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‘A Man’s World’: Masculinity and the First World War Ace in Interwar Film

Abby Whitlock | University of Edinburgh

Regardless of your familiarity with specific films, a particular image of the First World War flying ace comes to mind: an often young, upper, or upper-middle-class, athletic officer donning a leather jacket, white scarf, and flying helmet. This cultural focus on the flying ace’s physical appearance and personality is often accompanied, if not overshadowed, by captivating images of drinking, parties, and leisure amongst Royal Flying Corps (RFC) ​​​​scout pilots, who piloted the single-seat strategic reconnaissance aircraft. This image, now a stereotype, is centred around several core elements: group culture; attraction, sexuality and romance; recklessness and danger; and bravery, emotion, and trauma. These core elements create a ‘man’s world’: an environment created by men, for men, and primarily showing men. The flying ace was exciting, marketable, easily recognizable in films, and could be applied to a variety of characters.

This article will examine these three core elements of the flying ace’s world, both in regard to realistic pilots’ experiences and their depictions on film and how these are portrayed in two of the most famous First World War aviation films of the interwar period: Hells Angels (1930) and The Dawn Patrol (1938). These core elements were inspirational, intriguing, and familiar to the average man as masculine ideals but, as presented in the films, weren’t wholly achievable. The flying ace’s masculine ideals incorporated athleticism, bravery, intelligence, and sex appeal, but were closely tied to the scout pilot’s profession, which not every man could do. By presenting ideals that were familiar but still out of reach to a significant portion of the audience, filmmakers sought characters that men could only aspire to be like, and women would find attractive, to make their films marketable. As such, this created a battle between realism, sensationalism, and romanticism about content that initially had a realistic and ‘historical’ (albeit recent, in the interwar years) nature. Experimentation in the exact levels of realism, sensationalism, and romanticism was seen as a possible ‘formula’ to achieve success.

The first element of this ‘man’s world’ is group culture. Group culture is key, as it is a parameter for measuring the level of cohesiveness, or, at least tolerance, within a squadron and is an opportunity to showcase the personalities within a squadron as a spectrum of the flying ace stereotype. While it was recognized that human relationships and bonding were essential for emotional and moral survival and squadron efficiency, opinions were split on how genuine these relationships were. Personal correspondence and memoirs alike focus on friendships made during the war, with pilot Cecil Lewis describing it as an ‘easy camaraderie with men whose uniform seemed to have robbed them of all other status’. Others, like pilot Arthur Gould Lee, argued that such camaraderie was an artificial form of self-preservation in the face of violence, and was ‘no infallible sphere for strong, enduring friendships’. Squadron life was fractured and prone to spats and rifts. Personalities were different, as were backgrounds. Bonding, friendship, and a sense of belonging was an individual experience rather than a generalised, shared one, despite the desire on the part of commanding officers to foster a sense of camaraderie. The primarily exuberant, collective atmosphere within squadrons on film is perhaps more cohesive than we can see in the recollections of pilots. Disagreements, however deep, allow for tasteful conflict and humour to drive conflict in the plot rather than violence. Like real-life squadrons, the mess hall and ante-room are the central spaces for group culture, particularly due to their dedicated use for leisure, and serve as the primary location for key moments of exposition.

The portrayal of attraction, sexuality, and romance is one that varies the most between depictions. Not all of the films contain these elements, however, in those that do, it is typically one of the most central or critical themes. The pilot is seen as a sort of sex symbol, irresistible to women and an idol for men. Romance and sexuality are seen as an essential part of the ‘man’s world’, with experiences serving as a common topic of conversation amongst characters and a rite of passage for youth to enter manhood. Perhaps the frankest look is Philip Arnall’s (pseudonym for Oliver Stewart) Portrait of an Airman (1932), whose main character Stephen frequently indulges in intercourse - of a steadily more sordid and mercenary kind - with any girl who presented herself, hurrying away almost immediately afterwards. Many of Stephen’s connections with other men revolve around their perceptions of and experiences with women, with Stephen feeling a sense of morbid superiority due to his reckless flings and battles with venereal disease. In the case of films such as 1927’s Wings, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, some critics also interpret extreme bonding between pilots as bordering on homosexuality, a transition from platonic to romantic adoration under the pressure of combat.

