Our old movies column returns, and we’re looking at 1933 war drama The Eagle And The Hawk, a film whose title does it a disservice.
They often say never judge a book by its cover. Well, I say never judge a film by its title. There can be times where a wordy or misleading title can often strike the wrong impression. Think of how repugnant the title for spectacular movie The Shawshank Redemption is or how Bad Bromance, a quirky black comedy, is the most awful title of all time. It bristles in you and sometimes you fail to give the film a chance.
The most egregious crime I committed was settling down to watch 1933’s The Eagle And The Hawk. With a title like that, and knowing from experience with other American wartime films, I’d fully strapped myself in for a chanting, rollicking, Pro-USA film about champion airplane fighters and all the brilliant battles they’d won.
It doesn’t help that the opening credits sequence to this one is set to extremely gung ho music that riles you up for a blast. It offers snippets of the men we are about to see all happy in their ordinary lives before the war. In the first few minutes, I had already somewhat written the film off in my mind.
Ten minutes later, I was proven so utterly wrong. The Eagle And The Hawk is as far from pro-war rhetoric as a film could get. In fact, it is a melancholic and meditative piece about the psychological perils of war.
The Eagle And The Hawk revolves around the Royal Air Force squadron in World War 1. Its main focus is on pilot Lt Jerry Young who, alongside a few of his friends, is sent to the war front. Despite being an excellent flyer, Jerry’s gunners in the seat behind him start to die. One by one. The deaths take a devastating toll on Jerry and as the film progresses he struggles with the psychological guilt of war.
Though the film is credited to Stuart Walker, co-director Mitchell Leisen claimed to be the sole director, with Walker only assisting. However, Walker was the only one signed to Paramount and therefore got the sole credit. The production also saw an on-set explosion which trapped Grant and March, with the former suffering injuries (after saving the latter).
The production may have had its struggles, but the result is brilliant. It’s one of the films I constantly talk about when speaking on the positives of Pre-Code films and how filmmakers were able to convey the struggles of war so adeptly and amazingly.
It’s the second film in which Cary Grant and Fredric March face-off, having both vied for Sylvia Sidney’s attentions in Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell (1933). This is, however, one of the first films with Grant in a significant role that would propel him to stardom. He plays Henry Crocker – a gunner who despises Jerry but ultimate grows to respect him. Hot-headed, Grant’s Crocker has to learn his own wisdom and the performer excellently does this. Grant is great, though he speaks loudly and, at times, with his fists.
However, the film solely belongs to March. The character starts off so joyously – rallying his troops and men to the britches. However, as many start to die around him, Jerry is weighted and it aches within him. Turning to drink, Jerry can’t cope with the losses. Especially as his gunners and observers start to get younger and younger. March is superb – weaving Young’s misery and unravelling his mind bit by bit throughout the film’s short runtime.
It’s an admirable and captivating performance. In one sequence, Jerry is told to coral the new brigade of youthful troops, and he drips with sarcasm as he tries to warn them of the dangers they’re flying into. In his next, big, supposedly stirring speech towards the end of the film, his anger is unleashed completely. Everyone rewards his own actions which he can no longer abide. It’s an absorbing descent into madness for March.
While on leave, Jerry meets the exquisite Carol Lombard. Whilst she only appears in a few scenes, she’s one of the few people to listen to Jerry’s burdens. Still, though the day off is supposed to alleviate Jerry’s sorrows, it only adds to his misery.
The breakdown glides into a bittersweet ending, but I don’t wish to spoil it. Honestly, it’s a brooding and dark finale, but it also has a glimmer of hope. Perhaps not in the medals or the valour of war, but in the comradery between men. No matter if they hated each other, or even if they were fighting on the wrong side, the bonding of blood and bullets is strong.
So that opening sequence, with its fanatical fanfare, and its title, with its winged excitement, is not there to rouse and inspire. It works as a contrast: a miserable trumpet song to all the lives that were lost in these wars. Not just by being gunned down or butchered, but the hefty toll of death that stripped men from their minds and, therefore, their lives.
The Eagle And The Hawk is an unforgettable movie that soars with terrific performances and studious writing.
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