This weekend I read an interesting post on COMMAND DECISION (1948) at Greenbriar Picture Shows and, with Memorial Day approaching, I decided it was time to finally pull the movie off the shelf and watch it.
This engrossing World War II film features Clark Gable heading an all-star cast in a study of wartime leadership, setting the precedent for later films such as THE GALLANT HOURS (1960) and SINK THE BISMARCK! (1960).
The film was based on a Broadway play, which in turn was based on a novel by William Wister Haines. The Clark Gable role was played on Broadway by Paul Kelly.
To be sure, COMMAND DECISION shows its origins on the stage. There aren't many sets, and characters tend to repeatedly walk in and out of the same room, just as they would on stage. And yes, it's talky; this isn't an action film. That said, Gable and the cast transcend the production's theatrical nature to provide a thought-provoking look at the stress of leadership, as generals weigh gains versus losses and take responsibility for sending men to their deaths on a daily basis.
Gable stars as Brigadier General Casey Dennis, who advocates a high-risk strategy of bombing German airplane factories. His strategy is that losing lives today, in long-distance daylight bombing runs over Germany, will save lives in the long run if his pilots can decimate the Nazis' ability to build new planes.
Dennis's superior, Major General Kane (Walter Pidgeon), is sympathetic yet frustrated, as he must balance military goals with political and budgetary issues. He's concerned with making a good impression -- meaning low losses -- on a visiting Congressional committee in order to obtain funding which will help in the long term; however, the visit comes just as the weather is perfect for General Dennis's mission plans to be executed.
Waiting in the wings is a possible replacement for the politically toxic Dennis, his old friend Brigadier General Cliff Garnet (Brian Donlevy). Garnet will eventually experience the loneliness of leadership himself.
Gable, in particular, is simply superb. One has to feel that Gable's offscreen experiences, losing his wife when her plane crashed during a war bonds tour, then flying combat missions, added depth and gravitas to his performance. He knew all too well what it was to suffer loss as well as the stress of aerial combat.
There's a remarkable moment near the end when Dennis learns he's not going to have an expected low-stress training assignment, but has been promoted to a new position of leadership. We see Gable's character crack for just a moment, then pull himself together in order to soldier on, always focused on the good of the military and his country.
Pidgeon has what is probably the largest role after Gable's, giving an impressively long speech in the middle of the movie. He and Gable both play sympathetic men who are on the same side but are juggling different issues. It's both interesting and believable when Pidgeon simultaneously relieves Gable of duty and puts in a request to give Gable a medal.
Van Johnson adds the film's few light touches as Gable's aide, a role James Whitmore played on the stage. One of Johnson's best scenes comes after he's been taking it easy at his boss's desk, then after Gable enters, he realizes he's left a cigar burning in the ashtray. As he tries to figure out how to unobtrusively remove it, Gable's character picks up the cigar and starts smoking it, so consumed with his work that he's oblivious to the fact it's not his cigar!
John Hodiak plays Donlevy's brother-in-law and Gable's longtime friend, the colonel who is actually leading the flight missions. The superb cast also includes Charles Bickford, John McIntire, Edward Arnold, Clinton Sundberg, Ray Collins, Marshall Thompson, Richard Quine, Warner Anderson, Cameron Mitchell, Moroni Olsen, John Ridgely, and James Millican.
As a side note, some of MGM's posters are absurdly jovial, given the seriousness of the material. I also came across a still from a scene which didn't make it into the final picture, seen at the left.
COMMAND DECISION was directed by Sam Wood and filmed in black and white by Harold Rosson. The restrained score is by Miklos Rozsa. The film runs 112 minutes.
COMMAND DECISION was released on DVD in the World War II Collection: Vol. II. I previously reviewed another film in the set, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944).
COMMAND DECISION also had a single-title DVD release. It was released on VHS in 1998.
COMMAND DECISION has been reissued by the Warner Archive so it will now always be available in the MOD (manufactured on demand) format.