"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Cold Blue Lysergic Evening: THE DAWN PATROL (1938)


Say a prayer for the dead already / and salute those next to die!" -- Lucy Westerna, reciting an old airman's drinking song (DRACULA, 1931)
A bad LSD trip can leave you traumatized for weeks--though it seems longer; surely the trauma of dying lasts but a second by comparison. Cut off from a general populace who cannot see beyond their collective fog of assured continuity to understand why you're so pallid, the blinders that obscure the constant threat of death for them are, for you, broken. The rays of the black void shine into your soul even if you close your eyes and look away--for a color that black shines right through your eyelids, and any polarized goggles. For those poor fools around you it's business as usual; they are glazed-eyed consumers on their endless rotation from breakfast to cubicle to couch to dinner to bed. You sit outside it all, screaming inside, clawing softly at the fleshy disguise you call a face as if its a prison you might escape. A feeling of lost futility overwhelms your every thought and gesture...

But lo! THE DAWN PATROL (1938) is waiting!

The doomed airmen await their time to die up in the air over the shadowed trenches of WWI, they understand your existential anguish! Are they not, in their way, the living dead? Look at the way the pilot up top resembles a corpse right out of a Joe Kubert WEIRD WAR TALES cover. You can feel both the beating of modernism's horrified, hideous heart and smell the dread of the next war, already in progress, which by 1938 America was eyeballing with the remorse of a redacted father. 


Though helmed by "ladies' choice" director Edmund Goulding (GRAND HOTEL, DARK VICTORY), DAWN PATROL is all men and--manlier still--a remake of an early sound Howard Hawks film. I've no qualm with this version as Goulding is just fine at capturing camaraderie of either gender, and always had a great fatalistic streak -- you can feel death and despair being ever pushed back, every gesture of his actors like drowning souls struggling through the La Brea tar pits of mortal terror. Like Hawks he keeps shots at a medium level to allow us to feel part of the action, part of the brotherhood of airmen, who treat their captured German pilots with respect, giving them drinks and food before the MPs take them away. And of course our airmen agonize over all the fresh young recruits, most of whom are shot down during their first soiree. What's most important in a film like this, since it's almost all male actors, is that the actors be first rate and with Basil Rathbone as the C.O., bravely taking the heat from righteous pilot Errol Flynn and drunken wingman David Niven, you got a deck stacked for easy grifting.

"Keep your eye on the ball"
And drinking, man is there a lot of well-deserved drinking. And after a bad trip, honey, if you don't have a drink or something to put your lights out you're going to be hallucinating ghost fingers ripping your soul apart all night, through the morning, afternoon, nd even until the following evening. But you do have drinks if you're a civilized airman. And they're apparently free, since the bar is where you get your orders for the day in all senses. The office of Basil Rathbone as their CO (the brunt of their collective rage since he's sending young men to their deaths before they even learn to barrel roll) is adjacent to the bar, and the barracks are upstairs. In short it's much like my band's old communal house in Syracuse in the late 80s, only we didn't have to fly and try to kill Germans and avoid being killed by them (I did have an old Salvation Army officer's jacket and Wermacht infantry coat which did nothing to keep one warm in Syracuse's miserable biting winters, all so--as my power animal explained to me one lysergic night--that I might dimly remember my past life freezing to death on the Russian front for future writings).

DAWN PATROL puts you in that same pleasant zone, that land where you too belong to something cooler than yourself and the bar is never closed, always "open" - but that unstudied for final always waits around the weekend with its scythe-swipe teeth.


And so with such Icarus wax plugging the terror holes in their wings, the big existential question for these pilots isn't how or why, but when. And worse, if your little brother is going to show up, or you come home and he's all into the Dead and smoking weed and filled with that inane sense of invulnerability little brothers have where if they see their older brother jumping off a bridge they do it too and wind up dead... it's the horror of being an older brother than anguish as they imitate all the wrong things about you, never listening to what you say, only wanting the cool you have and figuring following you into the canon maw will win it sans all the training.

Ram Dass writes of working with death row inmates and how they would have big breakthroughs when death was looming, turning to the glory of the eternal now like instant enlightenment was in the air for free. But then if, say, the convict got off the short list due to their conversion, and were put back in the general population, they'd get cocky and forget the eternal now, becoming hungry ghosts bartering for smokes once more. Dass would have to start all over.

Having been in the war, Hawks and Hemingway understood this (as did PATROL writer John Monk Saunders, even if he only trained pilots for the first war, and always wanted to fight but was never allowed - so I'm sure he related to Rathbone's sense of hopeless guilt): they knew they had to be cozied up to death to write worth a damn or to suspend fear long enough to do the job, be it flying or driving the ambulance as shells drop all around. Like it or not, having survived the horrors of a bad acid trip, you're now in that same league as Hemingway and Hawks surviving the horrors of war, though in a much more facile, delusional, infantile perhaps, way. As Errol Flynn's quote from his father toward the end says to explain war: "man is a savage animal who periodically, to relieve nervous tension, tries to destroy himself." That's as good an analogy for a bad acid trip as I've heard.

But that's where the solace comes in. Knocking back a few with THE DAWN PATROL can be like starving for days as a stowaway in a filthy crate on a boat only to learn you've got a pre-paid royal suite with a fully-stocked bar. You wouldn't appreciate the glory of the bar and golden private bath without first enduring the fear and filth. Icarus needs his wings melted before he can be of any mythic use, before then he's just a daredevil hothead. You just don't get to find that out until your wings burn, and you know Rathbone's not to blame if you never got a chance to practice your roll. Saunders tried to teach you -- but you were just too intoxicated by your newfound sense of brotherhood and belonging to go upstairs and study.

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