Once in a while I see a movie I love that I hesitate to write about, for fear of just gushing away and not expressing anything. I feel nervous in approaching THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK for that reason.
The film is credited primarily to Stuart Walker (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) but there seems to be firm agreement that the real man at the helm was Mitchell Leisen: “I stuck Stuart in the sound booth again and he didn’t say a word through the whole picture,” says Leisen in David Chierichetti’s definitve study of his work, Hollywood Director. And Chierichetti is able to enlist Fredric March, the film’s star, to back this up.
This movie was my second encounter with the writer John Monk Saunders, whose script for THE LAST FLIGHT impressed me so much. No, I tell alie, my third encounter, since I’m a big fan of WINGS. Again the subject is WWI fliers, and here we actually deal with the war, as in WINGS, rather than its aftermath, as in THE LAST FLIGHT. There’s still plenty of drinking going on though. Saunders seems to have a unique handle on self-destructive behaviour among the biplane set — and he lived the life offscreen too.
But while THE LAST FLIGHT has an impressively varied range of antique acting styles which make it seem intriguingly like a film from another planet, THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK features early work from notable screen stars working in a recognisably modern style. Fredric March is the titular eagle, a high-born American who enlists in the RAF for sport at the outbreak of war (the American Air Force didn’t manage to get a single plane in the air during WWI, but that didn’t stop lots of young Americans joining up overseas and getting their wings). Cary Grant is the hawk, a tough guy who rejects the fliers’ code of chivalry and fights war to win. His stance is unsympathetic in the movie, but it’s clear that he’s not exactly wrong, either: humanity is a tenuous proposition in wartime, chivalry an absurd, even grotesque one.
Fiona wonders why nobody seems to talk about March these days. He’s like the male Miriam Hopkins.
The film interweaves two narratives, the first being March’s slow destruction, which basically lasts the length of the film. He starts off hale and hearty, with that very Fredric March ebullience that some people find hard to take. He give it his all, and he has a lot of all to give. But he’s slowly broken by the deaths of his colleagues, and of the men he shoots down. One of the striking things about the film, which goes way beyond traditional Hollywood anti-war posturing, is how it makes no distinction between the deaths of comrades and enemies. Each one diminishes March.
“You don’t drink enough,” advises comedy relief buddy Jack Oakie to his sodden friend. “I can’t drink enough,” replies March.
Parallel with this decline and fall is Cary Grant’s troubled relationship with March. It’s very much a love story, only Grant also hates March. His final act for his friend is both tender and protective, and a profound betrayal. I don’t want to give away too much here, which is another problem I have when I see an obscure film I love — steering people towards it without spoiling it.
IMDb commentators point out that Grant hasn’t quite found his style yet, but that’s beside the point. He’s found a style that perfectly suits this movie, and he’s lost the stiffness I see in BLONDE VENUS and his Mae West movies. His neck doesn’t seem like a rigid column of bone here, which is a relief. Despite the flying story, this isn’t even the Grant of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, it’s a whole different Grant, marking the precise spot where he became a fluent screen actor, but had not yet adopted the star persona he was to triumph with.
Also in the cast is Carole Lombard, for about ten minutes. Censors cut the line “Your place or mine?” when the film was re-released during WWII, since the pre-code spice welcomed during the film’s first release had become verboten, and we also lost an entire post-coital moment, with March awakening to find a flower lying in the indentation of her pillow. Leisen welcomed the movie’s revival, although “I was sure I was going to be arrested,” since the film was so anti-war, but he didn’t realise until later that the studio had made further cuts to weaken the film’s message. It’s to be deplored that the original ending is now apparently lost, but I found that the film was still savagely and unambiguously anti-war, and carries its argument all the way to a surprisingly bleak conclusion. I can’t think of another film before the ’60s that goes as far as this one. It’s an even more negative view of warfare than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.
Visually, the film is one of the darkest I’ve seen from this era, which suits the story well. Leisen filmed a long conversation between March and his commander (Sir Guy Standing, chummy yet distant) at dusk, allowing the actors to walk through pools of light into complete silhouette. Cary Grant plays some scenes smothered in shadow, only his forehead and nose looming from the night.
Leisen is here really at the very outset of his directing career — officially, he’s not even a director yet — but he brings eloquent style to the story. This is something his critics miss — and there’s a homophobic subtext to Billy Wilder and Cameron Crowe dismissing him as a set designer who made pictures –Leisen’s stylistic tropes are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, they become the very essence of expressive film narrative. And Leisen always had a sharp interest in capturing reality: he just had the ability to hold it back when it didn’t suit the project. And if the script lacked dramatic values, Leisen would step into the breach and decorate with bravura flourishes, and people would point and say he was a shallow aesthete.
Leisen’s sexuality is certainly relevant to his work. Regular Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein talks about the distinction between Queer Cinema and older films made by queer directors, which are of necessity somewhat closeted, even when their makers were not. Leisen comes closer that most to blurring that line. In this film, not only are the young recruits astonishingly androgynous and beautiful, but death itself is eroticized in male form:
After Stuart Walker basically stole the directing credit on this movie, Leisen retaliated by stealing Walker’s next two projects, one of which was DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, again with March. This got his directing career off to a strong start, but really it had already begun. Leisen’s career ran from his designing days in silent cinema (THIEF OF BAGDAD) to television work (The Twilight Zone) and yet its duration and its quality is not reflected in its reputation.
Everybody try and see this one, please. I’d place it in my alternative Shadowplay history of the cinema as a great film from the 30s that isn’t sufficiently appreciated. The Leisen rediscovery is moving forward slowly. Time also for a Saunders rediscovery (since writers don’t get enough credit in cinema).