This year marks the centennial of one of the great conflicts of human history. In August of 1914, Germany went to war with France and Great Britain in what was then referred to as “The Great War,” for no war before had been as devastating in terms of casualties and brutality. It was a clash of 19th century ideologies and 20th century technology and it comprised of nearly fifty million military and civilian casualties. Several great films have attempted to capture the plight of those that found themselves stuck in this chaos. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory (1957) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) are probably the shining examples of the war’s insanity, but there may be a third. Stuart Walker, who I best remembered as the director of Great Expectations (1934) and Werewolf Of London (1935) directed the starkly grim pre-code The Eagle And The Hawk in 1933, creating the airforce equivalent to All Quiet On The Western Front. The film stars two of Hollywood’s all time greatest leading men, Fredric March and Cary Grant. They portray officers in the Royal Air Corps who enlist to fight the good fight. Jerry Young (March) becomes the leader of the squadron and his carefree, gung-ho attitude is quickly displaced as soon as he sees his first senseless casualty and realises that he holds the lives of his men in his hands. It’s a similar predicament to the one that faced Gregory Peck in the masterful 12 O Clock High (1949), but is far more grim and stark as Young becomes increasingly disillusioned with the war, becoming an alcoholic and suffering from what we now refer to as PTSD. Grant is cast against type as Henry Crocker, a gunner who flunked out as a pilot and is constantly at odds with Young. He’s something of a bastard in this and shows a darker side to his usually carefree persona, much like he would in the brilliant Hitchcock classic Notorious (1945). Grant’s character is brutal at times, even shooting down a parachuting German balloon observer at one point, but his facade cracks as he begins to assume the same sort of responsibility that March does, of sending and seeing men die in a brutal and senseless conflict. The conclusion is about one of the most devastating and poignant of any war film from the period, and while it could never hope to capture anything as iconic as the hand reaching for the butterfly at the conclusion of All Quiet On The Western Front, it does manage to shock and sadden just the same. March and Grant play off each other well in this film and it’s no surprise why they had such long and rich careers in Hollywood. They are perfect at portraying two men with very different ideological differences that ultimately find compassion for each other when they are forced to face the realities of combat. Jack Oakie lends comic support to a film that sorely needs it and is a welcome addition here, as does a young Carol Lombard(!) who makes an extended cameo toward the second half of the picture much to the surprise of film fans, this one included. She has very little to do but is effective in her scenes with March as he tries to recall civilian life and forget the horrors of the war. During a period where war was largely glamorised, The Eagle and The Hawk stands apart as a somber reminder that war is truly a monstrous, soul destroying thing. Several films were made about the airmen in the First World War, including The Dawn Patrol (1930) but none have ever reached the terror and desperation of this forgotten classic. It deserves to be be rediscovered by today’s generations who could profit from its lessons.
Published August 1, 2014