The (in)famous kiss scene from Wings (1927) between David (Richard Arlen) and Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers), two friends vying for the same girl in their small town. Sexuality and nudity is intertwined with both the film’s production and plot, ultimately being one of the first widely released films to show nudity (brief by today’s standards). It is Arlen and Rogers’ kiss scene, however, that has received the most attention, with the common interpretation as being the first romantic male-male kiss. (Paramount Pictures)

In a similar vein to sexuality, elements of recklessness and danger are primarily incorporated in order to 'shock' audiences and maintain their attention by generating a sense of excitement. For pilots, recklessness and danger was inseparable from the RFC experience and was the defining feature of their identity as a pilot. Individuals had their own perceptions of aerial fighting, including association with game, sport, or hunting. Lieutenant Arthur Rhys Davids referred to aerial fighting as ‘the best game God ever created’. ‘Sporting proclivities’, as Captain T.S. Rippon called them, helped a pilot operate in dangerous situations. Recklessness and danger, seen through combat scenes and leisure activities, walked a fine line to show the connection between the personalities ‘attracted’ to the RFC and the duties required. The particular ‘brand’ of recklessness and danger came from the profession of flying itself and signifies what set apart the ace from other ‘hero’ types, like the soldier.

However, putting explicit violence and death at the periphery and instead focusing on danger highlights a sense of bravery and thrill without showing themes that were ‘off-putting’ to the audience, and that were heavily restricted on screen due to censorship laws. This emphasised the skills making up the RFC. Such skills not only kept pilots alive but also helped define the flying ace as its own emerging identity and profession separate from that of the infantry or navy. Many early films tended to highlight riotous behaviour and sexuality, rather than focus on the profession itself, which is presented as just enough on the periphery to invoke a romantic, sanitised view of aerial fighting and an air of mysteriousness, an ‘idealised’ aesthetic rather than a reality.

In these films, emotional and mental stability presents itself most clearly as a focused exploration of the human condition under the strains of war. Here, it is tapping into the ‘masculine ideal’ present during the war itself, in which cowardice and open emotional instability concerning trauma, death, and abrupt change were detrimental to oneself, friends, and squadron efficiency. The ideal was the Victorian and Edwardian values of emotional detachment, repression, or positivity. From the pilots’ point-of-view, the stress of aerial warfare, violence, and heavy casualties took a toll, but such Victorian ideals weighed heavily on them, also influencing expectations from medical and psychiatric professionals, as well as commanding officers, on how to manage such trauma. Sholto Douglas stated that all pilots were expected to ‘push personal feelings and emotions caused by casualties into the back of our minds’.

There was pressure to prioritise the masculine ideal over the reality of how pilots actually felt. Primarily, there was concern over how one’s friends and comrades would perceive them. Here, film representations most closely match the complex attitudes towards emotional and mental health. Like pilots’ reflections, humour, mental health struggles, grief, and trauma are common throughout most depictions, with varying perceptions and attitudes towards characters not meeting the ‘ideal’, ranging from disdain and critique, to annoyance, indifference, or sympathy.

So, what do these elements look like in two of the classic First World War aviation films: Hell’s Angels (1930) and The Dawn Patrol (1938)?

Hell’s Angels (1930, dir. Howard Hughes), Flight Commander (originally released as The Dawn Patrol in 1930, dir. Howard Hawks), and The Dawn Patrol (1938, dir. Edmund Goulding) are considered classics of both the First World War aviation sub-genre of film and the Golden Age of Hollywood. The 1938 version of The Dawn Patrol, starring Errol Flynn, will be focused on here rather than Flight Commander due to the identical plots, and the popularity of the 1938 version. (Left: United Artists. Middle: First National Pictures/Warner Bros. Right: Warner Bros.)

Considered to be one of the first ‘classics’ of the sub-genre, Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels shows the clearest engagement with all of the core elements of the ‘man’s world’. The flying and combat scenes, though technically revolutionary and praised for their realism, are not central features driving a majority of the plot. Instead, the story of the two brothers, Roy and Monte, focuses on individuals with two different personalities, each trying to successfully operate in a ‘man’s world’. Monte, the reckless womaniser, and Roy, who is referred to as ‘straightlaced’. As seen through these provocative promotional materials (which top bill Jean Harlow!) Hell's Angels pre-Code status (before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines) allowed for sexuality and romance to serve as a central part of the plot.

Harlow’s character is a dominant one, both in regards to her treatment of the two male leads and her female presence and sex appeal, which influenced everything from dialogue (the often quoted ‘Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?’), marketing for the film (as seen below in the pressbook and marketing plans), and editing and post-production choices (Harlow’s character is the centrepiece of the one full-screen, full-colour sequence of the film, the only colour footage from her career). Building off the love triangle trope, Jean Harlow’s Helen brings tension between the otherwise close Roy and Monte. Promiscuity, though exciting and distracting (even for Roy, who ‘falls’ from being straightlaced due to a declining emotional state), brings danger and ultimately ends the relationship between the two brothers. After being shot down, their fates are in the hands of a German officer, who Roy duelled earlier in the film on behalf of Monte after his brother slept with the officer’s wife. Even in the realm of combat, the danger of sexuality and romance intertwines with the inherent danger of the RFC profession to further test the characters of the ‘man’s world’. Regardless, it doesn’t deter characters from pursuing the lifestyle until it ultimately ends their lives.

