Set during World War II, Air Force Division Commander General K. C. "Casey" Dennis (Clark Gable) is confident of the necessity of daylight precision bombing. Nevertheless, when he orders two missions which result in enormous losses of planes and men and the mistaken bombing of a German town, his superior, General Roland Kane (Walter Pidgeon), must step in and evaluate the effectiveness of the controversial tactics. Pressures from a congressional committee complicate Kane' s decisions.

World War II and the period shortly afterwards saw a number of films that extolled bravery and heroism in combat while presenting war itself to be, if not attractive, at least an exciting, patriotic activity. COMMAND DECISION belongs with a different group of war films, however -- one including William Wellman's BATTLEGROUND (1949) and Henry King' s TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (1949) -- that deglamorizes war in favor of an appraisal of the effects it has on the human spirit. COMMAND DECISION had been a novel, then a successful play (still running on Broadway while the movie was in production), with Paul Kelly as General Dennis. The screenplay follows the stage play closely, adding only a few outdoor scenes. Sam Wood directed mainly routine films in his long career; but now and then he proved himself with creditable projects such as two of the Marx Brothers comedies, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) and A DAY AT THE RACES (1937), GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1939), parts of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), and FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1943). In COMMAND DECISION he handles his materials competently and unobtrusively, but because his direction rarely adds to the immediacy of the drama, the film's strength rests in an intelligent script and some first-rate performances.

The "command decision" is the decision to destroy, with daylight, precision bombing, German production of a new jet fighter. The first and second missions, deep into Germany, result in the loss of some hundred planes and a thousand men dead or missing. The division commander General K. C. "Casey" Dennis (Clark Gable), fights hard to defend his action against his superior, General Roland Kane (Walter Pidgeon), who knows that such prohibitive losses could cause the Air Force to abandon daylight bombing. Then the mission leader, Colonel Edward Martin (John Hodiak), reveals that the second mission has missed the target, Schweinhafen, and destroyed instead a town which looks almost identical to it from the air. Although a Congressional committee appears at the base, Dennis convinces Kane to let the bombers return to Schweinhafen, with the consequent loss of another fifty planes and their crews. Dennis' determination to order the final mission, along with pressure from one of the Congressmen, forces Kane to replace him with General Clifton Garnet (Brian Donlevy). Garnet, however, appreciating the importance of that final mission, orders it himself.

COMMAND DECISION explores the responsibilities of a man battling, in addition to the Germans, a formidable amount of obstruction from both above and outside. Dennis has set into action a well-planned maneuver, Operation Stitch (for "stitch in time"), against the three centers manufacturing parts for the jet fighter. Dennis' heavy losses have already drawn pointed criticism from the war correspondent Elmer Brockhurst (Charles Bickford), who arrives at the base with Kane and Garnet. Although Kane completely approves of Stitch, he is distressed that Dennis has chosen to implement it now, because of a four-day break in the weather. Kane must contend with the reactions of the Combined Chiefs of Staff and also the Appropriations Committee in Congress, soon to be allocating monies to the various services. Stitch entails the continued heavy losses of men and planes at a time when the importance of precision bombing, or of air supremacy, for that matter, generally has not been recognized. Then, too, Kane has a group of influential Congressmen under foot. In his commitment to Stitch, Dennis shows himself indifferent, almost insensitive, to the problems of public relations. With the Congressmen at the base and the news of the group's bombing the wrong target only a few hours old, Dennis unabashedly uses blackmail to get the division back to Schweinhafen. Captain Incius Malcolm Jenks (Michael Steele), a much-publicized flying ace and the nephew of one of the Congressmen, Representative Arthur Malcolm (Edward Arnold), is to receive yet another decoration; but Dennis threatens to charge Jenks with desertion in the face of the enemy for refusing to fly the morning's mission, adding that the young man's problem results from too much publicity. Kane, after much haggling with Dennis, finally capitulates.

Dennis' major antagonist becomes Congressman Malcolm. A blustering, meddling politico, Malcolm openly criticizes Dennis' tactics, making slight effort to comprehend why Dennis has had to sacrifice so many men and planes. Malcolm's ill-informed tirades embarrass even his colleagues; nevertheless, he is an important member of Congress and must be mollified. With considerable effort Dennis manages to keep his temper (largely) in bounds when Malcolm incredulously asks if he ordered the bombers into Germany, beyond fighter protection, on his own initiative. Then Kane, who has backed Dennis, can no longer do so after Dennis' blunt exchange with Malcolm shortly afterwards. While the division proceeds back to Schweinhafen, word comes of a new son for Colonel Martin, a close friend of Dennis and leader of the attack. Dennis, however, receives the message that Martin's plane has gone down in flames; Malcolm begins a noisy, tasteless commentary on Martin's death, and Dennis angrily tells him to shut up several times, then stalks out of the room to plan the last phase of Stitch. Kane believing Dennis now beyond reach, orders him back to the United States.

Dennis often seems a hardened man concerned almost exclusively with the results of his tactics, and thus little with their costs. Normally taciturn, he delivers to Kane and some others a spirited, carefully reasoned dissertation on air supremacy, citing the example of the Luftwaffe as the shaping force in the German war machine. Another dimension of Dennis appears, however, as he gently nurtures a scared but nevertheless resolute bombardier at the controls of a damaged Flying Fortress whose pilot is dead and copilot gravely wounded. While Dennis barks at him to stay off the brakes, the plane crashes and explodes; Dennis stands silently with the dead microphone, visibly dismayed and frustrated. He appears not as a warmonger but a leader with a strong sense of exigency. His determination to complete Stitch remains unqualified throughout, for if Stitch requires many lives, it will save many more lives as the war goes on. When Dennis tells Garnet, now in command of the division, that the men's faces in time become a blur, that he must try to make each man count before he has to kill him, Dennis admits that he has abhorred the burden of ordering men on perilous missions, daily pushing aside his own feelings to carry out his duty. The way Dennis understands that duty furnishes a precedent for Garnet to order the completion of Stitch, that in the end brings Dennis a prestigious B-29 command in the Pacific and a new set of responsibilities, rather than the training command in the United States he wants.

