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Savant has a special interest in movies about the Atomic Bomb and its development, so the opportunity to finally see MGM's 1952 Above and Beyond seemed too good a thing to pass up. I'd never sat through all of it before, and part of that reluctance was a reaction to the presence of star Robert Taylor in the lead role. I'm not an admirer of Taylor's part in Hollywood politics of the day, and I imagined Above and Beyond as a hawkish pro- atom bomb movie. It's actual a fair account of the Hiroshima mission from the POV of the men given the job of dropping The Big One. Robert Taylor acquits himself very well in the picture.
A fighter pilot in The Right Stuff recites one of the mantras of the Air Force: "Never turn down a combat mission". Above and Beyond is a romanticized account of the personal life of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets (Robert Taylor), the Air Force flyer who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and who has ever since been alternately labeled a great patriot or an enemy of mankind. He's neither. Tibbets was a pilot who did his job in wartime like thousands of others. The idea that he's responsible for the bomb in any way, or is some kind of traitor to humanity, is foolishness. War is savage slaughter. Conventional bombing in WW2 eventually developed into an abhorrent "scientific" program for statisticians to study -- see Robert McNamara in The Fog of War -- and the development of a super-weapon was debated only in very abstract terms.
Above and Beyond begins with Major Tibbets risking censure in North Africa for complaining about bombing orders that he feels unnecessarily risk his men. The script pictures his C.O. as hard-nosed and unreasonable, a surprisingly unflattering angle for a movie clearly intended to deliver a pro- Pentagon message. Besides reminding us at least ten times that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nukes likely saved lives, should a ground invasion of Japan been necessary, there's very little verbal propaganda in Above and Beyond. None of those issues are really debated or placed in question.
The movie, however, skirts its own subject to focus on a soapy Hollywood version of Colonel Tibbets' relationship with his wife, Lucey (Eleanor Parker). The need for absolute secrecy for the bomb project forces Tibbets to use harsh measures on the base. He repels Lucey's pleas for understanding and, following orders, refuses to explain his unforgiving security tactics. He reprimands and then dismisses his co-pilot, a family friend, for breaking regulations, and comes down harshly on Lucey when she defies his orders. The pressure makes Tibbets impossible to live with. Lucey is eventually sent home, with the future of their marriage in doubt.
The problem is that this romantic angle trivializes the atomic theme. Parker and Taylor make a supremely attractive couple and no amount of realism in the settings can offset the glamour effect. The quarters on the secret Utah air base are horrible, worse than any I ever saw as an Air Force brat. At best, this Hollywoodization of Tibbets' story is an invasion of privacy by the Air Force publicists. Air Force families in war and peacetime must deal with forced separations and long hours of duty. By civilian rules of matrimony the wife gets an undeniably raw deal, and it should be obvious that a number of marriages don't survive the strain. That Mrs. Tibbets is kept totally ignorant of her husband's activities is a tough situation; later Air Force wives would have a better understanding of what's going on in the Cold War stance of total readiness, total secrecy.
The story requires that Tibbets, described early on as a man completely in control of his emotions, fuss about the moral issues of the mission as well as fret about his crumbling marriage. Both parts of the equation are a joke. A man with Tibbets' job will of course have personal moral attitudes, but soldiers don't debate orders, they obey them. In such an important assignment an air warrior like Tibbets would worry about the mission first, and his marriage and personal life might not even be second or third on his list of concerns. Tibbets runs his base with an iron fist. If the wife can't hack it, the two of them will just have to pick up the pieces later, if possible.
Above and Beyond shows the long trials of the B-29 bomber and then the testing of the modifications done to make it capable of carrying the A-bomb. In a way the movie is a re-play of the wartime movie Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, only this time the fliers are told about their target and their weapon only after the planes are already in the air. A general (Larry Keating) picks TIbbets for the job by handing him a switch and asking him if he'd be willing to kill 100,000 people if it meant winning the war and perhaps saving millions of lives. I hope the scene is a Hollywood invention, because in 1952 there were plenty of pundits shouting that taking a few million Korean or Chinese Reds was equally justified in the quest for a lasting peace for mankind. That kind of simple "The Lady or the Tiger" choice applied to morals and human reality is always too simplistic.
