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Strategic Air Command

Olive Films // Unrated // October 18, 2016
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 9, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Strategic Air Command (1955) is an historically important film, partly because it was just the second movie released in the wide gauge VistaVision format, and partly because it was one in a series of collaborations between director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart.

Remastered in high-def by Paramount, Olive's Blu-ray is extremely impressive. I watched the film on my projection system and 90-inch screen, and the clarity and Technicolor source of the image, combined with spectacular footage of late propeller-driven and early jet bombers, enormous aircraft whose size one can really appreciate here, is unequivocally spectacular.

Dramatically, however, Strategic Air Command is almost astoundingly terrible. The picture, as much Cold War propaganda as drama, inherently has almost no story to tell and instead comes off more like an educational film. What characters and story there is plays cobbled together from other movies that were much more interesting the first time around.

The film was almost certainly a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Savvy Stan surely didn't miss the irony here of an Air Force insisting "Peace Is Our Profession" while continually upgrading its efficiency in transporting nuclear bombs and mid-air refueling sequence that can't avoid looking like copulation (and copied almost verbatim in Strangelove's opening titles). Further, its depiction of Air Force wife June Allyson is simple-minded and even degrading by contemporary standards.

Ol' Jimmy stars as "Dutch" Holland, an aging ballplayer for the St. Louis Cardinals. (Stewart was 47 at the time.) A B-29 pilot during the war - just as Stewart had been in "real life" - Dutch is recalled to 21 months active duty due to a Cold War shortage of crack pilots.

Dutch is none-too-happy to have his career abruptly interrupted when he's got maybe two good years left playing ball, but crankily acquiesces to the inevitable, especially when his dutiful, impossibly perky wife, Sally (June Allyson) surprises him by supporting the move without a moment's hesitation.

Under the command of cigar-chomping perfectionist General Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy), a character based on Curtis LeMay, Dutch pilots a B-36 manned by WWII veterans, including old pal and flight engineer Master Sergeant Bible (Harry Morgan, still billed as "Henry Morgan" at this time). Dutch performs well and, despite ditching a B-36 in the Arctic due to an engine fire, is promoted to command the latest aircraft, a Boeing B-47 Stratojet out of MacDill AFB in Tampa.

However, the stress of Dutch's mysterious and dangerous missions to far-flung corners of the world, and Dutch's growing resolve to leave baseball entirely for the Common Good, threaten to end his idyllic marriage to increasingly, if privately hysterical Sally.

Director Anthony Mann first made a name for himself directing some of the greatest film noir ever, notably the low-budget T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), followed by the more expensive but still-shocking Border Incident (1950). Mann then began a fruitful eight-film collaboration with James Stewart, the majority being groundbreaking Westerns like Winchester ‘73 (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955). Their biggest commercial success, however, was The Glenn Miller Story (1954), entertaining fluff but not up to the level of their best work. Mann was the original director of Night Passage (1957), but left over creative differences with Stewart and the two never worked together again.

What plot and characters Strategic Air Command has mostly feel cribbed from earlier, better movies. Stewart had already starred as a ballplayer whose career is sidelined in The Stratton Story (1948), which co-starred June Allyson, his wife also in The Glenn Miller Story. He had been trapped aboard a faltering new aircraft in No Highway in the Sky (1951), a real buried treasure of a movie, and would soon set distance and speed records again in Billy Wilder's unjustly maligned The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Even the spectacular Arctic crash is nearly identical to a spacecraft's crash landing on Mars in George Pal's Conquest of Space, filmed about the same time, maybe even on the same snow-covered miniature sets.

In both Stratton and Glenn Miller Allyson played the dutiful, selfless wife who stands by her husband through thick and thin. In Strategic Air Command her very ‘50s wife is stretched way past the breaking point. Except for an early scene when Dutch is still with the Cardinals, she never interacts with anyone other than her mother and father, Dutch's coach (Jay C. Flippen) and Air Force brass like Gen. Hawkes, whom she resents.

Living on base, she has little to do but fret silently about her husband's safety when he leaves for days at a time on secret missions he can never discuss with her when he returns. Near the climax (though the film itself ends quite uneventfully) Dutch makes a major life decision that will impact both for the rest of their lives without even consulting her. He argues, pretty much, that "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." She becomes understandably resentful and angry yet ultimately kowtows into simpering submission for no clear reason beyond she's got nowhere else to turn. Sally may be the most inadvertently humiliating portrait of womanhood in a 1950s Hollywood movie.

The recycling of plot elements from other films was a clear attempt to hide the fact that Strategic Air Command has no plot to speak of. It's a war movie without a war, a Cold War yarn spun around the notion of "peace through strength," vigilance and deterrence, not exactly prime material for movie storytelling. "It all boils down to less chance of war" Gen. Hawkes declares, one of myriad variation of this same contradictory concept. (Lovejoy's ever-present prop cigar is as prominent as Gen. Jack D. Ripper's in Dr. Strangelove, only here inadvertently phallic given Hawkes's constant brandishing of his while barking orders.)

The movie creeps out modern viewers in other ways. In one scene, a soldier expresses surprise at war maneuvers involving dropping imaginary nuclear bombs on American targets. "We've been bombing people and cities all over the U.S." says another, "only they've never known it!"

Where the picture delivers is in the military hardware, primarily the B-36 "Peacemakers," impressive aircraft that were the largest mass-produced propeller planes ever built and touting the largest wingspans of any combat aircraft. These and the B-47 truly inspire awe on big home theater screens, thanks to VistaVision's large frame. Dialogue reveals that a single plane was capable of dropping more destructive power than all the bombs dropped during World War II, making them as terrifying as they are beautiful.

Having just reviewed Powell and Pressburger's ……one of our aircraft is missing (1942), a far subtler, more humanist and naturalistic British propaganda film of World War II, the sledgehammer approach of Strategic Air Command plays especially clumsy and flatfooted, from its gung-ho title song, "The Air Force Takes Command" to Stewart and Allyson's starry-eyed American pride at the fade-out. Blech.

Video & Audio

Filmed in VistaVision, Strategic Air Command looks sensational, with the degree of clarity that makes period cars, Air Force uniforms, and especially the aircraft (inside and out) really come to life on home screens as few films do. Only in a few opticals and miniature shots, clearly beyond the still experimental format's capabilities at this time, does it look any less than excellent. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono is also fine, though one wonders if stereophonic elements still exist, somewhere. No Extra Features, though optional English subtitles are included.

Parting Thoughts

Air Force buffs and fans of early wide screen technologies will want to rush out and buy this. But, as drama, Strategic Air Command is quite bad, though weighed together this Blu-ray is still Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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