Eagle and the Hawk, The (1933): WWI Tale, Starring Fredric March, Cary Grant, and Carole Lombard

Directed by Stuart Walker and Mitchell Leisen, and based on John Monk Saunders’ original story, The Eagle and the Hawk is one of Hollywood’s most powerful yet downbeat WWI tales.

The tale’s graver than the usual tone may be due to the fact that it was made prior to the restrictions of the 1934 Code.

The hierarchy of the casting provides commentary on the functioning of the Hollywood star system. Fredric March got star billing, and Cary Grant and Carole Lombard were listed below him, as they appeared in the movie before their careers took off and they became major stars.  Moreover, both played against type: Grant would become known as the smart, sophisticated, and suave romantic leading man, and Lombard as screwball comic heroine..  When The Eagle and the Hawk was rereleased, their names were elevated in the poster and publicity campaigns.

In World War I, American born pilots Lt. Jerry Young (Fredric March) and Lt. Mike “Slug” Richards (Jack Oakie, offering comic relief in what’s aserious and grim story) join Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and are assigned to the dangerous mission of reconnaissance over enemy lines.

During fighting, Jerry loses his air gunners until only Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) is available to fly with him. The two men had previously met and fought. Jerry’s dislike of Crocker grows after Crocker shoots a parachuting German observer who bailed out of a blimp. They eventually become friends, though Crocker begins to realize the toll that the war is taking on Jerry.

After an enemy raid on his base, commanding officer Major Dunham (Guy Standing), observing the low morale of his best pilot, orders Jerry to go to London on leave after Crocker tells him that Jerry is breaking down.

In London, Jerry has a brief affair with a young woman (Carole Lombard), before being sent back to the front. With Jerry away, Crocker flies a mission with Mike that ends with the pilot’s death because Crocker persuaded him to take another pass at the enemy. Jerry blames his friend and asks for a different air observer.

On his first mission with Jerry, new recruit Lt. John Stevens (Kenneth Howell) is shot and then falls out of the airplane during a dogfight with Voss (Robert Seiter), a famous German ace; with no parachute, Stevens falls to the ground. While shooting down Voss, Jerry sadly observes how young he is.

Stevens’ death and killing the German prove depressing to Jerry, who kills himself after attending a drinking party honoring his heroism. Crocker then loads Jerry’s body into an aircraft and stages an act that would make it appear as if Jerry had died in combat.

Crocker succeeds in maintaining Jerry’s reputation, and the story ends by showing the latter’s heroic epitaph.