Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the Great War on Film

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I and I’m honoring the day by looking at two of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s films about the Great War.

Up until 1917, the United States had avoided joining the war that had been raging in Europe since 1914. Many Americans opposed the idea of the United States fighting a war that they believed was not theirs to fight. That is until Germany used Mexico to threaten the United States and its territory. The Zimmerman Telegram offered Mexico an alliance with Japan and Germany and in return, promised to give Mexico territory in the United States. Now the United States had no choice but to declare war on Germany and to send troops overseas. While this certainly did cause many Americans to rally around the war cause, other Americans maintained their opposition and strict isolationist views.

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Zimmermann Telegram

The movies of the era were generally in sync with public opinion, if not used to change public opinion. Leading up to the United States entry, war films depicted the horrors occurring overseas. Americans were intrigued by what was going on but maintained their isolationist view. By the time the United States was involved in the war, films began to be used as propaganda vehicles. It is often argued that Mary Pickford’s The Little American helped spur Americans into supporting the war cause. Movie stars, including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., joined the effort by promoting and selling war bonds and creating liberty bond shorts to rally the cause. However, not long after the war, movies took on a strong anti-war sentiment. As far as many were concerned, the Great War was the war to end all wars. They couldn’t even fathom a second World War let alone that it could possibly be worse.

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Fairbanks, Sr., lifts Charlie Chaplin at a Liberty Bond Rally and a young Fairbanks, Jr., looks on, 1918 (x)

The 1920s raged on with Americans living life to its fullest, if not a bit over the top, and many of the World War I movies of the decade evidenced why war was bad. Obvious examples would be The Big Parade (1925) and Wings (1927). There were a number of factors for the lifestyle that emerged in the 1920s and the effect of the Great War was certainly one of those factors. The United States had been put to the test on a global scale and had come out on top, allowing for a prosperous post-war era. Despite these things, most Americans hoped they would never see another world war, or any war for that matter. The early 1930s carried on this same sentiment until the second World War became a looming reality. Once again, war movies became vehicles for propaganda and World War I was shown as a heroic war in which the Americans triumphed over evil, particularly the German “Hun.”. The display of heroism and patriotism on the silver screen was a necessary part of preparing Americans for war, just as it had been in the 1910s.

As mentioned before, the anti-war feelings of the 1920s spilled over into the early 1930s. Only now, Americans were experiencing a depression due to out of control spending among other things. (Americans sure did love buying on credit!) Now, not only were there anti-war films, but there were musical pieces such as “Remember My Forgotten Man” from the Gold Diggers of 1933 which threw a critical gaze toward the Great Depression and the treatment of veterans. But even still, the overall tone remained somber, serious, and even critical of war.

With that in mind, I chose to look at two of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s, early 1930s movies about the Great War. Both films are examples of the anti-war sentiment that was prevalent during the era. The two films are The Dawn Patrol (1930) and Chances (1930).

Dawn Patrol (1930)

If you’ve seen The Dawn Patrol of 1938, starring Errol Flynn and David Niven, then you’ve seen The Dawn Patrol of 1930. The major difference being that the 1930 version stars Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. instead. Both films are adaptations of the short story “The Flight Commander” by John Monk Saunders. The 1930 version was directed by Howard Hawks and produced by First National Pictures while the 1938 version was directed by Edmund Goulding and produced by Warner Bros. However, the two films are nearly identical with the exact same lines in certain scenes and shared aerial footage.

 

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Barthelmess and Fairbanks

Fairbanks described the film as such: “Set in wartime France in 1915, The Dawn Patrol is the story of a squadron of British fliers with only a handful of rattletrap planes to combat the powerful German Air Corps of the day. Rarely do all the British planes return from their forays behind enemy lines, and the squadron commander begins to crack under the strain of sending young men to their death.” (The Salad Days, 157)

The Dawn Patrol was Fairbanks’ first big break and he, along with the rest of the cast, received stellar reviews. It still holds up today and is certainly worth checking out!

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Fairbanks and Barthelmess (x)

Chances (1931)

Not long after the success of The Dawn Patrol, Fairbanks was cast in another World War I film called Chances. The film is adapted from a novel by A. Hamilton Gibbs. Chances is similar to the plot of The Dawn Patrol with its anti-war message and the depiction of the psychological effect war has on soldiers. This time there is a woman involved, causing conflict between two brothers.

Fairbanks recalled the picture: “…I was advised the movie would be Chances, another Great War picture – this time with an English setting. A bittersweet romance about two brothers in love with the same woman, Chances recalled The Dawn Patrol.” (The Salad Days, 169)

In my opinion, Chances is not as good as The Dawn Patrol but it is still worth a watch if just for the way in which it depicts the war and the toll it takes on soldiers.

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Fairbanks and Rose Hobart (x)

The Dawn Patrol and Chances are just two examples of the types of anti-war films that were being released during this period. The main characters in these films are portrayed as victims of an evil war. Instead of being heroic, larger-than-life figures, they are portrayed simply as human with emotions and flaws. They lose courage and are weakened by the demands of war and the loss of life all around them. They struggle psychologically with their job requirements and are torn between country and basic self-preservation. It’s a theme that ebbs and flows throughout film history and can almost always be directly correlated to whether or not the United States is fighting a war. In modern times of seemingly perpetual war, we see a fairly steady flow of larger-than-life heroes, as can be witnessed in the rise in superhero films over the last several years. The superheroes of today may not be so easy to define as simply good vs. evil and they may even contain anti-hero qualities. But they still fulfill a need for something greater and more powerful than ourselves. Just as the characters portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in the early 1930s resonated with former soldiers and Americans who had experienced loss from the war.

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Fairbanks in ‘Chances’

A movie character who we can relate to or who helps us to see a different perspective can be empowering or inspiring, at the very least. It is through this medium that we see ourselves and learn about others. The movies not only reflect public thought and opinion, they also have the power to shape how we feel and how we think about issues. It’s hard to say whether or not the anti-war sentiment of the early 1930s was reflective of public opinion or a catalyst of public opinion, though I would argue that they are one in the same, but it is clear that it resonated with many Americans. The Dawn Patrol and Chances were both successful films that were received well by audiences and gave a much-needed boost to Fairbanks’ acting career. No matter how you slice it, or where you stand on the issue, the anti-war movement in film during the post-World War I era gave us a number of great films.

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