It may have been impossible not to romanticize World War I in the air, but John Monk Saunders did his damndest. He was the go-to-guy for air war pictures, whether original screenplays or adaptions of his prose stories, and his popularity in that role tells you something about what people thought of the Great War not so long after its end. Stuart Walker's Eagle and the Hawk is an adaptation in which Saunders himself, as far as I know, didn't participate, but inevitably his dark tone shadows the picture, and in hindsight the picture foreshadows his dark destiny. This may be the darkest of all Saunders' stories, following three American pilots, only two of whom will survive the picture. Walker uses admirable pictorial shorthand to establish the characters, using the actors' title cards to illustrate their social class. Jerry Young (Frederic March) is one of the idle rich, shown playing polo. Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) is shown supervising some construction project, which defines him as a worker and a more practical sort than Young. Mike Richards (Jack Oakie) has no obvious occupation; his characteristic moment is getting a coin-op fortune, predicting great danger, as he exits a restaurant. And sure enough, we dissolve to "Slug" in France, where he's become Jerry's best buddy. Jerry and Crocker don't get along at all. Crocker isn't a very good pilot and nearly gets both men killed when their plane ends upside down on the landing field. Crocker is relegated to the status of "observer," which means that he mans the machine gun, standing upright in the open in the rear of a two-seat plane. While he resents the seeming demotion, the work suits his ruthless attitude toward war. He commits the sort of atrocities the Germans were accused of, mowing down a helpless Hun who's bailed out of an observation balloon (in some of the footage this film borrows from Wings). That's tantamount to murder as far as Jerry's concerned, but to Crocker the point of war is to wipe out the enemy as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Jerry isn't seeing the point of the war they way he used to. Losing five observers in a matter of weeks will do that to you. And Crocker getting Slug Richards killed because he wanted to stay in the air to kill more Germans won't help, either. The breaking point comes when Jerry goes up with a rookie observer making his first flight. Of course the kid gets shot -- some rookies didn't even make it into the air because the Germans bombed their headquarters -- and of course the poor wretch plunges from the plane to a still more horrific finish when Jerry loops the loop to evade German pursuit. But the very last straw comes when Jerry actually brings down the German, learns that it's one of the top enemy aces, but only sees the face of a youth hardly older than the doomed kid who went up with him. And for that Jerry gets another medal! For that he's the toast of the base yet again, but he answers their toasts with a drunken tirade against war. Initially contemptuous, Crocker grows more concerned as he sees Jerry crack. But there's nothing he can do -- nothing to save Jerry's sanity or life, that is. Yet there's one thing he can do to save his frenemy's reputation, although that hardly matters to Jerry himself by the end.
This is a war film that ends with the hero killing himself, though technically the denouement comes when Crocker takes the corpse up for the last flight so he can blast its skull with machine-gun fire to make it appear, for whoever might care at the base or back home, that Jerry died nobly in combat. I guess that makes it a Pre-Code war film, though there are other touches that date it that way, like Slug teaching a French waitress English using A Night in a Turkish Harem as a textbook. Speaking of Jack Oakie, you've got to admire a film that slaughters its comedy-relief character, and you've got to admire Oakie for really being more of a character actor here, as he would be later in The Texas Rangers (where he also dies) and Call of the Wild. He may have been the only Thirties comic able to pull that sort of trick off. Meanwhile, its a bracing surprise to see Cary Grant, still just an up-and-comer here, playing a bloodthirsty asshole, though ultimately he's just a straight man for Frederic March's manic-depressive pyrotechnics. I like the way the screenwriters actually didn't stress the class differences among the characters illustrated in the credits, allowing you to speculate subtextually on how Jerry and Crocker's different social status may have contributed to their conflicts without forcing an explanation on you. The three lead actors in this nearly all-male picture -- Carole Lombard shows up for one scene as "The Beautiful Lady" -- bounce off each other to nice effect throughout, and their performances probably made Eagle and the Hawk worthwhile for audiences otherwise put off by its war-is-miserable message. As for John Monk Saunders, Code Enforcement led to tamer films like West Point of the Air, and before he could have his say on the next war, he hung himself.