Director: Sam Wood
Writer: William Wister Haines(play), George Froeschel and William R. Laidlaw
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
Producer:Sidney Franklin and Gottfried Reinhardt
by Jon Cvack
I had grown up watching Memphis Belle (1990), as my grandfather was a B-17 nose gunner in World War II which becomes all the more impressive with each passing year and the ways in which these massive planes/works of art and ingenuity were reserved for more or less a single World War. No matter how many times I asked, my grandfather never told me about any action he saw, convincing us that by getting into the war late his missions were reserved for training runs, in which he’d have to drop his bombs over cow fields before landing.
It wasn’t until my grandfather passed and I went home for his funeral that my Marine uncle and Vietnam veteran mentioned during the eulogy how when he and my grandfather were out at my grandparent's Lakehouse in Indiana they’d discuss what they saw in their respective wars. This was saying a lot as my uncle has had two books written about his platoon and the action they saw, personally knowing the author, and even having Life Magazine take photos of the platoon for one of their Vietnam issues. I remember looking at images of men who were covered in bandages, being helped or comforted, and asking my uncle what he thought. With his charming and innocent smile, he said the war was actually kind of fun. Coming from a very good and warm hearted man, this has stuck with me ever since - I’m not sure what to make of it; either that perhaps he had no fear of death at the time and how close he came to it, or he didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t get the impression of the latter. To think this was his experience and that these stories could be shared my grandfather left me interested and a little upset that for such an important piece of family history, my non-blood related uncle would know the secrets, and at least at the time, had no intention of sharing them with me. Then again, I never asked my grandfather about the truth as an adult, figuring I already knew it, later realizing that he didn't talk about it because I couldn't possibly understand.
I had watched Memphis Belle at least once since college, but not since my grandfather passed and I started thinking about these ideas. It was that perfect kind of return, where the film is everything and more than what you remembered. It follows the story of a B-17 bomber squad on the eve of flying their 25th mission, which provides both a release from battle and statistically unlikely achievement. The figures are staggering, with at times 50% of the bombers never returning. What I remember most from that film is the tension each man had - varying from calmness amongst the captain to outright madness by one of the gunners.
When I examined the cover and read the description of Command Decision, I figured it was a bomber film per the likes of Memphis Belle; hoping for one of those cool 1940s War films that had some cool characters with attempts at big action. Instead, I discovered essentially a chamber drama, based off the novel of the same name by William Wister Haines that was then turned into a play. What’s most impressive is this wasn’t even made after, but during the war in 1943.
It follows a Brigadier General "Casey" Dennis (Clark Gable) who commands the 32nd Bomb Group who’ve recently suffered a loss of 48 bomber crews and planes - nearly fifty percent of the entire unit - during a botched mission. A pair of United News war correspondents Elmer "Brockie" Brockhurst (Charles Bickford) and James Carwood (John Ridgely) in order to cover the public relations nightmare that continues to grow, especially as General Dennis sees no problem with the losses, figuring that they’re assisting with the war effort and part of the costs of maintaining momentum against their aggressive push against the Nazis. Soon Dennis’ former West Point classmate Major General Kane (Walter Pidgeon) brings along Colonel Ted Martin (John Hodiak), sparking speculation that Kane wants to replace Dennis, especially as a congressional committee is set up to examine the high costs.
This all occurs as Casey preps his next attack on the ambitious target of Schweinhafen, where numerous airplane factories reside, though further into Germany than any other mission. Kane advises against it, with Casey defending the high risk mission as preserving their momentum and avoiding catastrophic retaliatory attacks. Casey’s role was an impressive line to cross, as Clark Gable had to drift ever so slightly between an arriviste and honorable man who seems to genuinely believe in sacrificing men for a greater cause.
A party is prepared for the men and drinks are poured when another ace pilot returns and explains that they hit the wrong target, and with the press ever-present, Martin and Kane urge Casey to revise the original mission’s intent, varying between lying about the city and the mission's purpose, then discovering they struck a U-Boat factory and thinking they could say it was in coordination with the Navy. Eventually Brockhurst (the newsman) learns of the mistake. To avoid the devastating leak they include Brockhurts in on a secret mission against a third German city.
BELOW: TNT use to play movies from 1948?
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