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The Eagle and the Hawk
When I was nine years old, the theatre in my home village was five years old and was never a venue for first run movie releases. This explains why I never saw The Eagle and the Hawk, first shown in 1933, until three years later. As a child, I didn’t understand the significance of what I was watching and the memory of it didn’t linger long in my mind. I saw it again 82 years later as one of the Hollywood epics withdrawn from the library of anti-war films to be shown again on television. Now, as an historian, I write my own critical review.
To reduce the plot to its barest bones, three American volunteers are in a squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, the branch of the British army which became the autonomous Royal Air Force in 1918. The squadron is flying the DH 4, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland. Primarily designed for a photo-reconosance role, these aircraft carried a pilot and an observer and were armed with forward-firing machine guns and two yoked, movable machine guns in the rear cockpit. They were marginally faster than the fastest of single-seater fighter planes then in use. The uniforms worn by the actors are accurate for the place and period. This much of the setting is believeable.
Four of the characters in this fictional plot were big names on theatre marquees. Fredric March (1897—1975) portrayed the American pilot who is haunted by the deaths of a succession of observers who flew with him. Cary Grant (1894 –1986) is the American observer who is hostile to the character played by March. (His English accent belies his role as an American.) Jack Oakie (1903—1978) is the American who provides comedic relief in the otherwise sombre plot. Carole Lombard (1908—1942) is the love interest. Her overnight meeting with the character played by March leaves little to the imagination.
The denouement of the plot begins when the character played by March shoots down the German ace Werner Voss (1897—1917.) His body, handsome and young, is viewed by the character played by March, who then returns to his barracks and commits suicide. Early next morning, the character played by Grant loads his body into a dual-control DH4 and takes off on a lone flight. He then uses the dual machine guns in the observer’s cockpit to shoot holes in the fabric of the DH4 and in the dead man. He returns to base with a man acclaimed as a hero rather than known to be suicide. That’s it; that’s the story. What remains is the question of the propriety of introducing a real person into a work of fiction and thus obscuring a true historical record.
Werner Voss was real. He was a skilled pilot who was awarded the highest awards his country could bestow on him. He lived for 20 years and then was shot down in a battle with six pilots, each flying an SE5a, which was arguably the best fighter plane of the time. One of his opponents was James McCudden, a much decorated Briton, who, after 57 aerial victories, died in an accident at the age of 23. After a valiant battle in his slow but superbly aerobatic Fokker Triplane against overwhelming odds, Voss was shot down. He was buried in a shell hole and has no known grave.
A British flyer, Albert Ball, was much like Voss. He had 44 victories and had been awarded his country’s highest decorations, when he died in a raid on the home aerodrome of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. After forcing down Lothar von Richtofen, the Red Baron’s brother, he was enveloped in heavy clouds. He emerged from them to fly his SE 5a straight into the ground.
During and after the war, battles in the air were romanticized. Flyers on both sides became like the champions of chivalry engaged in mortal combat. Death, however, is death, whether on shell-churned land or in the air. The spectacle of youths scarcely at the beginning of seasoned wisdom killing each other at the command of their distant commanders is an abomination. It was in 1936. The abomination began again in 1939.
Copyright© William Wardill 2018