Tuesday 14 November 2017

Movie Review: The Eagle And The Hawk (1933)

A World War One aerial combat drama, The Eagle And The Hawk is a contemplative anti-war film exploring the psychological damage caused by prolonged exposure to death.

From their base in England, American volunteer pilots Lt. Jerry Young (Fredric March) and his buddy Lt. Mike Richards (Jack Oakie) are redeployed to an airbase near the front lines in France. Young blocks the deployment of the brash Lt. Henry Crocker (Cary Grant), who is an undependable pilot but an ace gunner.

Young and Richards are tasked with missions to take photographs of enemy positions, and they frequently skirmish with enemy aircraft with plenty of casualties on both sides. Young proves to be a brilliant pilot, but many of his gunners are killed, and the deaths start to take an emotional toll. Crocker is finally called-up to the front lines and becomes Young's gunner, although the two men never get along. Young is celebrated as a role model and receives plenty of accolades, but finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressure.

Directed by Stuart Walker, The Eagle And The Hawk packs plenty of heartfelt emotion into 68 minutes of running time. The film is based on the book Death in the Morning by American author John Monk Saunders, who was a member of the Air Services during the Great War but was deeply frustrated by his lack of front-line service and committed suicide at age 42 after battling poor health.

By elevating Young to the status of a revered ace pilot with the military world at his feet, the story earns the freedom to have its say about battle consequences through the eyes of a hero. The screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Bogart Rogers fully embraces a downbeat, depressing view of war and its ramifications. Young views war as a ridiculous premise where inexperienced men are sent to die, and the celebrations, salutes, songs, medals and glorification are all part of a perverted deception to camouflage the unacceptable as gallant.

The film needs a strong central performance to work, and Fredric March is intense in his portrayal of a thoughtful man celebrated as an exemplary role model for killing other men. He is unable to cope both with the death of his own gunners and with the fiery destruction he inflicts on the enemy. As the victims become younger, Young's descent into the emotional wreckage today defined as post-traumatic stress disorder is convincing and difficult to watch.

Less impressive is Cary Grant, still learning his craft, and never quite striking the right tone. His Henry Crocker oscillates between aloof and hot-headed, and Grant doesn't get a grip on the character. Carole Lombard has one extended scene and makes an impression as the mysterious woman offering Young a temporary distraction.

Many of the aerial dog fight scenes are generally muddled and pilfered from other productions, and other than a few harrowing moments in the sky, the film is better when the actors are grounded. The Eagle And The Hawk is less about combat with the enemy, and more about the fight against the soulless private demons unleashed by war.

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