Command Decision (1948)

Film Title: Command DecisionCommand_Decision_1948_poster

Year: 1948

Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: War

Starring:

  • Clark Gable
  • Walter Pidgeon
  • Van Johnson
  • Brian Donlevy
  • Charles Bickford
  • John Hodiak
  • Edward Arnold

Review

While doing research for my review of Twelve O’Clock High, I kept coming across references to Command Decision as a kind of precursor to that film. Released almost exactly a year earlier, it does cover some of the same territory. Both films feature scenarios about the establishment of U.S. Army Air Force bases in England and a commitment to precision daylight bombing by B-17s flying into Germany without the use of fighter escorts. While not as good as Twelve O’Clock High, it lacks the verisimilitude and strong dramatic narrative of that film, it is well worth a viewing and features some commanding performances by an ensemble of gifted actors.

Command Decision first appeared as a best-selling 1947 novel by William Wister Haines, which was based on his 8th Air Force experiences. Clark Gable read the novel and urged MGM to acquire the rights. Haines then adapted the novel into a play, which opened on Broadway in October 1947, ran for 409 performances, and earned Tony awards for its lead Paul Kelly (who played the part that Gable would play in the film) and James Whitmore (playing the part Van Johnson would eventually assume). The film Command Decision was adapted from that play. The New Yorker noted in it’s review of the film, “Command Decision deviates very little from the stage play, so little, in fact, that it seems to be simply a photographic record of the original . . .” Theatre Arts Magazine concurred but also noted, “The only disappointment is Clark Gable, who in every way fails to match the stage performance . . . in only one scene does Gable come to life and this is the one new scene that has been written into the movie. As a commanding general talking down a plane in which only the bombardier survives, he achieves a power which indicates what many still maintain, that Gable can act.” Not having the opportunity to compare Paul Kelly and Clark Gable’s performances (the play appeared on Broadway before even I was born) I would beg to differ. I feel that Gable’s performance in this film is a highlight of his long and varied film career.

There is a short musical fanfare (the film’s music is by Miklós Rózsa) over the MGM lion, and then the credits roll over scenes of bombers in flight with only the sound of their engines as accompaniment. When the credits are over, Rózsa’s very nice score resumes in the conventional way. We are at a press briefing in the Ministry of Information, London 1943. Elmer Brockhurst (Charles Bickford), a reporter for the military press, and James Carwood (John Ridgely) sit and listen to the bad news. Heavy losses of B-17 Flying Fortresses and aviators are being incurred by Brigadier General K. C. “Casey” Dennis (Clark Gable), who commands an American bombardment division in England. As they are leaving the briefing, Carwood turns to Brockhurst, Carwood: “What’s the answer, Brockie, all guts and no brain?” Brockhurst: “No. That’s putting it too simply. Dennis is one of those boys whose brain is fascinated by guts. He loves this lousy war.”

Back at the base, Brockhurst pumps Dennis for more information, but Dennis remains tight-lipped. However, when Dennis’ superior Major General Roland Goodlow Kane (Walter Pidgeon) arrives with former classmate and career rival Brigadier General Clifton I. Garnet (Brian Donlevy), who scuttlebutt has it is there to relieve him of command, Dennis spills the beans. It seems that Dennis has proof positive that Germany has developed a jet fighter, the Lantze-Wolf 1, which, if deployed, will be stronger and faster than anything the Allies can put in the air. That day’s mission knocked out the first of three German factories manufacturing these jets. Because of a rare streak of good weather in the region, Dennis plans to knock out the second at Schweinhafen the next day (a made-up name, but say it aloud; pretty good name for an enemy city, nein?) and a third the day after that. The mission’s code name is “Operation Stitch” as in “a stitch in time saves nine”. Kane, however, is worried about the political and P.R. ramifications that are bound to be stirred up by the kinds of losses incurred. Then there’s that pesky visiting congressional committee that Kane is afraid will cut funding to the Army Air Forces, which he has spent a lifetime building up. Will Dennis prevail?

The film is talky, there’s no denying that. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? I guess it is if you’re looking for action. And unfortunately, that’s what audiences of the day must have been looking for. The film was a major financial disappointment for MGM. The setting of the film is confined to interiors except for the aforementioned scene in which Dennis attempts to talk down a badly damaged plane piloted by the crew’s bombardier (unbilled voice of Barry Nelson). And there is another brief scene between Dennis and Colonel Edward “Ted” Rayton Martin (John Hodiak), just before Ted takes off to bomb Schweinhafen, which was shot outside (at San Fernando Valley Airport in proximity to two privately-owned B-17s). The only action in the film occurs when scenes from the war documentary Target For Today, produced in 1944 by the “The War Department First Motion Picture Army Unit Air Forces”, are inter-cut into the film. At one point Bickford’s voice-over narrates a good chunk of this footage as the base prepares for the next day’s bombing raid.

Clark Gable (who actually flew five combat missions, including one to Germany, as an observer-gunner in B-17s, earning the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross) delivers a strong performance as Brigadier General Dennis. Walter Pidgeon is equally good as Dennis’ superior Major General Kane, a man who has given his life’s blood to convince the Washington D.C. effete that America’s strength lies in air power, only to be taken aback at the potential cost in human life. A scene dominated by these two about halfway through the film is a stand out. Van Johnson, although criticized by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times for his “pretty-boyish clowning as the general’s wised-up orderly” does fine as the wheeler-dealer but loyal Sgt. Immanuel T. Evans. John Hodiak as Colonel Edward “Ted” Rayton Martin lends able support. Edward Arnold turns up near the end of the film as Congressman Arthur Malcolm and gives a villainous turn to the proceedings that no actor in Hollywood could’ve done better. Cameron Mitchell (who flew as a bombardier on B-17s during the war) has a nice few moments. Marshall Thompson appears only once as Capt. George Washington Bellpepper Lee but his performance is memorable. Only Brian Donlevy (a fine actor but miscast here) does not possess the gravitas that his character needs to convince us that he can and will make the decision required of him late in the film. The production values are fine, and veteran MGM director Sam Wood ably directs the film.

On Video

The film has not been restored in any way, and the print used for this transfer exhibits some wear. It’s not terrible, but also not up to the standards of most Warner Home Video releases. The disc also contains the grisly little short Souvenirs of Death about the dangers of wartime military souvenirs back home after the war. It features a brief appearance by Barbara Billingsley (Leave It To Beaver) and a scary proclamation by J. Edgar Hoover. King-Size Canary, an amusing Tex Avery cartoon, and an original theatrical trailer for Command Decision are also included.

Conclusion

Unjustly overshadowed by the similarly themed Twelve O’Clock High released the following year, Command Decision deserves to be seen. Those looking for an action war film will be disappointed. But those who admire a tightly written script concerning military/war themes, as performed by a very good ensemble of actors at the top of their form, will be rewarded.

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