The Eagle and the Hawk starts light and ends very heavy. Astoundingly—and appropriately—heavy. Eagle is a WWI flying ace picture, all about a group of British fliers who go to France only to discover war isn’t like playing polo actually.
Right after an inventive segue from opening titles to the present action, the film has a very lumpy first act. Cary Grant has just landed he and Fredric March’s plane upside because he’s a bad pilot and then Jack Oakie comes along to make some jokes. Bogart Rogers and Seton I. Miller’s script is particularly rough in this section, ditto Walker’s direction. There’s also the problem Grant’s not very good and March’s character is real shallow. Oakie’s around with a shallower character, so it works out a little, but not well.
Soon enough, March and Oakie are in France—March having left Grant grounded in England—and they quickly find out people you meet die in war too, not just faceless Germans. Walker is bad at the first act comedy and noticeably better (if still not great) at the drama. A lot of the problem is the script, but then there’s also James Smith’s (uncredited) editing. Sure, Walker probably didn’t give Smith enough coverage–Eagle always feels frustratingly rushed and slightly on the cheap, particularly with the supporting cast—but there are some profoundly bad cuts in the film. It gets to the point you have to predict the jump cuts so you can follow where the actors have moved while still in the middle of the same continuous scene.
March goes through numerous observers—which ought to be a great montage sequence but Walker screws it up in an obvious way (the film ends up implying only March ever loses any observers in combat and yet gets all the medals for them dying)—until there’s no one left in France so they bring in Grant. They’ve got some unresolved hostility to work through, in addition to Grant being a sociopathic bully, but eventually March’s functional alcoholism starts getting dysfunctional and commanding officer Guy Standing has to do something about it.
That something ends up involving a Carole Lombard cameo—the public’s got to have a pretty face—and she’s great but it’s complete filler. Though it does give March another good couple scenes, including meeting bloodthirsty little ghoul kid Douglas Scott and his mother, Virginia Hammond, seemingly realizing toxic masculinity is probably bad.
At its best, Eagle and the Hawk gives March the material he needs to give an exquisite performance. It’s never quite up to snuff—the final monologue needs to be better, even if March knocks it out of the park—thanks to the script and the direction. Walker (or possibly “associate” director Mitchell Leisen) have some occasional great instincts and the sound design is always right and Harry Fischbeck comes through on the photography when tasked… but there’s only so high Eagle can fly with its various albatrosses.
Grant in particular doesn’t help. Even as he improves throughout, it’s a combination of his acting being a tad too inconsistent and Walker not knowing how to direct the film.
And Standing needs to be better if he’s going to be so earnest in his indifference to the loss of human life.
Oh, and Kenneth Howell. Howell’s the new kid whose supposed to be angelic and it’s a fail for multiple reasons, including Howell not being very good. Again, Walker’s no doubt responsible for a lot of it.
But March is good enough alone he almost makes Eagle and the Hawk worth it.