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Friday, May 16, 2014

Cost Of Making War At Metro

Casualties Mount in Command Decision (1949)

Based on a best-seller novel, serialized in Reader's Digest, adapted to Broadway, Command Decision got close as a property then-could to full market penetration. I don't wonder that Metro wanted it as a vehicle for their strong lineup of lead men, each joining an ensemble to take turns at bravura speeching. To that last, you could have spread Best Support Actor Awards among at least six cast members if not for fact they only hand out one per year. I ran Command Decision for a group and all were stunned by Walter Pidgeon's dynamo of a chalk talk about air combat losses and price Allies paid for sending so many to certain doom. Then Gable stands up to raise ante on aspects not then known about the war we'd just won. A lot of what came out here had to be a shock in 1949. No movie had so bluntly spelled sacrifice that was made, and there is acknowledgement of the petty role politics played. I'm surprised Command Decision isn't better known for bold postwar statements it makes.

The trailer focused on bombers taking off, implying air action that isn't part of Command Decision. In fact, there's not a shot fired. Suspense revolves around wall sized maps and impossibility of deep penetration into Germany without massive casualty. Did viewing family members come to fuller understanding of how brothers-fathers died after watching Command Decision? Telegrams from the War Department wouldn't have gone into such detail. CD had a Now It Can Be Told quality to draw line of demarcation from flag-wavers retired after Axis surrenders. Increasingly choosy postwar patronage wouldn't have stood for more of the same in any case. I read how Gable pushed MGM to buy this property, but I doubt if it took much persuasion. Trouble was expense in the getting, which swelled negative cost to $2.4 million. Word might have got round that Command Decision was a downer, and admittedly it is in final analysis, what with body count repeated over 112 humorless minutes. Worldwide rentals were $3.6 million, but there was still a loss ($122K). Battleground from later in the year was more a scrapbook of the war customers wanted to see, made much cheaper and taking a whopper $2.5 million in profits.


Blogger aldi said...

It's one of my favorite war movies, although of course we don't see any combat in it. The human cost in Allied pilots killed in the air raids on Germany had surely never before been so starkly delineated and it still has the power to shock even now. Gable is wonderful in this, it's one of his finest postwar performances. Pidgeon is always good and, as you say, every actor steps up to the plate and knocks one out of the park.

I must have seen this movie half a dozen times over the years, I never tire of it. It would make a fine double bill with Twelve O'Clock High.

2:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some thoughts about "Command Decision":

"Command Decision" is a neglected film, unjustly so in my opinion. The ensemble playing by M-G-M's contract players is excellent, but Gable, in the lead role, is superb. His character must step away from the arena he would rather be in, in order to send other men into the contest. No other actor could have better played him than this man of action who had seen the contest first hand.

I think the reason it does not enjoy a better reputation, however, is because of "12 O'Clock High." There is a scene early in that film, when the wind on the long grass around a former flying field suggests the thrust of the propellers of bombers waiting to take off. It allows a segue from a man who has come back to the scene of past events to what he remembers.

There is nothing like this visual poetry in "Command Decision." It remains in the command center, where men reflect upon the events taking place outside of it. In part, this reflects its origins as a stage play, but the concept remains as valid for a film as for a play. There is an emotional austerity to it, however, that places it at a disadvantage to a film which allows an audience to experience those events of such importance.

One aspect worth noting, however, is the perspective of the film upon the sacrifices being made. The British had been attacking German targets at night with large waves of bombers. They had been forced to, because their forces had been decimated early in the war when they attempted daylight attacks. Since bombing accuracy was impossible under such conditions with the technology of the time, they utilized a combination of high explosives and fire bombs, with massive losses of civilian life. Over 35,000 died in an attack on Hamburg in 1944, while estimates of the losses at Dresden just before the end of the war vary from 25,000 to over 150,000. The higher estimates are undoubtedly more accurate.

The U.S. persisted in daylight strategic bombing attacks because they understood the need to be sure of destroying particular military targets: manufacturing plants, fuel storage depots, transportation systems, and so on. The precision of these attacks was not high, but the so-called collateral damage was much less than the night-time attacks of the British, which we ultimately joined into. The loss of bombers and crews, however, was also extraordinarily high. A bomber crew member was at much greater risk than an infantryman.

But as the film argues, these attacks were necessary, if Germany was not to continue in the war with new and better weapons, and with the resources to maintain them and its effort. The sacrifices were heavy, but the result, in the end of a horrendous conflict, justified them. The price was paid to a good end.

Contrast that with "The Bridges at Toko-Rei." William Holden's character is gunned down in a muddy ditch by North Koreans, after participating in a dangerous bombing attack. Afterwards, his father-in-law, an admiral, can offer no better justification for his death other than that the willingness to die in a seemingly futile mission will have some value beyond that, in the continuing contest.

Perhaps that's so, but the difference between the sacrifices made to a rationale end, as in "Command Decision," with these made for some philosophically ambiguous purpose, is astonishing.

1:16 PM  

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