The movie leaves us with Lucey Tibbets realizing that she was wrong all along; her job was apparently to take whatever abuse was necessary and she has a lot of apologizing to do. After responding to a reporter's accusing insinuations with a stern "no comment", Paul Tibbets rushes to put his family back together again. If the movie can be faulted on moral grounds, it's because it proposes that extreme military situations require the abandonment of traditional values. Tibbets' mission is "above and beyond" ordinary morality. Pacifists and anti-militarists might brand Above and Beyond a rationalization of barbarism, but the situation is too complicated for that kind of judgment. Then again, I shudder to think what a Japanese audience would make of this movie.
We don't spend much time with the atom scientists. One committee of eggheads drags its feet and backs away from taking responsibility for the bomb detonation mechanism. Tibbets must shoulder the decision alone. We're left thinking that the scientists are untrustworthy in a clinch. Curiously, Tibbets' young son is played by Christopher Olsen, later a great little thespian in Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life. Here little Chris just gripes that there's no sidewalk outside his family's ugly three-room shack. Barbara Ruick of Carousel has a very small part. General Curtis LeMay, the likely instigator of this movie's production, is rather accurately impersonated in one scene by, of all actors, Jim Backus. It is said that the ultra-hawk LeMay was the inspiration for General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
For a propaganda movie, Above and Beyond is both fair and rather uncomfortable. Had the Japanese or the Germans won the war, we'd doubtless have been subjected to similar earnest family dramas explaining that Hitler had to nuke New York for our own good, or how the Japanese slaughtered millions to "save more lives". It's just a personal allergy to persuasive propaganda that makes me want to point out certain inconsistencies in this "official" version of events. We were generous and well-meaning victors in many respects, but we're certainly not perfect.
Later in the decade, the U.S. military would take an active role in Hollywood, suggesting and supporting pro- military pictures to promote enlistment and, I dare say, influence public opinion. This film's harsh portrait of military life soon turned to pure fifties' pabulum, with all-purpose military wife June Allyson having a much easier time helping her warrior husbands (Jimmy Stewart, Alan Ladd) cope with the inconvenience of Cold War combat.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Above and Beyond is a very good transfer of a clean and sharp original element. A bit of instability in the first couple of reels may be due to film shrinkage. It goes away quickly. Like other movies made with Pentagon cooperation, a title thanks the Air Force instead of just being honest and saying that the U.S. government is behind the whole show. The film clearly was granted access to a lot of expensive Air Force material and facilities.
The trailer barely acknowledges the atom bomb theme, concentrating instead on the soap opera dramatics; it ends with a long string of quotes from female journalists recommending the movie. Someone was obviously concerned that American housewives would reject the movie.
A parting note: What's the significance of the fact that Above and Beyond was produced and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, known before and after this MGM production mostly as a comedy filmmaking team? There's nothing like it elsewhere in their filmography. The pair was particularly famous for Bob Hope pictures -- did the military-connected star get them the job?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Above and Beyond rates:
1. from Joe Moser, March 11, 2010: Dear Mr. Erickson, First, thank you very much for everything you're doing to promote all kinds of cinema. I've been an avid reader of your column and reviews for some time, and I always enjoy the way you're able to balance film analysis with historical and social context for the films, as well as the occasional political rant. I also appreciate how you, much like Rober Ebert, have been articulately voicing your concerns about our cultural descent into philistinism.
I want to share with you a quote from Paul Tibbets, in case you aren't aware of it. This is actually a passage from my dissertation, in which I talk quite a bit about post-war American films and attitudes:
Near the end of his life, Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane that wiped out Hiroshima, told Studs Terkel that his use of the atomic bomb had helped create "a free world." When Terkel proceeded to ask if he would support using nuclear weapons against foreign enemies today, Tibbets made the following reply:
"Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: 'You've killed so many civilians.' That's their tough luck for being there" (Hope Dies Last 54).
So much for a free world! Thanks again and best regards, Joe Moser
Other Atom Age movies reviewed by DVD Savant:
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