Tuesday, February 9, 2021

THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (Stuart Walker & Mitchell Leisen, 1933)

 

Lt. Young doesn’t consider himself a fighter Ace; he’s a chauffeur for a graveyard, driving men to their graves day after day, an occupation that limits his potential to reach a ripe old age. Fredric March’s powerhouse performance of torment and anxiety is a realistic depiction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before the condition was diagnosed or understood, when showing the affect of trauma was considered a sign of weakness or diminished manhood. Cary Grant plays his volatile cohort Henry Crocker, a terrible pilot but the best Gunner in the squadron. It’s refreshing to see Grant in an early role playing against type (or what would become type) as an angry and belligerent soldier with a chip on his shoulder in nearly every scene. There is no background story here for either character, just two men who don’t like each other but are forced to fight together for a common cause: survival, not glory. This is not a romantic story depicting heroes returning undamaged from The Great War but a brutal look at the effect of combat upon one individual. I’m reminded of the Sergeant from Sam Fuller’s epic THE BIG RED ONE: “We don’t murder the enemy, we kill him”. But this distinction is lost upon Lt. Young who feels responsible for not only the men lost who fly with him but the men he shoots down, plummeting like Roman Candles to their death.

Lt. Young and his fellow pilots finish their several months of training and finally get assigned a combat squadron in France. This euphoria is soon depressed when Young shoots down two planes on his first mission then discovers his gunner has been shot dead. In a wonderful montage, we see a blackboard with Lt. Young’s name as a constant while the gunner’s name is erased and a new one chalked in five different times. Now the horror is written in indelible ink upon Young’s soul and madness, the whisper at the edge of his reason, begins to consume him. A few great scenes stand out. While attending a dinner party he is introduced to a child who wants to be “just like him” and become a pilot. This boy speaks of war as if it’s a game and asks about the planes exploding and catching fire but never about the men who die, an understanding beyond his years. Afterwards, a beautiful lady (Carole Lombard) jumps in his cab and they eventually share a night-cap in the park. But instead of a romantic interlude, he purges himself of the anxiety and fears of the past several months. While he speaks, the camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Lombard who listens attentively yet never expressing horror or fear at what she hears, only support. The caveat is Young’s final comment: does this make me a coward? Once he returns to combat a very young soldier (who looks practically feminine with arched eyebrows and cheekbones) happily accepts the position as his gunner. But the rookie is shot and during the dogfight when Young loops into his Immelmann the boy falls 3,000 feet to his death! And we see him plummet from Young’s point-of-view. When the Greentail is shot down, Young lands his plane only to discover he has aced the German Ace Arnold Voss who is nothing but a young boy, barely old enough to shave.

The film ends tragically, as the squadron celebrates Young’s victory (and another medal) he toasts the German Ace then vomits his emotional guts out and storms away. Back in his room, his guilt at being a role model that leads other boys to their deaths, at seeing men burn to death and friends ripped to shreds, he finally takes one last shot into oblivion: he blows his own brains out. FUCK!! Yet his antagonist Crocker devises a hero's death and secrets his body into a plane and shoots him point blank with the machine gun, giving the illusion of a combat fatality. It’s touching yet surely Lt. Young would not have approved. Now his “heroism” can be used to trumpet the glory of war upon the ignorant and unfinished minds of children who, like Young, will never grow old.

Final Grade: (A+)