COMMAND DECISION, a film about the air war over Germany, is set entirely on the ground and therefore lacks the kind of variation in pace that combat sequences afford. Although the photoplay often betrays its origins in a stage play, with one exception, the memorable scenes in the film still have the quality of the stage about them. Kane delivers a masterful reminiscence of his and others' struggles to get air power for America, diluting his bitterness with fond musings. During his seven-minute monologue no one moves or speaks, as he ranges from the dilapidated planes he flew without a parachute twenty years before to the strike photos he falsifies and the statistics he juggles even now. Later, Garnet, pondering whether to implement the third phase of Stitch, encounters an artless young captain from the Deep South appropriately named George Washington Bellpepper Lee (Marshall Thompson). The lightness of the context aside, Lee's remarks become extremely touching: he apologizes for having caused a ruckus outside Garnet' s window on "Easter Sunday," that is, what he calls his own day of resurrection, for later that day he will fly his twenty-fifth (last) mission, the easy mission or "milk run" the men expect from a new commander, then return home forever. On the other hand, the best outdoor scene, and arguably the best scene in the film, is the one in which Dennis on the command tower talks down the bombardier trying to land the pilotless B-24. Wood's direction picks up markedly as he cuts in long shots of the plane with medium and close shots of Dennis, giving the audience only the voice of the young man in the plane.

Gable had always shone in breezy, cocky roles that let him display his special kind of self assurance, but here he plays cautiously and deliberately in a part ill-suited to his abilities. His Dennis too frequently seems a brusque and compulsive megalomaniac rather than an introspective leader afflicted with the moral agony that results from ordering near suicidal missions. Other performances however, compensate. As Dennis' orderly, Sergeant Immanuel Evans (Van Johnson), skillfully balances irreverence with low-key humor. At one point, while the generals debate with much vigor the return to Schweinhafen -- and thus the fate of many men -- he matter-of-factly inquires of Dennis, "Shall I put the chicken back in the oven, Sir?" Arnold, the strident Representative Malcolm, maintains his usual excellence in this role that a lesser actor would surely have turned into a hopeless caricature. Pidgeon's General Kane is outstanding in one of his best performances in a long career. Although not the star, Pidgeon nevertheless becomes the focus of every scene in which he appears. His Kane strides through the film with uncompromised dignity, always in command but exercising his authority infrequently, preferring to rely on his charm and considerable facility for rapprochement.

COMMAND DECISION recognizes the necessity of war while affirming it as uncivilized activity that, to be carried on effectively, requires a huge expenditure in human life. Dennis and Kane represent sharply distinct attitudes toward the same immediate goal, the establishment of daylight precision bombing in concert with America's air supremacy in Europe. To Kane falls the responsibility of soothing the Congress and the press as well as the policymakers in the military hierarchy; no matter what he believes about the right conduct of the air war, he moves circumspectly with his plans, anticipating the kind of backlash that excessive casualties bring. He flourishes in high-level chicanery. Dealing with the Congressmen is "my kind of war," he tells Dennis, who counters with, "You're welcome to it." War for Kane means glib appeasements and outright deceptions, a number of behind-the-scenes strategies that finally can be reduced to supplying peanuts to a deserving member of the local aristocracy. Dennis' war is a dirty one whose grim statistics call up the faces of men personally known. Because he hates war and its trappings, Dennis insulates himself with a conscientious adherence to his duty, a tactic that finds a parallel in Sergeant Evans' flippancies and in the dogged optimism of Captain George Washington Bellpepper Lee. The last frames show the plane taking Dennis (and the loyal Evans) to the Pacific, to an assignment, coming directly from Washington, that will be more important than the one he leaves. He emerges the obvious although unwilling hero: learning of this new command, he asserts quietly, with real dismay, "They can't do this to me." "They" can, however, and do, for Dennis has shown himself always capable of the task in spite of his own spiritual and emotional depletions.

Release Date: 1948

Production Line:
Sidney Franklin for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director: Sam Wood
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
File Editor: Harold F. Kress
Run Time: 112 minutes

General K. C. "Casey" Dennis - Clark Gable
General Roland Goodlow Kane - Walter Pidgeon
General Clifton Garnet - Brian Donlevy
Sergeant Immanuel T. Evans - Van Johnson
Colonel Edward Rayton Martin - John Hodiak
Elmer Brockhurst - Charles Bickford
Congressman Arthur Malcolm - Edward Arnold
Captain George Washington
Bellpepper Lee - Marshall Thompson
Captain Incius Malcolm Jenks - Michael Steele
Major George Rockton - Richard Quine
Lieutenant Ansel Goldberg - Cameron Mitchell
Major Homer V. Prescott - Clinton Sundberg
Major Desmond Lansing - Ray Collins
Colonel Ernest Haley - Warner Anderson
Major Belding Davis - John McIntire
Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Jackson - Mack Williams
James Carwood - John Ridgely
Major Garrett Davenport - James Millican

Studios named in Production Credits:

Screenplay (Author):
William R. Laidlaw
George Froeschel
William Wister Haines

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