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VINE VOICEon September 3, 2003
THE DAWN PATROL, Errol Flynn's final film of his busiest year as an actor (1938), is a fascinating counterpoint to his usual swashbuckling and light comic roles. A remake of Howard Hawks' 1930 classic, this is a tale of war-weary WWI aviators, called upon to risk their lives daily, in broken-down aircraft, on missions they consider impossible (a timeless war theme that would reappear in such WWII classics as COMMAND DECISION and TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH). Directed by WWI veteran Edmund Goulding, best known for his big-budget romances (GRAND HOTEL), the film counterpoints the gritty, harsh realities on the ground with the nearly surreal quality of early air battles, as bi-planes with open cockpits whirl and swoop like insects, and enemy airmen would occasionally drop out possessions of dead pilots over airfields, in a chivalrous gesture.
Fellow pilots Courtney and Scott (portrayed by real-life friends Flynn and David Niven, again showing the rapport they had demonstrated so effectively in 1936's THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE) are battle-tested veterans, hell-raising survivors of a squadron decimated by the war. Seeing a constant influx of 'green' kids replacing lost friends, and knowing too well that the rookies' inexperience will quickly cost them their lives, the pair vent their anger against their commander, the coldly 'by-the-book' Maj. Brand (in a remarkable performance by frequent Flynn nemesis, Basil Rathbone). Courtney constantly condemns and belittles Maj. Brand, accusing him of placing 'The Mission' over the lives of the men under his command, which makes Courtney a hero in the eyes of the fliers.
Finally, Brand cracks, and is approved for reassignment, and Courtney is chosen to replace him. In a powerful scene, Brand lets his cold 'facade' down, and reveals, bitterly, to the younger man that seeing his men sent on suicide missions, daily, had literally crushed him. Unknown to the squadron, Brand had constantly begged HQ to ease up, but had been 'shot down' each time, as the missions were essential. "Now it's YOUR turn," Brand sneers, "See how YOU enjoy it!"
Brand's words are prophetic, as Courtney quickly discovers himself in the same situation, as the despised scapegoat, with Scott assuming the role of spokesperson and savior to the squadron. And the most dangerous mission yet has just come down from HQ...
DAWN PATROL is a powerful film, with great performances from the entire cast, particularly Flynn, who had often begged the WB to give him roles beyond his 'swashbuckler' image. The critical praise it garnered proved Flynn's versatility as an actor (although public demand would keep him 'locked' into adventure films), and raised David Niven up to 'star' status.
It remains one of the BEST films about the 'Great War', and shouldn't be missed!
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on February 1, 2000
This movie is a multi-level film. On the one hand, we have the action-adventure element of WW I British pilots valiantly waging the air-war over France in 1915. The other level is a dark anti-war film stressing the horror of warfare, the grim cost to comrades, and the nerve-wracking dilemma of squadron commanders caught between the daily sacrifices of their squadron and the unrealistic expectations of headquarters. Basil Rathbone is the harassed Major Brand. Rathbone's nervous, high-strung acting style is well suited to this role. Two of his best pilots, Courtney (Errol Flynn) and Scott (David Niven), treat Brand with ill-concealed contempt for the hard decisions he is compelled to make. Among his many frustrations, Major Brand is ordered to use inexperienced young pilots as replacements. It becomes a distressingly familiar experience for Major Brand to count the number of planes as they zoom overhead, returning to base from the latest deadly mission. Seven went out today; only five returned. While on the ground, the pilots imbibe a prodigious amount of liquor, and listen endlessly to the gramophone play a scratchy rendition of a popular song titled "Hurrah for the Next Man to Die." The dark humor of this is appealing, especially to Scott. Due to an ironic twist of fate, Major Brand is promoted to a headquarters job because of a daring independent mission, spectacularly pulled off by Courtney and Scott. Brand is told to name his own replacement, and he doesn't hesitate to name Courtney as squadron commander. Suddenly Courtney is in the identical no-win position for which he held Brand in contempt. Things become even more tense after Scott's younger brother arrives as one of the green replacements Courtney is ordered to put in the air against the grimly efficient German pilots; who are led by a Manfred von Richthofen (i.e., Red Baron) type named Von Richter.
The aerial sequences are visually impressive and exciting. Errol Flynn and David Niven are appropriately dashing as they face danger with courage fierce in their eyes. Between missions, they engage in riotous humor and playful hi-jinks to ease the tension. One senses, however, there is an enforced gaiety to their antics to counter the rigors of war. Courtney evolves from the gallant flyer into the harassed commander. Finally, an especially dangerous mission is ordered. The mission is impossible to achieve for an entire squadron, but "one man, flying low" might succeed. As an act of personal redemption, Courtney takes the place of the incapacitated Scott, and flies the mission. The film balances the romantic visions of war as adventure with the hard realities of aerial combat. There is chivalry and grace, but also frailty and breakdown. The glory is tempered by the memory of fallen comrades, some of whom never had a chance. This film is a stark contrast to Errol Flynn's more light-hearted adventure movies (e.g., Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, etc.) The aerial dogfights, the air attack on the enemy munitions factory, and the destruction of the enemy aerodrome are exciting enough to please action fans. The anti-war elements of the film are thought provoking. A fine cast and an intelligent script make this more than just another war movie. Recommended viewing.
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There have been many films made about the nature of warfare, about its futility, and about the effects that it can have a on a person. But this has to be one of the greatest.
Strangely, what I love most about this movie is what it has in common with one of my favorite westerns, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". You may wonder what these two movies could possibly have in common. Well...
In "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", there's a part toward the end of the movie where we see that the North and South are fighting over a bridge. Every day, the same thing. Both sides rush it, many die, and then both sides retreat. It never ends. Like some sort of twisted warrior's hell, people are doomed to suffer and die. For nothing. That was a great movie because of that part. Now imagine an entire movie about that one battle. That's just what "The Dawn Patrol" is.
Errol Flynn and his best friend David Niven are in the middle of a seemingly endless war, fought in their case with planes over the same stretches of land. Again and again they fly out on their patrol. Again and again young innocent men die. For a strip of land. For nothing.
And because they must continually fight these battles, they eventually lose all their fear. It all becomes quite unreal. They start fooling around and having fun on their missions, showing off. In short, viewing it like it's just a job they have to do, nothing more. And Errol Flynn excels at playing a ruffian who cares for nothing. But then...
The commander of the base (played to perfection by Basil Rathbone) where he and his friend live gets promoted because of a stunt he pulled. And guess who gets to fill his hellish job of sending young fools to a quick, painful death. When the stress starts to build, and circumstances pit our hero against his best friend, and when honor forces him to do what he feels is right no matter what the cost...
This movie is truly the finest hour of Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone combines. All shine in this movie. It's great suspense, great drama and great film-making. If you love war movies, or just good movies in general, BUY THIS MOVIE.
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on October 16, 2004
This film is very well-done. Not only is the acting balanced, it also has that quality of chemistry and spark that cannot always be achieved in all technically excellent films. The only part I found difficult was the performance of the actor playing Hollister (Peter Willes?), who strayed a touch too far into the melodrama for me. But even the hyper-reactivity of that character somewhat serves to contrast and outline the more subdued reactions of the other characters, bringing out subtleties in the script and making certain events and dialog even more poignant.

