Command Decision Review
Command Decision is an interesting war film, partly for what it isn’t. From the end of the 1930s up until the mid-1940s, with a few notable exceptions, Hollywood genre movies tended to be flag-waving accounts of heroism against the odds. But beginning with films like John Ford’s They Were Expendable, a more thoughtful and reflective style of war movie came into vogue where the cost of war was as significant as the practise. Command Decision is a sober and intelligent examination of the question whether huge losses of men and machinery are worthwhile if they result in the greater good of ending the war early. It’s not a profound film and the pros are given considerably more weight than the cons, but the fact that the questions are being asked is significant in itself. What makes the film particularly worthwhile is that the issue remains right at the centre of Western foreign policy as I write this and as every day passes, it becomes clearer that easy answers are not forthcoming.
Like Henry King’s contemporary Twelve O’Clock High, the film is set on an American base in England, but this time the film concentrates on the issues rather than the characters. General K.C. Dennis (Gable) is determined to pursue a risky strategy; pushing his bombers further and further into Germany during daylight hours, in order to destroy factories which are building a new super jet fighter. But the losses of men and equipment are huge and he attracts severe criticism from his peers and particularly press officer Brockie (Bickford). When Dennis’s superior, General Kane (Pidgeon), arrives at the base, he is forced to defend his policy in the hope of destroying the factories before they can complete the fighter planes.
What's initially surprising is that this verbose and intense drama comes from MGM. It has a much grittier feel to it than one would generally associate with Leo the Lion, even in the post-war years. The high contrast monochrome cinematography has a feeling of stark realism which is reminiscent of Warner Brothers or Fox. The picture is almost determinedly non-glossy, as if the serious nature of the subject matter had encouraged an outbreak of extreme sobriety. In other hands, this could be a little tedious but Sam Wood's sure-footed direction and the literate script ensure that a remarkably high level of tension is maintained throughout. This achievement should not be undervalued since what we have here are basically a series of position papers in which each of the key characters possesses a basic point of view which is expressed in speeches of varying length depending on the importance of the actor - naturally, Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon get the longest monologues but both Brian Donlevy and Charles Bickford get their fair share of the dialogue too. The fact that Van Johnson, playing a cynical sergeant, speaks mostly in clipped wisecracks is equally indicative of the most significant aspect of his character. In other words, if you're looking for complexity of characterisation, you'll be sadly disappointed.
Indeed, one tends to be reminded quite frequently that one is watching a filmed play. Attempts to open it out are limited to a variety of stock footage, sometimes quite ingeniously used, but still looking resolutely like stock footage. There's a good scene where K.C. and Kane watch the doomed return of a lone bomber, but every scene eventually settles down to a lengthy confrontation between two or three characters. The casting of Gable makes it very clear that the dice are loaded in favour of his side and those who oppose him are simply strawmen to be knocked down. One is also uncomfortably aware that something is all too plainly not being mentioned, namely the fact that these bombing runs involved the mass killing of civilians. The issue of saturation bombing is still controversial - the question of whether it was as essential to the eventual outcome of the war as the Allied top brass claimed is an endless topic for debate - but the film simply skirts it. Not patriotic I suppose, particularly not in 1948 when America was already embroiling itself in a potentially even more dangerous conflict.
Fortunately, there are no reservations about the quality of the performances; they are universally excellent, as one would expect from this wonderful cast. Van Johnson is very funny as the technical sergeant with an answer to everything and Charles Bickford is reliably hard-boiled as the initially hostile but eventually all-comprehending press liaison. Familiar faces such as Marshall Thompson, Cameron Mitchell and the future director Richard Quine make a strong impression as the pilots, while Edward Arnold is typically windy as an appallingly smug senator. But the film belongs to its three leading men. Brian Donlevy, so often underrated, is at his relaxed best, providing a vital counterpoint to his more intense superiors. Walter Pidgeon is a delight to watch in the kind of role he was born to play; the avuncular, liberal-minded superior with a core of steel. Best of all, Clark Gable is in complete command of the material. He seems somewhat eccentrically cast but his dominance of the screen is complete and his charisma remains a thing of wonder all these years later. We trust this man because we can almost smell the engine oil on him; he is our representative whereas Pidgeon bullshits with the politicians and the moneymen.
Sam Wood’s direction is as solid as you would expect from this valuable old studio hand – efforts to discredit him due to his extreme political predilictions strike me as irrelevant – and his skill with actors, evident in films ranging from Goodbye Mr Chips to King’s Row is much in evidence. Wood’s typical preoccupation – the importance of the ordinary working man as opposed to the bullshitting of the patrician class – is right at the centre of the film; a close study of his work would make interesting reading. He keeps the story moving at a good clip, making a virtue of the small-scale and keeping the camera close-in on the actors. Harold Rosson’s high contrast monochrome cinematography is a pleasure to watch, the use of shadows lending a slightly expressionist feel to the proceedings. Harold Kress’s editing also deserves considerable praise, as does Miklos Rosza’s enjoyably melodramatic music score.
Warners have done a solid job on this 1948 picture. The monochrome picture, presented in its original fullscreen format, lacks finesse; I would have liked a measure more sharpness throughout. But it’s relatively clean and free of damage and the level of detail is excellent. Shadow detail is also very crisp. The quality of the picture varies – the stock footage used in some of the montages is decidedly ropey and makes an obvious contrast with the rest of the film. The mono soundtrack is clear throughout with particularly impressive music.
The supplements are very enjoyable. I particularly liked the ‘Passing Parade’ short film “Souvenirs Of Death”, about a pistol brought back from the war which falls into the wrong hands. There’s also a typically incisive Tex Avery cartoon, “King Size Canary”, which muses on the atomic age in a delightfully surrealistic manner. Add the original trailer and you have a very entertaining package.
The film is subtitled in English and French but the extras are not.