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Rock Hudson, Universal's biggest star during the late fifties/early sixties, was cast somewhat against type in A Gathering of Eagles (1963), the story of the peacetime activities of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC), the frontline of the nation's air defense during this period. Hudson, who usually played amiable bachelors and rogues, is cast here as a rigid, hard-nosed Cold War officer brought in to command and clean up a California base that has failed to pass a surprise alert test. His unwavering attention to his job almost causes a rift in his marriage and strained relationships with his second in command, a former war pal.
The film was planned as something of a corrective to two other major projects in the works; one had a sharply satiric viewpoint and the other was a frighteningly realistic approach to the realities of a defense system poised for war and potential nuclear annihilation. Air Force officials, chief among them Gen. Curtis LeMay, feared the upcoming release of Stanley Kubrick's comic horror-show Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Sidney Lumet's apocalyptic Fail-Safe (1964) would undermine public confidence in the military's "positive control" of weapons of mass destruction. So it's no surprise they fully supported the efforts of producer and story creator Sy Bartlett to create a peacetime film that would have all the tension and excitement of a war story while also promoting the image of a confident, respected Air Force command. Although government officials, allegedly burned by Hollywood in several recent instances, were less cooperative with film projects that might be too free with tax dollars and with the "facts" as they saw them (or wished to present them), LeMay wielded considerable power to allow director Delbert Mann and his cast and crew extraordinary access to bases, including the use in one scene of the real "Red Phone," the device by which SAC commanders alerted all bases in the system to imminent threats and gave the go-ahead to mobilize.
The Red Phone also became the centerpiece of one of the film's highlights, a song written by Tom Lehrer, the satirical composer-lyricist who went on to create the title tune and other music for the sardonic TV news parody show That Was the Week That Was. "The SAC Song" is sung by Rod Taylor in the movie.
Mann jumped at the chance to direct A Gathering of Eagles. Although he had gotten his start with intimate, highly dramatic live TV programs in the 1950s, including both small and big screen versions of the Paddy Chayefsky hit Marty (1955), he was getting a reputation through his work at Universal as a light comedy director. Just prior to this assignment, the studio had assigned him the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy Lover Come Back (1961) and another one that paired Day with Cary Grant, That Touch of Mink (1962). Both films had been big hits, and Mann was eager to show what he could do with vastly different material. Unfortunately A Gathering of Eagles did not fare well with either critics or moviegoers, and his next job was directing another romantic comedy, Quick Before It Melts (1964).
A Gathering of Eagles did receive one Academy Award nomination, for Best Sound Effects.
Look for a familiar face in a bit role as Mrs. Kemler. After more than a dozen TV appearances, Louise Fletcher made her feature film debut in A Gathering of Eagles. She later won the Best Actress Oscar® for her work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Robert Lansing, who plays Sgt. Banning, went on to play a role similar to Hudson's as an Air Force base commander in the TV series Twelve O'Clock High.
Director: Delbert Mann
Producer: Sy Bartlett
Screenplay: Robert Pirosh, Sy Bartlett (story)
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith, Tom Lehrer (song: "The SAC Song")
Cast: Rock Hudson (Col. Jim Caldwell), Rod Taylor (Col. Hollis Farr), Mary Peach (Victoria Caldwell), Barry Sullivan (Col. Bill Fowler), Kevin McCarthy (Col. "Happy Jack" Kirby).
by Rob Nixon