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The Pilot as Hero in the Aviation Film Genre

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The relationship between film, history, and mass culture is especially intriguing when we examine the correspondences between the representation of pilot-heroes in film and public perceptions of aviation. These connections are applicable during the heyday of the aviation genre film—the interwar years and WWII. For many years, films in the aviation film genre have been overlooked by scholars because they were perceived to be formulaic and cliché-ridden. While this charge may be true, these films contain important elements that confront and resolve problems of the individual pilot versus the group, and of the individual and group versus the outside world. Moreover, the best of these films not only reflect but often define American notions of heroism, masculinity, responsibility, and nationalism.

The aviation films of Howard Hawks—The Dawn Patrol (1930), Ceiling Zero (1935), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and Air Force (1943), seem to me to be the solidifying force in the definition of the aviation film genre and the genre’s significance in molding public perceptions of masculinity and  heroism, particularly during the 1930s and WWII. More than any other director of his era, Hawks was responsible for defining the aviation hero in popular film, and the generic elements in his aviation films helped to reinforce the popular image of the pilot-hero. The formula Hawks established for heroic behavior in his aviation genre films can be seen in other film genres like the Western and the combat film.

Dawn Patrol

A First National Pictures (Warner Brothers) still photo from "The Dawn Patrol" (1930), directed by Howard Hawks. "The Dawn Patrol" solidified the aviation film genre by focusing on a group of professional military pilots in WWI who face danger and death stoically.

Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol, made in 1930, set the standard for portraying pilots in a dramatic wartime situation. The Dawn Patrol blended the realism of William Wellman’s Wings (1927) and Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels (1930) with more fully developed generic elements. More than any other WWI air combat film, The Dawn Patrol redefined and reinterpreted the genre, by exploring the psychological pressures and stresses of wartime flying. These tensions are characterized by situations in which fighter pilots must come face to face with their impending death and the death of their comrades, and by the emotional difficulties faced by squadron commanders who must send young men to die.

The film chronicles the 59th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps during 1915, when the RFC was suffering severe casualties at the hands of the German air force.  Squadron Commander Brand (Neil Hamilton) faces the difficult task of sending young and inexperienced fliers to fight the Germans because so many of his veteran pilots have been killed.  Flight Commander Courtney (Richard Barthelmess) accuses Brand of butchery, but finds himself in the same position when Brand is promoted and Courtney becomes squadron commander.  Nerves stretched to the breaking point by the pressures of command, Courtney finds that he must send the unseasoned younger brother of his best friend Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), into battle.  Scott’s brother is killed, and Courtney’s relationship with Scott is damaged irreparably.  Courtney himself takes on a suicidal mission that Scott had volunteered for and is killed.  At the end of the film, Scott finds that now he must assume the duties of command, re-initiating the deadly cycle.

Hells Angels

A dramatic but perhaps doctored United Artists still photo from Hell’s Angels (1930), directed by Howard Hughes. Originally shot as a silent, the film was remade as a talkie. Hughes went to great lengths to film the aerial combat footage, and he designed many of the dogfighting scenes himself.

The paradigm below outlines characteristics that are the most integral elements of the WW I air combat film genre as defined by The Dawn Patrol: 1. Characters:  the men of The Dawn Patrol are a closely-knit set of professionals who perform a difficult task and who adhere to their own carefully defined code of conduct.  2.  Values:  In The Dawn Patrol, the male characters unite into a fraternal organization with a code that stresses stoical adherence to professionalism, honor, and responsibility to oneself and the group. 3.  Actions:  Although very much part of a group, the men of The Dawn Patrol are involved in individualistic combat with chivalric overtones set against a backdrop of impending doom.  4.  Iconography:  Many of the iconographic elements of the air combat film originated in WingsThe Dawn Patrol, however, contains visual elements that have become trademarks of the genre.  Pilots are costumed in leather coats and helmets, and outfitted with goggles, scarves, and winged insignia.  Aircraft are both authentic WWI-vintage aircraft and 1930s era aircraft made up to look like WWI airplanes (e.g. in The Dawn Patrol, Travel Air 2000/4000s and Standard J-1s). Flight maneuvers, filmed by aerial cinematographers, include spectacular crashes, complete with smoke and flames.  Sound effects are commonplace and consist of aircraft engines, machine guns, and often a dramatic musical score.

