Command Decision [1948]

If "Heroes Fight for Freedom" sounds like a rather hysterical label to slap on volume 2 of Warner Home Video's World War II Collection, take it as a hint that the six films in the set are wildly dissimilar in tone, style, reference, and origin, not to mention levels of quality. But don't worry, three of the six are classics, and each of their admittedly lesser companions rates a look. (The bonus features are quite perfunctory, with only a couple of contemporaneous cartoons being of note.) Tops is Air Force (1943), which director Howard Hawks casually referred to as his "contribution to the war effort." It's also a masterpiece, standing with John Ford's They Were Expendable as the best WWII films Hollywood made while the war was still on. On the evening of December 6, 1941, a B-17 flies out of San Francisco on a routine peacetime training mission to Hickam Field in Hawaii. While en route, the officers and crew overhear radio traffic of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ("Whatcha got there," somebody asks the radio operator, "Orson Welles?"). They touch down in a smoking world like a vision out of Dante, then hop from one Pacific outpost to the next as the clouds of war roil. The plane itself, the Mary Ann, is the movie's main character; the biggest star, John Garfield, actually gets last billing as her newly assigned tail gunner. Air Force is one of Hawks's supreme guys-doing-their-job movies, and the definitive war-movie portrait of America as a melting-pot of diverse individuals and types making common cause. The ensemble (Garfield, Gig Young, John Ridgely, Arthur Kennedy, the great Harry Carey, et al.) is superbly directed, there's a strong Dudley Nichols screenplay (with an uncredited contribution by William Faulkner) and breathtaking editing of the battle scenes (which won George Amy an Oscar), and the camerawork is by James Wong Howe in peak form. Another must-see among WWII movies is Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), about the preparation for and execution of a 400-mile bombing raid to carry the war to Japan itself mere months after Pearl Harbor. Spencer Tracy plays James H. Doolittle, architect of the raid, but the emotional core of the film is B-25 pilot Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) and his wife, Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter). Lawson's bestselling memoir (with Bob Considine) of his training for the secret mission, his group's launching from the aircraft carrier Hornet, and his crash landing and protracted ordeal in China--where he lost a leg--has been faithfully served by director Mervyn LeRoy & co. The film is long on homely detail and all-American decency (including remarkably outspoken regret over the unavoidability of civilian casualties) but achieves its greatest impact in the raid itself, realized with Oscar-winning special effects and mostly allowed to play in riveting silence. The other topnotch item in the set is The Hill (1965), made by Sidney Lumet in that period when his name was synonymous with powerhouse drama guaranteed to leave audiences wrung out and limp (Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker). Still, there was a bigger name involved: Sean Connery breaking with his James Bond image to portray a volcanically outraged inmate at a British Army prison camp in Libya. The titular Hill is a steep mound erected on the desert floor for him and other British soldiers who have violated the (often absurd) rules of the military game to buck sacks of sand up one side and down the other, like so many sons of Sisyphus. Ian Hendry is unforgettably loathsome as the sadistic noncom Williams; other captors include Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, and Michael Redgrave, while Connery's fellow prisoners are played by Ossie Davis, Roy Kinnear, Jack Watson, and Alfred Lynch. In Oswald Morris's black-and-white cinematography, you can almost feel the desert sun like a hot brick. Command Decision (1949) takes on the kind of questions that Hollywood could never have raised during the war--questions about the cruel responsibilities of command, including the responsibility to spend a great many lives to save thousands more in the future. In 1943, from an American airbase in the English countryside, a campaign of daylight bombardment is being waged against aircraft factories in Germany. For much of the way to their targets and back, the bombers are bereft of fighter escort and at the mercy of the Luftwaffe. The mortality rate is shocking--but perhaps, for reasons that are not widely known, necessary. Clark Gable (himself an air war veteran) plays the commandant who has to call the next day's target, and the film never leaves command HQ; the closest we get to combat is a scene of an untrained crewman trying to land a crippled plane. Command Decision is earnest but outshone by the similarly focused Twelve O'Clock High. The main problem is that it's based on--and essentially remains--a play, static in setting and schematic in its arguments. Still, those arguments should be heard. Hell to Eternity (1962) sets out to tell the true story of Guy Gabaldon, a white Angeleno raised from boyhood by a family of Japanese-Americans. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, his parents are interned, his brothers enlist to fight in Europe, and Guy (Jeffrey Hunter)--after clearing it with mama-san--offers the Marines his services in the Pacific as an interpreter. During the battle for Saipan (reenacted by director Phil Karlson on the island of Okinawa) he undergoes several transformations, from reluctant warrior to implacable avenger to, ultimately, a truce-seeker trying to save lives on both sides. That's a fine-sounding dramatic trajectory, but the two-hours-plus Allied Artists production is patchy, with some amateurish acting in the Los Angeles portion (including an early appearance by George Takei) and an excruciating, wishfully raunchy night of shore leave in Hawaii before shipping out to the war zone. Sessue Hayakawa of Bridge on the River Kwai fame dominates the final sequences as the Japanese commandant. WWII films of the '60s were often half caper-movie, with ornate and muscular missions behind enemy lines dreamed up by the likes of Alistair MacLean. The caper in 36 Hours (1965)--which was dreamed up by Roald Dahl--reverses the dynamics. A U.S. diplomatic courier (James Garner) with knowledge of the plans for D-Day is kidnapped, drugged, and taken to a sanatorium surrounded by forest. He wakes up in the presence of solicitous doctors and staff who seem to be fellow Americans and ever so happy to have him back after all those years in a coma. War's long over, of course; we won--and isn't it a good thing the Allies scrapped that first, wacky invasion plan they almost used? The plan maybe he still remembers?... 36 Hours is an intriguing thriller up to a point--and the moment when Garner catches on to the trick is a grabber--but George Seaton's direction is pedestrian and the production has a soundstage-y look. Rod Taylor takes acting honors as the sympathetic German psychiatrist in charge of the plot, under the suspicious eyes of SS man Werner Peters. --Richard T. Jameson

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