CGI is good, but as usual it allows the filmmaker to defy reality.  For example, Best escapes a Zero by doing a hammerhead stall (climbing vertically until about to stall, then dropping the nose to reverse direction), something a Dauntless could not have done.  In fact, virtually everything Best’s plane does is ridiculous if you know anything about dive bombers.  He waits until less than 500 feet before releasing his bomb and then has to skim the water when pulling out.  Typically, each Best flight gets more ludicrous because Emmerich has to top the previous effect.  I was laughing by the end of the movie.  The CGI does allow for realistic looking aircraft and that is a treat for aviation buffs.  But then they just can’t stop themselves from adding two bombs to the torpedo planes!

                        We all know what to expect with CGI war movies by now, but can’t we get some decent acting just once.  While not as wooden as the 1976 cast, this one’s low rent all-stars sincerely do try, but they just come off like a high school play.  Skrein can be good, but here he labors through an atrocious accent and just can’t pull off the Tom Cruise imitation.  Wilson appears to be constipated through most of the picture.  Luke Evans sports a mustache that is equivalent to Skrein’s accent.  Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore are singers.  The bombastic music doesn’t cover for them.  The dialogue is as bad as you would expect.  “I thought you were dead.”

                        Well, we are still waiting for CGI to make the great air combat movie.  The effects have improved to where it might be possible, but if filmmakers continue to insist on using it to “enhance” the story we’ll never get there.  There will never be another movie about Midway.  Twice was enough.  However, I want you to imagine taking the screenplay for the 1976 movie, throwing out the romance, adding Best and the others without the melodrama, and doing a frame by frame replication of the combat using CGI.  Now you have a great war movie.  Someone should try it with the Battle of Britain.



Wednesday, November 6, 2019


1.  What is the movie the picture is from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

You mean your only plan is to stand behind a few feet of mealie bags and wait for the attack?  

3.  What movie is this?

 It was the last film where all the stars participated.  The unfunny one gave up his fabled acting career after the film was finished. The movie was released in 1933, coincidentally (and I do mean coincidentally) the year Hitler came to power.  The movie was banned in Italy because Mussolini was personally offended (you can’t buy publicity like that) and in Germany (as with all their films) because the stars were Jewish.  It was directed by the only decent director that dealt with them – Leo McCarey (who did not enjoy the experience).  The movie underperformed at the box office possibly because its irreverence did not fit the Depression-era mood of the populace and its anti-government satire ran up against the optimistic mood of the early New Deal.  Critics were pretty brutal and the movie was not highly thought of until a revival in the 1960s.  Today it is considered to be their masterpiece and is ranked #60 (up from #85) on AFIs most recent list of great American movies.  It is #5 on the Comedy list.  The title apparently comes from a slang term meaning an easy task.

Friday, November 1, 2019

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: The Frogmen (1951)

                        Have you enjoyed movies about the Navy SEALs?  Do you watch “SEAL Team” on CBS?  You might want to check out the father of the subgenre on YouTube.  “The Frogmen” is a 1951 black and white WWII movie.  Many SEALs have acknowledged that the movie influenced their desire to join the SEALs.  In a recent episode of “SEAL Team”, Sonny mentions that he wanted to be a frogman when growing up.  The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon.  It was his only war movie.  His helming shows that the movie was not considered to be a major production, and yet it was popular and is still beloved.  The movie is a tribute to the United States Navy Underwater Demolition Teams which conducted reconnaissance and cleared underwater obstacles before amphibious invasions.  Although they participated in D-Day, they were more involved in the Pacific Theater.  Bacon was given a nice cast headed by Richard Widmark.  Widmark made “Halls of Montezuma” the same year.  He starred in several good war movies. 

                        The movie leads with a claim that it is a true story based on various incidents that occurred in the latter part of WWII.  Underwater Demolition Team 4 is chilling on deck of a transport and gets into a tiff with the ship’s crew.  Lt. Commander Lawrence (Widmark) is a by the book disciplinarian who has replaced the popular now deceased previous leader.  He tells the men that they are not special and they should respect their hosts.  In other words, he gets off on the wrong foot from the start.  Chief Flanagan (Andrews) leads the grumbling.  How dare frogmen be treated like sailors!  The dynamic is very similar to “Flying Leathernecks” with Dana Andrews playing the Robert Ryan role.  Speaking of other movies, the ship’s captain (Gary Merrill) plays Davenport (Merrill) to Widmark’s Savage (“12 O’Clock High. The dysfunction is ramped up after Lawrence makes the command decision to leave Flanagan and another survivor of a blown-up boat behind in order to get valuable information back to the ship.  He doesn’t seem very concerned with the dead men because he isn’t.  The whole unit wants to transfer.  Sound familiar?  If your answer is yes (and if it’s no), you know these heroes will stay to win the war and Lawrence will earn respect and become more empathetic.  To get to this resolution, we get scenes involving leaving a welcoming sign on the beach for the Marines, disarming a torpedo that inconveniently penetrates into the sick bay where heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter is laid up, and blowing up a submarine pen.  This rousing finale includes a vicious knife fight underwater.

                        This was the first time I have seen this movie and I have seen hundreds of war movies.  I am pretty ashamed of that, but excited by the fact that after 900 posts there are still good war movies I have not seen yet.  And some of them are on YouTube.  “The Frogmen” is much better than I expected.  It has a very good cast.  Besides the actors I mentioned already, we also get Harvey Lembeck and Robert Wagner.  They are given manly dialogue and put in manly situations.  No one has to bother with a mushy romantic subplot.  In fact, there are no women in the movie.  They do a lot of scuba diving and the underwater cinematography is excellent.  Those scenes are done without music which was a wise move.  It adds to the suspense.  The conflict between Lawrence and his men builds to a grand last mission and a satisfying conclusion.  As far as the “true story” claim, I can see where all of the scenes occurred at one time or another, just not all to the same unit.  The movie does not specify which island they are involved with, but it has to be Okinawa because their previous commander died at Iwo Jima.  The real Underwater Demolition Team 4 did serve in the Pacific and participated in the invasions of the Philippines, Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa.  They did have a boat blown up and they did leave a welcoming sign on a beach on Guam. 

                        If you have seen a lot of war movies (and if you haven’t), you have seen all of this before, except it’s underwater.  Don’t let the familiarity scare you away.  The movie is very entertaining, especially if you are a teenage boy.  You might even go and enlist in the Navy to become a SEAL.  They probably won’t let you in if you haven’t seen it.

GRADE  =  B+