Also, because the characterizations are so heavily masculine (a reflection of the male-dominated world of aviation in the interwar years), women in these films tend to be either non-existent or not essential. Aviation is thought of as a man’s work; women need not apply.

Only Angels Have Wings poster

A Columbia Pictures poster from Only Angels Have Wings, directed by Howard Hawks in 1939. The film, which stars Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, deals with a group of unsung pilots who fly mail and dangerous cargo in the fictional town of “Baranca,” set in the Andes Mountains.

The cultural impact of the narrative patterns of the genre on the audience was to mythologize the aviator, romanticizing and dramatizing his persona somewhat out of proportion to actuality, and reinforcing the notion that the pilot-hero could resolve the most severe cultural conflicts concerning the fear of technology and the loss of democratic ideals and values in the twentieth century. Another reason The Dawn Patrol struck a chord with audiences may have to do with the time in which it was made—the first year of the Great Depression. Financial hardship was on everyone’s mind and themes of wartime courage and group solidarity could easily be adapted to times of economic despair. The Dawn Patrol could thus be seen as celebrating values of teamwork, of “sticking together,” of community and sharing, contrary to the values of acquisitive individualism inherent in modern industrial capitalism.

The conventions of the WWI air combat film genre, as represented by The Dawn Patrol, eventually evolved into those common in the aviation genre films of the 1930s, the WWII air combat film, and beyond.  Eventually, however, the genre began to stagnate.  The Western and the combat film genres underwent significant changes during the Cold War, and especially after the Vietnam War, often questioning—and sometimes abandoning—the traditional values they had championed earlier.  The air combat genre, for the most part, maintained its traditional attitudes and values.

Has the aviation genre film become irrelevant? Perhaps. The notion of heroism in the early twenty-first century is much more complex than at any time in American history. If Hollywood were perhaps willing to renegotiate the aviation genre film’s formula to conform to a postmodernist mode of discourse, might it not be revivable?  Hollywood appears unwilling or unable to deviate from the winning formula of the past, and there is no guarantee that drastic changes in the formula would be widely accepted and successful at the box office.

Nevertheless, the formula prevalent in the aviation genre film, which extols without irony, the manly virtues of pilot-heroes, is simply outdated in this post-heroic age. Piloting an airplane may be looked upon as a dangerous but not particularly heroic activity. This is perhaps because aviation has become so all-pervasive and familiar that no one thinks much about it. The exoticism of aviation, so prevalent during the interwar years and extending into the 1960s, is a thing of the past. If the mystery and romance of aviation exist at all, they do so in terms of nostalgia for a bygone era.

Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.


4 thoughts on “The Pilot as Hero in the Aviation Film Genre

  1. Interesting read. While not an aviation movie, one of my favorite movies involving pilots is The Great Escape, where the pilots on both sides of the conflict had mutual respect for each other. The Luftwaffa managed the prison camp of the Allied pilots and placed themselves above the Gestapo and the SS as far as honor goes. While the only plane in this movie is at the end (and the most famous vehicle is definitely a motorcylce), it does a good job of showing the fraternity and mutual respect among pilots, even those on opposite sides of a war.

  2. Nicely done article. I enjoyed seeing the poster for “Only Angels Have Wings.” I finally got to view this film and realized that the plot is stolen by the John Wayne movie “Flying Tigers,” even though “Only Angels Have Wings” was not set in wartime! Like “Dawn Patrol,” the seemingly disgraced flyer takes over the deadly mission to redeem himself. It’s an accessible genre, that’s for sure.

  3. I liked the analysis of Dawn Patrol. I thought it was well cast and acted, and the emotional impact of war certainly came through. My favorite aviation picture is “12 O’Clock High” and it carries the same emotional impact.
    If it is possible, a listing of all the movies Donald Pisano felt are in the genre he named would be appreciated. Many I am sure are available from our public libraries . Thank you for a thoughtful article as it gave substance to an otherwise entertaining film.

  4. I am 82 years old and take classes at our local community college. I find many of the youth have no concept of what the hero’s of the past have contributed to make the present field of aviation the marvel that it is. The old films help to capture some of that forgotten history, and Mr. Pisano does us a favor in calling our attention to the groundwork laid by so many , known and unknown, who did the spadework in the conquering of the air.

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