June 12, 2019

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Mitchell Leisen
Stars: Fredric March, Cary Grant, Jack Oakie

What it's about. A World War I aviation drama set in France. Fredric March is a war-weary Allied pilot who blames himself for the dogfight deaths of fellow officers, even those wearing a German uniform. Cary Grant is his gunner. The two are odds, since grim Grant lacks the guilt that plagues March. But, secretly, Grant admires March, and acts to supplant his heroism.

Jack Oakie serves as the comic relief. Carole Lombard is the love interest. Kenneth Howell is the dashing and idealistic young recruit destined to snuff it on his first mission. But mostly it is about March and Grant, and their gloomy frenemy relationship.

How others will see it. The plot will ring bells for those who have seen their share of classic Hollywood war movies. The Eagle and the Hawk stands out only because of March's formidable thespian talents. It also provides an early role for legendary actor Cary Grant, and a small but engaging romantic role for Carole Lombard, both principally known today for lighter fare.

The movie was ignored by the Academy Awards, desite generally glowing reviews. The film doesn't appear to have been a commercial success, and today at imdb.com has a scant total of 886 user votes. The user ratings are fairly high at 7.1 out of 10, and are consistent across all genres. The user reviews are positive, with March singled out for praise. Viewers speculate as to why Lombard is even in the movie, though the answer is obvious: so her name could be used in posters and other promotional materials, to entice women to see a film not made for them.

How I felt about it. As noted earlier, the story of The Eagle and the Hawk is likely familiar to classic movie fans. In the 1930s alone, it was made as Hell's Angels (1930), Flight Commander (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1938), and other movies I haven't seen (The Lost Squadron (1932), The Last Flight (1931)). The story is better known via Twelve O'Clock High (1949), which changes the setting from the first World War to the second.

Generally, the quality of these movies declines with each pseudo-remake. Thus, Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels is best, Howard Hawks' Flight Commander is a close second, The Dawn Patrol is a distant third, and Twelve O'Clock High is dead last. Within this short list, The Eagle and the Hawk is about tied with Flight Commander, though it is significantly better than it should be.

That is, it is a good movie, but not so much due to the hammy directing, ostensibly by Stuart Walker but generally credited to second director Mitchell Leisen. The Eagle and the Hawk is indeed worth watching, solely due to an outstanding performance by Fredric March. Along with second lead Cary Grant, he saves the film. He probably would have received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, had he not won the coveted trophy two years before for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

March's angst is well delivered, but would have been an embarrassment had the role been given to an actor of lesser ability. March even feels guilty about shooting down a German pilot who had been single-handedly decimating the Royal Air Force. Of course, neither March nor Grant are to blame for the slaughter, which rests almost entirely on the politicians who disgracefully led their nations into war.

Beyond the compelling acting of March and Grant, we must endure their trading pulled punches that knock them down or out, Jack Oakie's out-of-place comic mugging, Carole Lombard's brief appearance as a glamorous woman who absolutely must neck with a bonafide war hero, and Guy Standing as the kindly old man who assigns the high-risk missions and doles out medals to the survivors.