' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Command Decision (1948)

Friday, June 09, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Command Decision (1948)

At one point in director Sam Wood’s “Command Decision” a character is heard to remark “Where did I ever get the idea that this war was against the Axis?” It evokes “Platoon’s” Chris Taylor’s fairly on-the-nose explication “I think now, looking back, we didn’t fight the enemy; we fought ourselves.” “Command Decision” does not exist at such a tumultuous extreme, echoing the disparities of WWII and Vietnam, at least in terms of American commitment to the cause, but both films nonetheless get across how in-fighting goes hand-in-hand with war, no matter its original intent. Indeed, while “Command Decision”centers on American daylight bombing raids deep into dangerous Nazi territory, the on screen battlefield is not high in the sky but strictly limited to the big board, to quote General Buck C. Turgidson, in the war room, with strategic decisions hashed out in grave detail in offices as well as a kind of drawing room extension of the war room where various American commanders squabble over cigars and brandy while standing at attention in front of a fireplace.

While this partially lends the film a feel of How The Sausage Gets Made, the overriding tone is less angry than pragmatic, the heroism stemming from a gruff attitude of just having to get on with it, the whole business, that is, where war is never simply Mine vs. Yours, no matter how much officers like Brigadier General Casey Dennis (Clark Gable) might want it that way. No, Dennis must answer to Major General Kane (Walter Pidgeon) who must hack his way through the red tape of Washington while all of them must navigate the printed minefields of the press, represented here by Elmer Brockhurst (Charles Bickford), who constantly lurks just outside Dennis’s door as a reminder that public relations never cease, not even in the face of bombing Nazi facilities deep in German territory constructing special fighter jets.

The maximum danger of these missions means the question becomes whether saving lives in the short-term outweighs expending lives in the long-term, a decision that has less to do with human interests than military interests, and which gets hashed out in so many scenes set in so many static rooms going long on lengthy monologues and bouts of verbal sparring. This belies the film’s theatrical roots, based on a play by William Wister Haines, and Wood has little interest in gussying up this silver screen version with bells and whistles, generally content to place his solid stable of actors on screen and let them go, allowing for the true drama to emerge in the words and decisions, and moments when actors evince the weight these words. By confining the action and keeping the bomber crews off screen the danger of the latter merely becoming pawns of the plot, argued-over collateral damage, emerges, but that does not happen. They remain paramount.

One scene finds Dennis and Kane, along with Brigadier General Garnet (Brian Donlevy), quarreling when the sound of bombers cut through the air. Dennis checks his watch. He realizes the fleet of B-17s that departed that morning on a daylight bombing raid are returning. The three men move to the window and then outside, near the control tower, watching as the bombers return from their raid in the distance, evoked in stock footage and long range shots of the planes looking so tiny on the horizon. Eventually, however, as several of the planes struggle to make it home, we hear the pilots’ voices over the air control tower speakers. And when Dennis realizes one of the planes has a novice at the controls, well, the Brigadier Genral gets on the horn to try and talk the plane down.

That we only see Dennis, never the pilot, is not insensitive but the whole point. In this moment, like a later one, when he sits alone before the big board in the war room, Wood is deliberately transferring personal responsibility to Dennis. He is never made to forget the men under his command because in moments like these the weight of every last one of them is made to metaphorically rest on Dennis’s broad shoulders.

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