Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Command Decision (1948)

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A companion piece, after a fashion, to the following year’s superior Twelve O’Clock High, both films deal with the vicissitudes of command in terms of the daylight bombing campaign run by the US Army Air Force in WW2. Command Decision, adapted from a play by William Wister Haines, gains great heft and bite from a good cast – not least of whom is Clark Gable, giving probably his best performance, one which gains in believability considering Gable’s noted war service: he’s terse, grouchy, harsh, and ever so slightly distraught, perfect for his role. Beneath him there’s some excellent players – Ray Collins, Charles Bickford, John McIntire, Edward Arnold - and also an eye-catching collection of bland male ingĂ©nues bound to populate B-movie heroism for the next decade, including Van Johnson, Marshall Thompson, and Cameron Mitchell.
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There’s no Catch-22 or Strangelove-esque mockery in sight here. Beyond superficial similarities, both this and Twelve O’Clock High explore an issue rarely analyzed with much depth by war films – the savage calculus of death and the effect this has on the men charged with giving orders and winning, moral men who accept their vicious task as morally necessary and proceed from there. In this case it’s Gable’s Brigadier Casey Dennis, who’s desperately trying to knock out three German factories from which are producing parts for a new German jet fighter that could tip the balance of the war back in the Luftwaffe’s favor. But his efforts are terribly bloody, as he loses a third of his force on every mission, and as well as the men in the air, it’s grinding up the guys on the ground too. Worse still, this “maximum effort” coincides with a visit by a contingent of politicians, including Arthur Malcolm (an as-ever splendidly pompous Edward Arnold), whose son is one of Dennis’ pilots, and is receiving a DFC. Dennis’s superior, Maj. Gen. Kane (Walter Pidgeon), has spent years desperately currying favor with political overlords to get appropriations and support for the air arm, and has to choose between Dennis’ unswerving exigency, which will accomplish the necessary mission, and replacing him with the theoretically more pliable Brig. Garnet (Brian Donlevy), to save the aerial warfare program he’s fought so hard to build.
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It’s a film with a message – let the soldiers to do their jobs or don’t make them do them in the first place – that resists an easy partisan political formulation, though director Sam Wood’s conservatism is evident in the unshakeable nobility of his soldiers – even the politically-mindful Kane maintains his dignity. Wood’s sleek direction admirably accepts the limitations of the play and keeps things relentlessly ground level. The only moment resembling an action scene is an admirably handled sequence in which Gable attempts to guide down a crippled B-17. That’s also notable as one of the few moments where Wood offers a close-up, momentarily recontextualising the war effort and abstract horror as personal devastation.
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Otherwise he maintains master shots and group framings, befitting the theatrical dynamics of what he’s shooting, but also absorbing the fashion in which power relations, as men yield and assume varying forms of authority – military, character, and moral. One telling moment sees Arnold and his party forced by intruding news to yield their place in the foreground to the soldiers, to Arnold’s stung-looking disapprobation, and he vacillates in the middle ground. This attentive framing pays off in the climax of the sequence: a standing Gable dominates the frame, as he is devastated by hearing of a friend’s death; Arnold attempts to berate him from a sitting position, failing to rise from his seat as his son, who holds the other edge of the frame, an actual fighting man literally and metaphorically marginalised, suddenly intervenes and berates him from centre-frame. The construction of the shot embodies the moral character of the moment.

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Decision is essentially a melodrama dressed up as a truly incisive ethical drama with its corny (if historically based) secret weapon Macguffin, some untrammeled theatrical verbosity and weak comic relief, and some old-hat dramatic tricks. It doesn’t have any of the poetic intensity of Twelve O’Clock High, nor the psychological acuity – its heroes furrow their brows and look troubled but don’t show any real signs of being worn down by it, so that Dennis in the end can fly off to a grandiose farewell. One long speech reminds me that Pidgeon had a marvelous voice and very little acting talent. Nonetheless, Decision maintains the attention worthy of a mature piece of work because it accepts some bitter facts and tries to find the best way out.

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