A pressbook and two promotional stills for the film. Sexuality features prominently in the promotional materials for Hell’s Angels. Lobby Cards and promotional stills often featured possessive, passionate exchanges between Helen (Jean Harlow) and Monte (Ben Lyon) or her situated between Monte and Roy (James Hall), a direct reference to the love triangle central to the plot. In an overly sensationalised plot summary, the pressbook for the film (left) wrote under similar images of Harlow, Lyon, and Hall that ‘amazing and unconventional love scenes are depicted for the first time with unvarnished realism’. (United Artists/Abby Whitlock)

Flight Commander (1930) and The Dawn Patrol (1938) provide an interesting take on the ‘man’s world’, a direct contrast to that presented in Hell’s Angels. The two films share an identical plot, with Flight Commander renamed from The Dawn Patrol after the 1938 version was released. This ‘man’s world’ doesn’t include the focus on women (there are no female characters at all, and women are only referred to in passing). Instead, there is a focus on the role of emotion within the pilot’s realm, where being a pilot is a profession rather than a lifestyle. Like Hell’s Angels, The Dawn Patrol explores the nature of friendship and emotional survival during wartime, exploring the highs and lows and fragile nature of human relationships in the face of extreme violence and loss. Unlike Hell’s Angels, the daily stress experienced by pilots, amplified with the added responsibility and authority of being a flight commander, manifests as the primary source of tension between Scott and Courtney, two best friends and members of A Flight, 59 Squadron. ​​​​Their friendship becomes strained after Courtney takes command of the squadron, his exuberant, empathetic nature replaced by the stoicism and coldness required of the flight commander’s role. With Courtney becoming the type both previously despised, as he fulfils his duties and casualties rise, Scott withdraws from his best friend. This ultimately leads to Courtney’s declining mental state and death seeing Scott’s struggle and isolation. The focus on the job brings attention back to the core, common, undisputable factor determining the shared identity of the pilot regardless of their background. Director Edmund Goulding explores the balance between the preservation of an ideal self-image while simultaneously upholding duties. Many show a sole focus on the profession, as the characters are looking at the ‘fruits’ of their labours with a mix of fear, pain, and awe; interestingly enough, there is a common thread of showing British casualties. This pacifist, doomed fatalist approach was particularly successful with a 1930s audience (particularly the 1938 version) given the still relatively fresh pain of 1914-1918 and the looming threat of another world war, which allowed the audience to see elements of their own worries and issues with the characters, albeit in a different environment.

A poster and still from The Dawn Patrol. The film focuses heavily on the relationships between pilots during wartime and the toll it takes on their emotional and mental state. Particular focus is given to the friendship between Courtney (Errol Flynn) and Scott (David Niven). (Warner Bros./Abby Whitlock)

The ‘man’s world’ films like Hell’s Angels and The Dawn Patrol present a complex combination of realism, sensationalism, and romanticism, embodying select views of the wartime years and the interwar era. Ultimately, these films reflect the cultural context of their respective time periods of production. There is an added layer of distance and an outside perspective on top of the already predominant influence of the external perspectives of pilots shaped by the wartime media, high-ranking personnel, civilians, and the pilots themselves. Their depictions of the flying ace are reflective of the role masculine ideals played in influencing the marketability of films about war. Regardless of the ‘level’ of stereotype, these representations present the atmosphere of the First World War and the profession of flying as one that was violent, dangerous, and, most of all, taxing.


Further Reading:

  • Hammond, Michael. The Great War in Hollywood Memory, 1918-1939 (Albany: SUNY Press, 2019)

  • Pendo, Stephen. Aviation in the Cinema (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1985)

  • John H. Morrow Jr., ‘Knights of the Sky: Rise of Military Aviation’, in Authority, Identity and the Social History of the Great War, ed. by Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin Coetzee (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995), pp. 305-325.

  • Robertson, Linda R. The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I Flying Aces and the American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

Abby Whitlock is an early career researcher and historian primarily focusing on British and German aviation during the First World War. She has extensive research and programming experience related to aviation and combat medicine during both World Wars, the Victorian Era, and British imperialism. Her College of William and Mary undergraduate honours thesis ‘A Return to Camelot?: British Identity, The Masculine Ideal, and the Romanticization of the Royal Flying Corps Image’ focused on the factors contributing to the masculine ideal of the flying ace for media and official use during the First World War. Her University of Edinburgh Masters dissertation, ‘“It’s a rum life”: Physical Space, Group Dynamics, and Morale Amongst Royal Flying Corps Scout Pilots, 1914-1918’, explored how the infant nature of aviation during the First World War allowed for the maintenance of hegemonic masculine ideals through the creation of physical spaces on aerodromes. Her work is cross-disciplinary with History, English, Psychology, and Sociology. She’s presented a variety of lectures and presentations at the Royal Air Force Museum exploring a range of Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force topics.


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