Only Angels Have Wings

(Howard Hawks, USA, 1939)


Somewhere in the remote wilds of South America, fearless men go on reckless air missions, braving storms and mountains to deliver mail and medical supplies. Back at the base their boss, Geoff (Cary Grant), stands in the darkness, barking radio commands through the thick fog. Coming in on a wing and a prayer, some of these flyers will die instantly – but the work of the team will go on regardless. Such is the hard-bitten, tough-guy poetry of Howard Hawks’ classic Only Angels Have Wings.

I cannot watch a Hawks movie nowadays without undergoing an acute identity crisis. It is virtually a tenet of faith among true film buffs that one must love his films, just as one loves those of Renoir, Welles, Dreyer or Buster Keaton. What cinephiles down the decades have praised in Hawks’ work – the perfect simplicity of style, the ability to move in a moment from comedy to drama and back, the understated pathos – is all there in Only Angels Have Wings, and quite movingly so.

But there are other aspects of the film which cannot be so easily mystified. The extent of its casual racism is truly appalling. Even more pervasively, Hawks’ portrait of ideal masculinity is so stoic, so resistant to feminine displays of emotion, that today it seems sick, pathological. Hawks devotees hold up the spirited heroine (Jean Arthur) and the justly famous close-up of Geoff’s tears as a contrary argument, but they are only token inclusions.

The romance of men at work is what Hawks is really on about in Only Angels Have Wings – and like it or not, that is the wellspring of his great art.

MORE Hawks: The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

© Adrian Martin July 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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