The complexities surrounding the seemingly typical rousing big-budget 1955 Hollywood drama-adventure STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, now on stunning Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment, transcend its surface appeal of mere stirring family fare.
The movie, costarring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson (their third teaming), and directed by the great Anthony Mann, is generally sloughed off by Mann’s admirers as an expertly made but standard tribute to an integral arm of America’s armed forces.
But leave us look again. Hint: NOTHING Anthony Mann does post-WWII is without worth.
The narrative, as scripted by Valentine Davies and Bernie Lay, Jr., (from a story by Lay), chronicles the odyssey of Robert “Dutch” Holland (Stewart), a middle-aged ex-Lieutenant Colonel, still in his prime – now enjoying the rewards (both personal and financial) of being a major-league baseball player (that’s 170K per year in 1950s dollars). His recent (albeit late in life) marriage to Sally (Allyson), the woman of his dreams, immensely aids his securing the American Dream, Eisenhower-Era-style; the news that he’s about to become a father makes it just that more sweet.
Long story short, Dutch has three loves: flying, baseball and Sally (but not necessarily in that order). Furthermore, Dutch’s great season has enabled him to purchase the suburban fantasy home that previously had been only a possibility in his mind.
All this changes by a visit from an old flying pal, (now Major-General) “Rusty” Castle (James Millican, apparently everybody has quotes in the Air Force). It seems that, although honorably discharged, Dutch remained on the reserve list. And now, a publicity-seeking martinet, perfectly christened General Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy), has decided that recalling Holland to the service, as part of the new high echelon Strategic Air Command, is just the boost the Cold War flight group needs. Dutch’s celebrity status will make SAC a desired choice for bright, young individuals whose love for country might outweigh the minimal pay.
At first Dutch thinks it’s all a gag, then is irritated and finally angered at his indentured servitude to a branch of the military he voluntarily and heroically pledged loyalty to.
But it’s for real, all right. The penalty for refusal is possible prison, with the added caveat of traitor being slapped on one’s back. Allyson, upset but game, wonders how bad it can be; besides, it’s only for a couple of years. Stewart, near his breaking point, reminds his bride that at his age, two years in baseball is a lifetime.
But Jimmy Stewart is no traitor, so he reluctantly goes off to fight the paranoias of McCarthyism peacetime. Immediately, he gets into hot water via the red tape involving simple entry onto the base. This is followed by a harrowing terrorist attack on the SAC airstrip – a frightening sham ploy that is part of Hawkes’ prep maneuvers in the event of a sneak Russian attack.
Stewart discovers isn’t alone in his vitriolic attitude toward SAC after meeting a rising young executive (Alec Nicol), likewise snatched from a high-paying job and sold into slavery by Hawkes.
The transition isn’t easy, nor pleasant. The new quarters, in less than desirable environs, is a slum compared to the Holland’s former home.
The training on the new jets is rigorous, relentless and painful. But then the change occurs. Reunited with a WWII buddy, who stayed in the service (Harry Morgan as…wait for it…Sergeant Bible), Dutch becomes fascinated, then obsessed, with the sleek, streamlined B-47s. He ultimately masters the required knowledge and excels as a modern SAC warrior. The thrill Dutch experiences is pure wide-eyed wonder that only Stewart can achieve – it quite literally mirrors a feeling parallel to sex. And Dutch begins to stay away from home longer and longer, assigned/volunteering for missions above and beyond. So enamored is he of 1950s military flight that he neglects an increasingly worsening shoulder injury, sustained during his initial SAC days.
As the months tick off, Allyson, freaking out after straying husband’s near-fatal downing in the Arctic, goes into hysterical overdrive when Stewart’s new mistress wins. He tells her that he’s not doing the required tour of duty, but has signed up to stay in SAC permanently.
His debilitating condition turns the Hollands’ world upside down and around once again. Lovejoy callously informs Dutch that they no longer want him; of course, the malady guarantees his baseball days are finished as well. And Allyson is smart enough to realize that are now cracks in their marriage.
The bitter finale, a 1950s U.S. wet dream, has Stewart and Allyson watching the supersonic jets fly in formation to a patriotic male-chorus-sung tune (“The Air Force Takes Command”). To the masses, it’s an appropriate ending; for Mann buffs, like family relationships in Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, it’s a shattered nuclear unit, probably beyond repair (Sirk did similar things with romance and the American dream in his Technicolor Rock Hudson valentines; think Jane Wyman’s reflection in a TV set in All That Heaven Allows). Mann and Sirk boldly underline an insidious multileveled cinematic definition of the adage “If it looks too good to be true…”
STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND was a picture Mann didn’t necessarily want to make. He did it at the beseeching of his frequent leading man Stewart (this was similar to the earlier Glenn Miller Story), but Mann’s compensations were the aforementioned Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, plus Man from Laramie and, in my opinion the duo’s finest collaboration, The Naked Spur). Mann couldn’t complain either, as both SAC and Glenn Miller proved to be massive hits (up until that point the director’s non-Stewart pics, the excellent but ill-performing Last Frontier and the horribly maligned Serenade, had unceremoniously bellied-up).
Stewart, a genuine Air Force hero (and ultimately a Brigadier General) pulled a lot of strings to get clearance to shoot SAC in places other studios’ moguls could never even imagine. The behind-the-scenes training and actual missions are engrossing to watch.
Furthermore, SAC, as a large-scale movie, is a gorgeous-looking extravaganza, perfect for the VistaVision process. The photography by William Daniels (who decreed VistaVision the greatest process ever bestowed upon cinema) and the bravura flying sequences by the legendary Paul Mantz, particularly the cold blue nighttime aerials over the Arctic, are awesome, crystal-clear in detail and representative of Technicolor at its best.
The performances, too, are top-notch, beginning, natch, with Stewart – as tortured as ever in a pic by Mann or Hitchcock. Allyson is the perfect 1950s wife for the star, and the supporting players, including Nicol, Morgan, Millican and Barry Sullivan, Bruce Bennett, Rosemary DeCamp, James Bell, Strother Martin, but especially Lovejoy as the Machiavellian officer, are terrific. Since it’s a 1955 movie, SAC has the mandatory appearance by Jay C. Flippen, since it seems that no American pic during the decade was allowed to be filmed unless either he or Robert Keith participated. Throw in a typically melodic Victor Young score (including the previously indicated song with lyrics by Ned Washington and Major Tommy Thomson), and you’ve got the recipe for a primo 1950s movie night event.
SAC‘s nightmarish elements snuck by most critics and audiences, who loved the movie to death. It was the official opening for a flagship VistaVision theater, attended by top chiefs of staff, selected members of the air force and SAC pilots themselves. Sadly, the VistaVision longevity was already waning, and the superb big-screen process would soon fall by the wayside, being nearly extinct by 1960 (most people in 1955 saw the pic in standard 35MM widescreen).
Blu-Ray is the perfect format for VistaVision movies, so I was delighted to see this new 1080p High Definition master from Olive Films. Cutting to the chase, the movie looks and sounds fantastic.
For those Stewart fans and/or aviation buffs, STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND delivers the goods in droves. For Mann purists, take another look – and checkout how this brilliant artist turned a love affair with flight into fright.
STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OF1284. SRP: $29.95.