I have watched this film several times now, and each time it gets better. That cannot be said of most films, and it is a high recommendation for this production. The writing is one of the reasons I enjoy it more each time, since I catch more of the hidden foreshadowing and symbolism in the dialog each time through. Every word and scene is there for a reason. The writing is very tight, nearly leaving the arena of prose.

I would recommend this film even to those who do not normally like war films. It is in some ways a "guy flick" but I found it absolutely stunning. (This is high praise from me. Despite popular opinion, I am not a guy, and tend to like "chick flicks"). Since this is an older film, it may seem dated to modern audiences and take a few minutes for you to get into it the first time you see it, but don't give up on this film -- watch it all the way through! It is at once fully modern, and also a reflection of its time. Made between the world wars, it has some of the same overtones as Tolkien (bear with me here), meaning it shows you that part of the transition in public opinion between viewing war as glorious/noble and viewing war as pointless/wasteful, the same transition period where the class system of England was crumbling and the romantic values placed on noble-by-birth and noble-by-action began to unravel.

Okay, enough of that. It is also the best acting performance I have seen by Errol Flynn. Flynn, Rathbone, and Niven are, of course, wonderful. But each time I watch the film, I gain greater and greater appreciation for the performances of Donald Crisp and Melville Cooper. This one gets a "wow" from me.
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on March 31, 2005
Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven star in the sobering 1938 film "The Dawn Patrol" which undoubtedly served as the model for the WW2 classic "Twelve O'Clock High". They are all members of the 59th fighter squadron of the Royal Flying Corps based in France in 1915. A somber Basil Rathbone playing Major Brand is the squadron leader. Day after day he depressingly orders his pilots on dangerous missions which create a high mortality rate. Ace pilot Capt. Courtney played by Flynn and his able wingman Lt. Scott played by Niven continously marshal replacement pilots with little combat experience into the skies to face almost certain death. Flynn despises Rathbone for the missions of death he orders them on.

The tables are turned when Rathbone gets promoted due to a daring and succeesful mission flown by Flynn and Niven. Flynn becomes squadron commander and must order his pilots on those deadly missions lead now by Niven. He now realizes the plight that was driving Rathbone mad.

Niven and Flynn have a falling out when Nivens baby brother turns up as one of the green replacement pilots. He is immediately shot down on his first mission.

