Every Face In A Few Seconds

The Dawn Patrol’s Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Errol Flynn

The Dawn Patrol’s Co-stars 1938

“Oh, it does look a ripping good yarn!”

As we sit down to watch the 1938 Warner Brothers remake of the, The Dawn Patrol, directed by Edmund Goulding, we are near to clicking play. First though the DVD commands and of course Errol Flynn, his eyes watching slightly skyward…click…and the musical score and opening credits begin to roll.

My interest today is in The Dawn Patrol’s co-stars, Basil Rathbone as Major Brand and David Niven as Captain Scott.  In this feature length film about a Royal Flying Corps fighter squadron in 1915 we watch the initial dogfight with a wide-eyed Errol blazing through the skies. The camera then takes us to the hangers of 59 Squadron where the ground crew works their marvels in order to keep the kites aloft. Though I notice that the cloth insignia is not quite right, the wings, rank and shoulder titles seemingly too large, the film’s discussion of fatigue and expectations in battle becomes all the more real when we learn more about Rathbone and Niven – not their characters but their own experiences.

In one early scene Flynn as Captain Courtney says, “Yes that’s right… I was responsible for those two men. We ran into that Heine nest on purpose.  We sent the Huns an engraved invitation to come over and meet us.”

“Yes” interjects Rathbone, Flynn continues, “We were outnumbered and forced to fly low. We had to fight our way out.” Rathbone responds, “Alright suppose you did. You could have been more cautious.”

As Rathbone turns his back to Flynn, Flynn counters, “Cautious? You don’t think that I enjoyed losing those boys do you? Getting them burnt up…scattered all over France. Sending them up in crates that should have been on the scrap heap months ago.” Rathbone turns to Flynn with fire in his eyes, but for this viewer the earlier moments of Rathbone with his back to Flynn are all telling. On Rathbone’s tunic the ribbon of the Military Cross.  The clicker allows us to watch this scene over again and once again I watch Rathbones’s face as it reacts to each of Flynn’s words.

For Basil Rathbone was more than a film star he was a Great War officer in the 2nd Liverpool Scottish, a soldier entitled to that Military Cross. The words that Flynn spoke are close to home, close enough for Rathbone to remember every face in a few seconds.

Lt. Phillip St. John Basil Rathbone, L’pool R.
Citation for the award of the Military Cross
Supplement to the London Gazette, November 5, 1918, page 13166

“For conspicuous daring and resource on patrol.  On one occasion, while inside the hostile wire, he came face to face with one of the enemy, whom he at once shot. This raised the alarm, and an intense fire was opened, but he crept through the entanglements with his three men and got safely back. The result of his patrolling was a thorough knowledge of the locality and strength of all enemy posts in the vicinity.”

The Dawn Patrol is a ripping good yarn, but with many truths within each scene. However, where there are rips there are scars, and with David Niven we can also learn of his Great War, his Gallipoli. David Niven was too young to have served in the Great War, but his war was one that many children knew and one we seldom hear of. In his memoir “The Moon’s a Balloon”, David Niven tells us about his father, Lieutenant William Edward Graham Niven, age 37, of the Berkshire Yeomanry.

“… my father, along with 90 percent of his comrades in the Berkshire Yeomanry, had landed with immense panache at Suvla Bay in 1915…. The troops embarked in the ship’s whalers and on arrival held their rifles above heads and gallantly leaped into the dark waist-high water. A combination of barbed wire beneath the surface and machine–guns to cover the barbed wire provided a devastating welcome…

… my sister … and I were swapping cigarette cards on an old tree trunk in the paddock when a red-eyed maid came and told us our mother wanted to see us and that we were not to stay too long… after a rather incoherent interview with my mother, who displayed a telegram and tried to explain what “missing” meant, we returned to the swapping of cigarette cards and resumed our perusal of endless trains lumbering along a distant embankment loaded with guns and cheering young men … ”

W.E.G. Niven’s marker at Green Hill Cemtery, Gallipoli.

Did you know?

The original 1930 Dawn Patrol film starred Neil Hamilton, Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Directed by Howard Hawks the film won an academy award for Best Story written by John Monk Saunders. Much of the flying footage from the original film was used again in the 1938 production.

Basil Rathbone’s use of camouflage during the Great War, once disguising himself as a tree, was helpful to him in his famed role as the great detective Sherlock Holmes.

On June 4, 1916 Basil Rathbone’s brother, Captain John E.V. Rathbone, attached to the 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, was killed and is buried at Berles New Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. He was 20 years of age.

David Niven served as an officer with the 2nd Highland Light infantry prior to the Second World War and served in Malta. During WWII he rejoined the British Army and served with a signals unit called Phantom serving in France shortly after D-Day. His unit was responsible for locating and reporting enemy positions.

One other line from The Dawn Patrol’s Major Brand, our Basil Rathbone, continues to remain with the writer. In discussing the writing of a letter home to the next of kin of a fallen flyer Rathbone says in summation, “No matter how you write it – it will break her heart all the same.”

Special Thanks

To Roger Chapman of Peter Hart Battlefield Tours for telling the story of David Niven’s father at Green Hill Cemetery, Gallipoli, June 2012.

About The Author

Paul has worked with the Paradigm Motion Picture Company since 2009 as producer, historian and research specialist. Paul first met Casey and Ian WIlliams of Paradigm in April 2007 at Ieper (Ypres), Belgium when ceremonies were being held for the re-dedication of the Vimy Memorial, France. Paul's sensitivity to film was developed at an early age seeing his first films at RCAF Zweibrucken, Germany and in Sardinia. Paul returned to Canada in 1967 and was further amazed by David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Bridge on the River Kwai". Film captivated Paul and with time he became increasingly interested in storytelling, content development, character, direction, cinematography and soundtracks. At the University of Victoria, Paul studied and compared Japanese and Australian film and became interested in Australian film maker Peter Weir and his film "Gallipoli" (1981). Paul was entranced when he learned Weir had visited the beaches, ridges and ravines of the peninsula. The film "Gallipoli" alone led Paul on many journeys to sites of conflict in England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Malta, Hawaii, Gallipoli and Salonika. It was, however, when Paul watched documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, "The Civil War", that Paul understood how his own experience and insight could be effective and perhaps influential in film-making. Combining his knowledge of Museums and Archives, exhibitions and idea strategies with his film interests would be a natural progression. Paul thinks like a film-maker. His passion for history and storytelling brings to Paradigm an eye (and ear) to the keen and sensitive interests of; content development, the understanding of successful and relational use of collections, imagery and voice. Like Paul's favorite actor, Peter O'Toole, he believes in the adage “To deepen not broaden.” While on this path Paul always remembers his grandmother whose father did not return from the Great War and how his loss shaped her life and how her experience continues to guide him.


One Response to “Every Face In A Few Seconds”

  1. pferguson says:

    The marker belonging to William Edward Graham Niven is one of several special memorials at Green Hill Cemetery. These memorials commemorate individuals known or believed to be buried within the cemetery.

    W.E.G. Graham was the son of William and Helen Niven (nee Boustead) and was married to Henrietta Julia Niven (nee Degacher).The couple had four children: two sons, David and Max and two daughters, Joyce and Grizel.

Leave a Reply