The loves, losses and fates of WWI airmen.
In this 1933 movie, Fredric March plays a WWI flier sent on aerial photography missions, Cary Grant plays his rival, and the two have an uneasy relationship from the time March keeps Grant from getting his wings, to the time Grant becomes March’s tail observer and gunner, to the time Grant does something stunning for March’s reputation. Jack Oakie has a juicy role as the jolly and beloved pilot with hints of a serious side, and Carole Lombard has a few scenes as the vision in white whom March meets while on leave to rest his shattered nerves. March is haunted by all the death around him, and even more disturbed by the medals he earns for work he increasingly considers wrong and immoral. He descends into nihilism, hopelessness and alcoholism, and in the end does something which is discovered and kept secret by Grant, and which I’ll keep secret so that you might be properly affected when you first watch it.
The Eagle & the Hawk is much more an emotional antiwar drama than a war action movie, one based on a story by John Monk Saunders, whose adapted works and screenplays often looked at the Great War, as in Wings (which is the source of the stock footage of the dogfights in this movie), Legion of the Condemned, The Last Flight, The Dawn Patrol, and Devil Dogs of the Air. Another feature of many Saunders stories is that the introspection comes with generous amount of alcohol and the drinking is prominently displayed. There’s a memorable scene during March’s little getaway in the park with Lombard where he pays a taxi driver to bring them champagne. Speaking of Lombard, it’s impressive how much she makes of the little screen time and character she has, bringing in maximum glamour and sympathy.
However Grant and March are the central couple here, contrasting values locked in a tense yet somehow respectful relationship. Grant plays a fiery, impatient and impulsive airman, gung-ho, eager to seek out and kill the enemy, the more the better, on the solid and mostly correct reasoning that one less enemy equals one less person to kill his fellow military. But he earns more disdain than accolades when he kills an airman in his parachute, violating rules of combat meant to separate battle from murder. March on the other hand, starts out shining and then slowly extinguishes, as the extremely sensitive flier who feels that only he suffers and knows the horror of war because the other men have different ways of coping and don’t outwardly express their grief, guilt or misgivings. March is riveting, as he had a talent for playing these intense emo roles, tortured consciences with explosive raw nerves and a burning stare.
In a memorable climactic outburst, he equates his last dogfight opponent, Germany’s top flying ace, to the recently lost youngsters on his own side, saying in a drunken rant that the German was just another “kid… like you.” Which he was, but the Ace, no matter how young and aesthetically impressive he might have been (and he is presented in the film to be a beautiful “blonde kid” and very similar to the most recent casualty from March’s plane), was also likely directly and at least symbolically responsible for many of the deaths that give March nightmares. Those Aces created countless widows and orphans for whom the concept of heroism and honour is not a dated or useless ideal but an important comfort in their loss and the memory of their loved one. So you get a picture of extremes and extreme reactions in an extreme war where ethics and ideals were just as much victims as the fighters, making this story interesting and more than just pretentious anti-war philosophizing.
Stuart Walker has director credit but the film was Mitchell Leisen’s, an amazing piece of dark, bleak work from a man who gave us some of the finest and frothiest romantic comedies ever. Leisen said that despite it being fully understood he was the director and Walker his assistant (assigned to help with dialogue), when the picture wrapped, Walker exercised his contractual right to get full credit, whereas Leisen had no such agreement or power. When The Eagle & the Hawk was re-released in 1939, some parts were cut. There’s a missing bit where March and Lombard continue from that park bench and spend the night together; in the morning March finds that she’s left a gardenia on his pillow. There was also an additional part at the end that showed us Cary Grant living with the effects of his actions, and visiting a plaque dedicated to March. Though the presence of these scenes would be closer to Leisen’s vision, their absence doesn’t lessen the movie’s impact as a tough, frank pre-code war film that deserves more attention.
Source: Mitchell Leisen Hollywood Director, by David Chierichetti