Story

The Dawn Patrol: 1930 WWI Film Features Museum Aircraft

Posted on Wed, March 15, 2017
favorite

Howard Hawks directed a film in 1930 whose influence can be seen in virtually every military aviation movie made since it premiered. The Dawn Patrol, with its dramatic aerial combat scenes and heroic and tragic pilot figures, is the father of all military aviation films. We will be screening The Dawn Patrol and providing commentary on March 17 as part of our Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen, film series.

Starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the story revolves around a timeless theme of war films: the stress and psychological effects on commanders who have to make the life and death decisions to send young people into battle. The film was based on an original story called Flight Commander by John Monk Saunders, who was a flight instructor during WWI and had written Wings. Hawks developed the story with Saunders, but Saunders received sole credit and won the Academy Award for Best Story in 1931. 

Pfalz D.XII on display

The Museum's Pfalz D.XII.

Shooting began on The Dawn Patrol in late February 1930, just when Howard Hughes was putting the finishing touches on his WWI aviation epic, Hell’s Angels (which the Museum will be screening on April 21).  Hawks hired many of the pilots and cameramen coming off Hell’s Angels, and when Hughes learned of the rival movie he tried his best to sabotage the film.  He had a spy on the set of The Dawn Patrol, who was quickly caught, and Hughes then sued for copyright infringement.  Hughes eventually dropped the lawsuit, and ironically, he and Hawks became good friends during the legal battle. 

A less flamboyant movie than Hells’ Angels, Hawks took a more truthful, sober approach to the story of the men who fought in the first air war and focused on their struggles and psychological stresses.  Still, the film is filled with stirring flying action, of course all done with real aircraft and explosives. Of the many aircraft used in the filming of The Dawn Patrol, two original WWI Pfalz D.XII fighters appeared, one of which is on display in the Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air exhibition in the Museum in Washington, DC.  It is displayed in the color scheme it had during the filming of The Dawn Patrol

Before the screening on March 17, join us for a brief talk about the Pfalz D.XII and its use in Hollywood movies.

The Dawn Patrol will be shown at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Request free tickets for the screenings. Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen is a year-long film series showing Hollywood’s finest feature films on World War I, and is part of the National Air and Space Museum’s observance of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War.