DVD: Strategic Air Command (1955)

November 1, 2016 | By

StrategicAirCommandFilm: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Olive

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  October 24, 2016

Genre:  Cold War / Drama

Synopsis: A former WWII bomber pilot on reserve is called back for duty in this classic Cold War propaganda drama.

Special Features:  (none)




The FBI Story (1959) and Strategic Air Command (1955) form James Stewart’s unofficial government propaganda diptych where two agencies – ground-level investigative, and aerospace, respectively – are portrayed as necessary bodies, always on guard against evil that threatens the sanctity and virtue of the American way.

FBI Story dealt with dangers from within society, spanning criminal organizations and fifth columnists on the Soviet payroll, whereas SAC is exclusively about the potential danger from Soviet attacks, even though the USSR nor Communism is never mentioned by name.

To take advantage of government training facilities, use of manpower as extras the unique hardware used by the FBI and the real SAC, the scripts had to be free of criticism and stick to tried and true narratives where adventure, espionage, and a little romance between the hero and his devoted wife / family were up front. Both films are fairly pulpy tales surrounded by stellar production values, but SAC features a greater degree of self-sacrifice because its hero, former WWII squadron leader and postwar baseball player Dutch Holland (Stewart), moves from being a reluctant reservist called up for a 21 month stint, to a devoted Lt. Colonel and valued team member who can’t go back to civilian life, knowing there’s greater dangers to fend off.

Self-sacrifice for the safety of one’s country is the dominant theme in SAC, and in spite of the strain put on devoted wife Sally (June Allyson) and her pregnancy, Dutch is willing to let his marriage become more of a long-distance union. Whether it was intended by director Anthony Mann or lay within a clever subtext by the screenwriters, SAC is really a vicious story of how the military machine is like a drug, turning its brethren into addicts hooked on flying big planes, the thrill of imminent danger, and the camaraderie among male pilots that provides more joy than the pouty, nagging wife at home, still smarting over a missed dinner with the family or a dinner & dance date with the Joneses.

Sally is an archetypical cinematic fifties wife, wearing elegant gowns when cleaning the house, and any concerns she has about the increasing distance between herself and Dutch is shrugged off with a smile. If there is an impasse – such as when Dutch tells her he’s decided to stay permanently with SAC – her reaction is to sob, which irritates Dutch more than affects any sense of guilt. Because duty calls, he leaves her post haste, and when she drives to the base for a too-late adieu, she encounters Dutch’s commander Gen. Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy) and attempts to admonish him for ruining their civilian lives, but she’s left in a state of embarrassment when Hawkes more or less tells her ‘What makes you think you’re no different than my wife? This is Air Force. You married one of its own, so live with it.’

There’s no doubt Dutch loves Sally, but decisions made after being re-integrated into SAC – ostensibly an elite squadron of bombers ready to fly and carpet bomb the enemy – clearly show a man becoming incapable of returning wholeheartedly to stable, banal, civilian life. Scenes ostensibly dramatizing the strain on his marriage may have been designed to show how wives and families suffer in silence but understand the greater good of their husbands’ need to be on call 24-7, ready to fly to another continent, but collectively the scenes can also be read as tracing the mounting frustrations when one half of a couple is addicted to the highs of flying (if not the excitement bred within the military machine).

Like another Cold War drama, the Howard Hughes-supervised Jet Pilot (1957), there’s an overwhelming dominance of aerial footage – airplane porn – which in SAC was designed to show off the sexiness of giant bombers and plant the seed of voluntary recruitment among young audience members. William Daniels’ cinematography is outstanding – the film is packed with an overabundance of beautifully composed shots of Dutch’s bomber gliding over and through clouds in daylight and amber-hued sunset like a gleaming bird sent from Heaven – but the footage also adds to the subtext of Dutch’s addiction: there’s such a marked contrast between shots of Sally at home versus Dutch piloting a massive bomber that’s it’s really no contest: Dutch has to choose the high life because he feels alive when he’s in the air, not at home with Sally nor on a baseball field.

Dutch’s eventual discharge from service is seeded by a scene where a sore shoulder keeps acting up, but his constant ignorance of recurring pain runs contrary to his professionalism: knowing the lives of his crew are his responsibility, plus the value of a multi-million dollar bomber, it’s ludicrous that he would keep flying until his arm conks out, and landing suddenly becomes a tricky two-man operation.

When Dutch is discharged by Gen. Hawkes, the film’s final shot is meant to bring closure to Dutch: he’s left service after honorable conduct and can be the husband Sally’s missed for 2 years and father to a new baby girl… but whether Stewart’s final reaction is meant to show the bittersweetness of his predicament, he looks like an addict, hours from his first night at home, where he’ll go into career withdrawal and emotionally crash. For Dutch, there’s no happy ending, because Stewart looks plain miserable.

The film’s main message is repeated several times throughout the film: the need for might is the best defense against a possible / probably strike by an unseen or future enemy. In spending billions to train a necessary mass of skilled technicians and pilots, the country will make it clear any attempt to weaken its democratic ways and those of emerging democracies will be met by an overwhelming show of force. By depicting that force as daunting (and having the message come from Everyman James Stewart to bewildered, civilian Sally), the film adds to SAC’s own propaganda to the world which, if distilled to its basic core, reads Don’t Fuck With Us.

Mann’s film doesn’t offer any of the cast memorable roles – the leads ad supporting parts are fairly familiar – but it’s packed with solid character actors, including Lovejoy (House of Wax, Beachhead), Barry Sullivan (The Bad and the Beautiful, Planet of the Vampires) as Dutch’s WWII colleague, and Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H) as an engineer.

Victor Young’s score is built around a heroic theme that’s a kissing cousin of the traditional Air Force theme, and a warm theme for Sally that creeps into the soundtrack whenever Dutch starts thinking about his better half. There’s also some dramatic cues near the end which sound more like the work of Leith Stevens, composer of several classic George Pal sci-fi films, especially Destination Moon (1950); whether pure coincidence or perhaps a case of ghostwriting, Young was supremely busy during his final years, and in 1955 alone he’s credited with scoring 6 films (including The Left Hand of God), and in his final year, scored 7 films (including Around the World in 80 Days and The Brave One) and episodes of TV’s Medic, plus 4 more films released posthumously in 1957.

A pilot during WWII, James Stewart gravitated towards several flight-themed dramas: No Highway in the Sky (1951), Strategic Air Command (1955), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), and the disaster dud Airport ’77 (1977). He also co-starred with June Allyson in The Stratton Story (1949) and the Mann-directed The Glenn Miller Story (1954).

Mann would direct Stewart in 8 films: Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Thunder Bay (1953), The Far Country (1954), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955), and Strategic Air Command (1955).

Olive sourced a very crisp print from Paramount, but there’s a peculiar aberration in the DVD transfer that may stem from a different frame rate, as lateral movements within the frame (planes moving slowly left-to-right, or just a slow pan across the military airport) have a slight stutter – an issue that should be resolved, given this marks the film’s first release on disc in North America.

Although another bare bones release, fans of vintage war planes will relish the plethora of plane footage taken from a variety of creative angles. (A landing from a wheel well is especially riveting.) Mann’s sense of scope pays off in many elegantly conceived shots that show silvery planes gleaming under the sun and sunset, and wide shots of the military base filled with then-cutting edge bombers.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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