The Dawn Patrol is a 1938 film about British World War I fighter pilots, roistering and dying in an aerial war of attrition in France with their German counterparts. It was directed by Edmund Goulding from a screenplay written by Seton I. Miller and Dan Totheroh, which was adapted from a story by John Monk Saunders. The film starred Errol Flynn (Captain Courtney), Basil Rathbone (Major Brand), David Niven (Scott), Donald Crisp (Phipps), and Morton Lowry (Donnie Scott), and was produced by the Warner Brothers Studio as a remake of their earlier 1930 film of the same story.
The film features wonderful aerial combat sequences, filmed in 1930 with real and old World War I fighter planes, and with additional realistic scenes of action in the air and on the ground filmed in 1938. This film has no female characters at all, which was also true of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, also a World War I spectacle.
While ostensibly an action picture set in wartime, with the riotous camaraderie among young, enthusiastic, free-spirited, gung-ho, fun-loving and serially drunk air aces, The Dawn Patrol unfolds as an increasingly grim and unrelenting Greek tragedy of the loss of human connections and human lives into the maw of a vast industrialized plague of mechanized warfare. I think this film reflected the end of the period of unanimous American antiwar isolationist sentiment prior to World War II (1939-1945), which was most vividly reflected by the 1930 film All Quiet On The Western Front, which was based on Erich Maria Remarque’s incredible and timeless 1929 book of that title.
The Dawn Patrol is an excellently made film, it never drags as the sequence of scenes, whether action-packed, comedic, tense or reflective, flow smoothly across the viewing screen to present us with the braided threads of the story.
To my mind the gem among these scenes is one where Errol Flynn, as Squadron Commander Captain Courtney, is speaking privately with a fresh replacement pilot with no combat experience, Lieutenant Donnie Scott, played by Morton Lowry. Captain Courtney is welcoming this new man into the squadron, and giving him a feeling of full inclusion into the camaraderie of his fighter pilot group, before Donnie Scott’s first mission the next day, which will also sadly be Donnie’s last as we learn later. Courtney’s little speech is quiet, warm, personal, friend-to-friend and bracingly honest about the war, instead of being officious, patriotic and militaristic, from a superior to a junior officer. Courtney tells Donnie that:
The war is “a great big noisy rather stupid game that doesn’t make any sense at all. None of us know what it’s all about or why. Here we are going at it hammer and tongs, and I bet you those fellows over there feel exactly the same way about it, the enemy… Then one day I suppose it will all end as suddenly as it began. We’ll go home till some other bunch of criminalated sitting around a large table shoves us into another war and we go at it again… Do you remember my father used to be a professor of biology at Queen’s? He always used to say: man is a savage animal who periodically to relieve his nervous tension tries to destroy himself.”
When I first heard this monologue, I heard “criminal idiots” for “criminalated.” But over many repeated listenings to the recorded monologue, I could only hear 5 syllables as in “criminalated” and not 6 as in “criminal idiots.” Is “criminalated” an English word that has fallen into disuse, or is perhaps archaic?
In the trailer to The Dawn Patrol, which includes a part of this scene, one clearly hears “criminal fools,” which would be logically appropriate but is only 4 syllables. In the actual film itself the recorded speech of that scene contains the 5 syllable word which I can only decode as “criminalated.” This is true on 2 separate DVDs issued by Warner Brothers, one of the complete movie, The Dawn Patrol, and one of a documentary on Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Errol Flynn, which includes this entire scene.
Through the wonders of the Internet I learned that “criminalated” appears in the text of The Enchanceried House, a short story for juvenile readers written by Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), and included in her 1905 book Oswald Bastable and Others. One of the features of Nesbit’s stories was the misconstruction of words spoken seriously by the fictional boy Oswald Bastable, for a comedic effect on the reader. “Criminalated” appears as follows:
“No English gentleman tells a lie — Oswald knows that, of course. But an English gentleman is not obliged to criminalate himself. The rules of honor and the laws of your country are very puzzling and contradictory.”
We can imagine that Donnie Scott was born in 1897, and as an 8-year-old in 1905 read The Enchanceried House. So, in 1915 as an 18-year-old hearing from superior officer Captain Courtney, probably four years older at 22, about the meaning of World War I, that Courtney would characterize the criminality of the perpetrators of the catastrophe that would engulf them both, by using a childhood and childish reference — “criminalated” — to belittle the remote statesmen who blundered Europe into that early 20th century effort of man to destroy himself.
Men and women filmgoers in their 40s in 1938, who had read and remembered Oswald Bastable stories, could easily have recognized the “criminalated” reference in Captain Courtney’s monologue to Donnie Scott. If so, it would have given the scene added poignancy for them, since it would cast the tragedy of World War I fighter pilot deaths as a meaningless sacrifice of children.
In 1938, when Errol Flynn gave one of his best performances in The Dawn Patrol, his biologist father, Theodore Thomson Flynn, served as the Chair of Zoology at Queen’s University of Belfast. It seems Flynn’s script included a reference to his real father-son relationship, as an inside joke.
Regardless of whether one hears “criminalated,” “criminal fools” or “criminal idiots,” the accuracy of Captain Courtney’s description of the futility and criminality of World War I is indisputable. This is a gem of antiwar expression that remains relevant to the present day, within a fundamentally antiwar film that connects with its mass audience as an exciting aviation action cinema entertainment.
World War I, “the war to end all wars” lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. It ended 101 years ago this week.
The Dawn Patrol (1938 film)
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
The Dawn Patrol — Trailer
“But an English gentleman is not obliged to criminalate himself.”