Flynn is ordered to ask for a volunteer to fly a suicidal mission behind enemy lines. When Niven opts to fly the mission, Flynn gets him intoxicated and heroically flies in his stead.

While the aviation dogfights in this well acted flick are nothing spectacular, the plot and performances rendered by the solid cast get the director's message across loud and clear.
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on January 29, 2000
Errol Flynn and David Niven star as a couple of pilots and close friends in World War I who know firsthand about the reality of war. Angry at first with his commander, Basil Rathbone, who must (against his own wishes) send very inexperienced men up to fly against the Germans, Flynn soon learns to understand his commander's feelings of guilt and duty when he takes over as commander and must send up Niven's brother to a certain death. The film mixes the glory and heroics of the air war with a look at the futile waste of young, unprepared men who really don't know what they are in for. As the wiser, seasoned pilots, Flynn and Niven have an excellent rapport, and Rathbone is fine as the tortured commander whose men do not respect him until they can themselves personally understand what he goes through everytime he is ordered to send up more inexperienced pilots. The aerial sequences are well done, and the film is a thoughtful look at both the glory and futility to be found in war.
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An outstanding, and rather bleak, war movie, featuring Errol Flynn and David Niven as two dashing but harrowed, hard-drinking WWI fighter pilots, whose front-line unit is a constant revolving door of fresh-faced "replacements," new cadets who lack the basic skills to keep them alive for even a day or two, against the seasoned German pilots based only miles away. Basil Rathbone plays the British base's high-strung commanding officer, who feels every death as a personal blow -- following heartless orders, he sends boy after boy to an inevitable death. The worm turns when his promotion comes in, elevating the hotheaded and resentful Flynn to his position as commander, and Flynn's grief takes on an added dimension, as <i>he</i> becomes the one responsible for issuing the orders that transform eager young men into mere cannon fodder. The film is a typical interwar mix of pacifist-tinged pessimism and old-world chivalry: the men are gallant and brave, but resentful of the higher-ups who created and orchestrate the wars they have to fight in. The script is fascinating, with the action of the first half taking place entirely on the base. Rather than see the aerial combat, we see the psychological after-effects of the heavy personnel losses. When we do see combat, it is deflationary, either a framework for tragedy or a curse disguised as a giddy triumph. It's also well presented: the feel of the ungainly, canvas-clad prop planes that men went to war in is made palpable, as the ricketty machines bounce along the runway and sputter to life in the skies. A very good film, definitely worth watching.
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on August 11, 2015
This is a classic WWI aerial combat movie that focuses on the fragile life in the air. As a former military commander I can understand the frustration of Basil Rathbone (and eventually Errol Flynn/David Niven) in the impossible circumstances and moral dilemma they faced. It's easy to see how they broke down mentally from the stress of sending men to their deaths after on a few days at the front. They were powerless to change anything.
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on April 18, 2003
The Dawn Patrol is a good film. It appears to be based on a play as most of the real action takes place in the barracks of an air corp in France during the first world war. Basil Rathbone is the commander who sends untrained boys off to the death in hopeless battles. Flynn and Niven play more senior officers who try to kep them alive amid the slaughter.
Despite its morose sounding material, it has many funny incidents. Flynn and Niven play airman who face death at any day and enjoy each moment of life. The film reaches a climax when Rathbone is promoted and Flynn is given command and friction erupts between him and Niven as they send more young boys to the their death.
The resolution is implausible and contains some of the most ludicrous bombing scenes imaginable. But the action scenes are really window dressing for the action below. A fine film that would be a precursor for Command Decision and Twelve O'Clock High. The film Aces High also owes a great deal to this film.
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on February 16, 2003
The performances of Flynn and Rathbone shine in this fine remake of the 193O original - which conveniently used much of the same aerial footage. Major Brand (Basil Rathbone), the commanding officer of a squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps stationed in France, has been called a butcher by his top officer, Captain Courtney (Errol Flynn) - because of his hardened attitude toward sending inexperienced young flyers to their death. Courtney and his best friend, Lieutenant Scott (David Niven), have their own way of coping with the constant death of new recruits; they drink a toast to the dead, sing a song, and then go back to devising diverting, thrill-seeking pranks...It has been implied that Howard Hughes sued Warner Bros. claiming that certain story ideas and techniques which were used in this film were curiously similar to some of those used in his 193O production HELL'S ANGELS. Hughes lost the suit when it was determined that the disputed ideas originated with John Monk Saunders via his personal experiences in the air service: it WAS the basis for the first AA-winning film, the 1927 silent WINGS. In 1941, Warners blended aspects of their 1936 film CEILING ZERO and this one & came up with FLIGHT PATROL (!). Among the musical numbers which are heard in this vastly entertaining film include such vintage goodies as PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES IN AN OLD KIT BAG & POOR BUTTERFLY.
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